How to Cope with the Death of a Loved One

Losing someone close to you is never easy, and it seems like you’ll never “get over” the profound grief. You will come to accept the loss in time, but it’s important to understand this process is individual to each person. You need to give yourself the time and space to feel all of the emotions you’re experiencing and get support when you need it. 

Dilini’s tragic story about losing a loved one is unfathomable. One day in 2004, she was at school and her family was in their home near the beach in Sri Lanka when the Indian Ocean earthquake, and subsequent tsunami, hit. She lost her entire family—her parents, brothers and sisters—as well as neighbors and other relatives. Dilini was only 12 years old.

What followed for Dilini was “unbearable pain.” She stopped smiling and didn’t want to talk about what happened. She avoided other people. She suffered from headaches—a symptom, she now understands, of depression. She even attempted suicide. 

Now, however, Dilini can smile again. She traveled the path of grief. Understanding how to accept the death of a loved one starts with taking care of yourself and accepting yourself wherever you are in the grieving process.

Ways to Deal with the Death of a Loved One

There are certain things you can do to help navigate this painful terrain of grieving a loved one:

  • Find a support network. Somatic counselor Hala Khouri says it may be hard at first to reach out for help, but it’s essential. “It’s not about someone saying something that will make you feel better. It’s about letting someone else know what you’re going through so you don’t have to bear the burden alone.” For Dilini, a group of teachers helped her talk about her problems and gave her the support she needed.
  • Don’t try to stuff emotions away. You may experience a number of emotions (and sometimes, it feels like you’re experiencing many emotions at the same time). This is all part of grieving. Let the emotions out, without any judgment. 
  • Take care of your health. Khouri notes that it’s normal for the body to shut down in response to overwhelming loss. Lack of sleep, poor diet, reduced physical activity and overconsumption of alcohol or drugs prevents physical healing, which can keep your mind and spirit from healing. Try to stick with healthy habits as much as possible.
  • Find solace in the things you love. Make time for the hobbies or pastimes that usually bring you joy. Dilini, a gifted singer, took comfort from listening to music, which she says relaxed her mind.
  • Rely on your spiritual practice. Losing a loved one causes deep, devastating sadness, unlike anything you’ve ever felt. Khouri says this is where having a spiritual or religious practice is helpful. “Often, a belief system can help us hold a loss that is so big we can’t hold it alone,” she says. Dilini’s Buddhist meditation practice helped sustain her as she processed the loss of her family. 
  • Honor your loved one. It’s a wonderful gesture to pay tribute to the person you loved and lost by creating something in their memory. You may plant a small memorial garden in your yard with your loved one’s favorite flowers. You can also put together a scrapbook with favorite photos. Pick something that will have special significance to you and your relationship with your loved one.

Self-compassion creates a resiliency that guides you through tragedy and trauma. Give yourself grace to cope in your own way.

Grieving a Loved One

Grief is a natural human response. Grieving transcends age, race or gender; it can happen to anyone. It may trigger many emotions, including those that are considered the five stages of grief:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression 
  • Acceptance

Because there’s no universal answer for how to deal with the death of a loved one, people experiencing loss may not go through every stage, or they may stay in one stage longer than in others. However, you must be careful if you think your grief is turning into depression. At first glance, it may be difficult to spot the difference between the two. But there are certain signs of depression to watch for:

  • Guilty feelings that can’t be shaken
  • Constant despair
  • Sensations of hopelessness or emptiness
  • Lack of interest in, or inability to perform, everyday functions related to work or home life
  • Listlessness, chronic fatigue or slowed speech and movement
  • Suicidal thoughts

Depression stemming from grief should be treated as soon as possible. Seek out a therapist who can work with you and guide you through the grief process. A therapist can also help if you are dealing with complicated grief. This is a stage that’s not at the level of clinical depression but is more intense and lasts longer than typical grief. A therapist may also suggest antidepressants along with counseling to address symptoms of depression or complicated grief.
Dilini has overcome unspeakable tragedy and learned how to get over the deaths of loved ones by reaching out for help and support. She is also helping others in their grief by sharing her story on TAG. This mental health streaming service is a safe space to watch videos of real people sharing their journeys and get valuable insight from clinicians. TAG is a tool for healing, where people can better understand their own mental health issues free from societal stigma. Visit TAG to hear more of Dilini’s story about how to cope with the death of a loved one.

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