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5 Steps for Dealing with the Death of a Loved One

Experiencing the loss of someone close can be one of the hardest things to face in life, while coping with such a profound loss can seem just as difficult. Dealing with the death of a loved one can be especially difficult for those who have never dealt with grief.

While dealing with grief, it’s important to keep in mind that there is no one way of dealing with the death of a loved one. In fact, grief can be experienced in many ways, over varying periods of time and over a wide array of emotions. In the book I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye, authors Brook Noel and Pamela Blair write that recovery from grief doesn’t happen in a linear progression, but rather after taking two steps forward and one step back, often making you feel that you’re starting over each time.

While dealing with loss can seem like a daunting, uphill battle, the following five steps for dealing with the death of a loved one work as a brief guide.

1. Take an account of what you are feeling.

When dealing with grief and loss, we humans experience a wide array of emotions. For some, it’s denial. “This can’t be happening” can be a thought that comes into our head when we desire more than anything to be pinched and woken up from a bad dream. Others may experience grief with bursts of anger directed at our loved ones, or even depression. The emotions we feel are varied and normal for a grieving person.

The five stages of grief were first written about by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler in 1969. Since then, the stages of grief have come to be defined by 5 primary emotions that are commonly experienced by those that are dealing with the death of a loved one. Emotions including denial, anger, and depression are said to be experienced by all who grieve but are experienced in a way unique to the individual.

Before you can start dealing with loss, it’s important that the first step be to take an account of your feelings and make a note of them. Consider starting to write in a journal and stopping to write down the emotions you are feeling when they come up. Emotions can also take on physical expressions, like achiness or exhaustion, so while you won’t necessarily always know that you’re feeling depressed you can figure out how your feeling by tapping into what signals your body is giving you. Start by writing in your journal multiple times per day, and you’ll begin to notice patterns about what triggers your grief and the ways you deal with your emotions.

Emotional self-awareness is this act of recognizing emotions and understanding how they impact behaviors. Before you can heal, achieving a heightened awareness of how you are feeling can help you find the path towards growth.

2. Give yourself time to heal.

It’s true as they say that time heals everything. Like anything made with love, healing takes patience and time. You don’t have to feel like you need to fix anything or to progress by a certain date on the calendar. By giving time for healing to happen, you’re giving yourself a chance to observe your own growth and gain new perspectives that can ultimately help you transform your pain into growth. Always keep in mind that grief is an entirely different experience for everyone. There is no one "correct" way to grieve, so don't compare yourself to others after you've lost someone. That being said, you should pay attention to your own grieving process to ensure you're not experiencing symptoms of "complicated grief". Complicated grief symptoms include:

  • Obsessing over the person who has passed away
  • Distracted mindset at work or an inability to find pleasure or take interest in others
  • Defensiveness or denial when others ask about your loss
  • Anger, hatred, or extended bitterness towards the world and others
  • "Hair-trigger temper" and intense irritability
  • Pessimism about life in general
  • Deep and intense sadness that never subsides
  • Reckless, dangerous, or impulsive behavior
  • Suicidality or suicide attempts

3. Spend time with the people you care about and do what makes you happiest.

While dealing with the loss of a loved one is a personal journey, healing can come about by spending time with loved ones and doing what makes us happiest. Over time, one can gain perspective after the death of a loved on the importance of spending time with the people we care about the most. Consider creating a recurring invitation to have dinner with those people, or simply get on the phone and call a friend or family member that makes you happy, regardless of how long it has been.

In addition to seeing close friends and family, consider taking an account of what makes you the happiest and make a plan to do more of what you love. Whether it’s cooking, theater, music, exercising, travel, camping, or any other activity, it’s important to do what makes you happiest and brings you the most fulfillment. You’ll be surprised at how fun it can be to participate in your favorite activities, even when you don’t feel like having fun can be possible while dealing with a loss.

4. Talk to someone, when you’re ready.

There are many options to choose from when you’re ready to talk to someone about your journey after the loss of a loved one. Whether you speak to a grief therapist (if experiencing complicated grief), a grief counselor, a support group, or even a close friend or family member, finding a safe and non-judgmental environment for talking about your grief is an important tool for healing. Speaking with a grief therapist isn't necessary (and can even cause depression) unless you're experiencing symptoms of complicated grief, so it may be a good idea to turn to support groups instead. It’s often the case that the feelings we have can go buried deep down for long periods of time, so talking about them can help alleviate the burden of carrying emotions, guilt, and even depression that can sometimes come with dealing with death.

5. Connect with your loved one in meaningful ways.

As part of the healing process, it can be therapeutic to find personal and meaningful ways to connect with a loved one even when they are no longer around. If you’re close to their final resting place, consider visiting them and talking to them out loud or silently in your thoughts. Tell them about your life since they passed, or talk about a personal memory that you shared with the person.

If you don’t live nearby, consider creating an online memorial website and sharing it with friends and family. Use the memorial website to collect pictures, stories, and memories from the community by asking them to post on the website and relive the happiest moments with the loved one together.

Dealing with the death of a loved one can be one of the greatest challenges in life. Don’t forget that what you are experiencing is normal and that you are not alone on your journey towards healing and growth.

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Last updated April 7, 2021
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