Coping with the Loss of a Loved One: Bereavement

Key Takeaways:

  • Grief is a Natural Response: Grief is a natural and varied emotional response to loss, with no right or wrong way to experience it, encompassing a range of emotional, physical, cognitive, and spiritual reactions.
  • Factors Influencing Grief: The intensity of grief is influenced by the relationship with the deceased, circumstances of death, personal coping abilities, support systems, and concurrent stressors.
  • Phases and Tasks of Mourning: Grieving involves phases like denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, and tasks such as accepting the reality of loss, experiencing pain, adjusting to life without the deceased, and reinvesting emotional energy.
  • Myths and Facts About Grief: Common myths about grief, such as predictable stages or a set timeline for grieving, are debunked, emphasizing the personal and non-linear nature of the grieving process.
  • Coping Strategies and Support Systems: Effective coping includes self-care strategies, embracing remembrance, seeking support from family, friends, and grief support groups, and considering professional counselling for guidance.

Understanding Grief

The loss of a loved one is one of life’s most difficult experiences. When someone close to us dies, it’s natural to feel completely devastated and overwhelmed with emotions. The profound sense of sorrow and pain we feel is called grief.

Grief is a natural response to loss, and everyone experiences it differently. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve. Reactions to grief can vary greatly depending on your relationship to the deceased, the circumstances of their death, your personality, and your cultural and religious beliefs.

Common grief reactions include:

  • Emotional reactions: sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety, loneliness, shock, yearning, relief, numbness
  • Physical reactions: fatigue, nausea, disturbed sleep, change in appetite, physical distress from the deceased’s symptoms
  • Cognitive reactions: disbelief, confusion, difficulty concentrating, preoccupation with the deceased, hallucinations
  • Spiritual reactions: questioning faith, searching for meaning, loss of meaning

Many factors can affect your grief:

  • Your relationship with the deceased – losing a spouse/partner, child, or parent is incredibly difficult. The closer you were to the deceased, the more intense your grief is likely to be.
  • Circumstances of death – sudden or violent losses are much harder to cope with. Expecting death, such as with a terminal illness, can help with anticipatory grieving.
  • Your own coping abilities – depending on your emotional health, resiliency, and self-care, you may cope better or worse with loss.
  • Support systems – having people to confide in and receive comfort from makes a huge difference in grieving. Lack of friends/family can prolong grief.
  • Concurrent stressors – grief can be compounded by other sources of stress and anxiety.

Grief expresses the love we feel for the person we’ve lost. Allowing ourselves to grieve openly and fully is an important part of healing. There’s no timeline for grief – be patient with yourself as you mourn the death of your loved one. Most people can learn to live with loss, heal, and gradually move forward with time and support.

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The Grief Process

Grieving the loss of a loved one is a highly personal process. There is no single “right” way to grieve or specific timeline for healing. However, there are some common patterns and experiences many people go through on their journey with grief. Understanding the different phases and tasks of mourning can help you cope with your grief experience.

Phases of Acute Grief

In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced a 5-stage grief model outlining common emotional phases people encounter after a significant loss:

  1. Denial – This serves as a buffer after hearing about the death. Typical feelings include shock, numbness, confusion, and isolation.
  2. Anger – Frustration, resentment, and rage may surface as reality sets in. Anger can be directed at doctors, God, yourself, or the deceased for “abandoning” you.
  3. Bargaining – Thoughts of “if only” and trying to negotiate ways for the loss not to be real. Bargaining may also involve attempted deals with God.
  4. Depression – Overwhelming sadness sets in, as well as regret, fear, and withdrawal. This depression can include physical effects like sleeping and eating changes.
  5. Acceptance – The loss starts feeling real. While sadness remains, you begin adapting to life without your loved one.

This five-stage model remains influential. However, today, experts recognize grief is highly variable. People may experience different stages in different orders and cycle through them multiple times during bereavement. There are also newer models, like the 7 Stages of Grief:

  1. Shock and denial
  2. Pain and guilt
  3. Anger
  4. Depression
  5. Loneliness
  6. Rebuilding and healing
  7. Acceptance and moving forward

Remember – there is no “right” way to grieve. Be patient, compassionate, and non-judgemental with yourself as you mourn in your own way.

Tasks of Mourning

Developed by John Bowlby and Colin Murray Parkes, this model describes the emotional tasks grieving people need to complete for closure:

  • Accepting the reality of the loss – Coming to terms with the permanence of death and the reality that your loved one is gone.
  • Experiencing the pain of grief – Feeling and expressing intensely painful emotions like sadness, anger, and guilt. Avoiding only prolongs grief.
  • Adjusting to life without the deceased – Figuring out how to live daily and adopt new roles, identities or directions after loss.
  • Reinvesting emotional energy into life – Slowly engaging in new relationships, pursuits and activities to create meaning.

Mourning takes time and cannot be rushed. Support from loved ones is critical during this difficult emotional work.

Myths and Facts About Grief

Some common myths about grief can hinder healing:

Myth: Grief follows predictable, orderly stages.

Fact: There is no single pathway for grief – it can be cyclical, nonlinear, and deeply personal.

Myth: Grief should last a set timeline (like 1 year).

Fact: There is no “normal” grieving period. Some integrate loss faster; for some, it takes years.

Myth: Moving on and detachment are the goals.

Fact: You never completely “get over” a loss but learn to integrate it. Ongoing bonds with the deceased are normal.

Myth: Grief should end in closure or acceptance.

Fact: Grief is not a pass/fail process. Acceptance may never fully come – but people can still heal.

Knowing what to expect with grief can help you be compassionate with yourself and others. People mourn in their own way and time – there is no single “right” path through loss.

Coping with Loss

The death of a loved one brings intense grief that can feel overwhelming. Coping and healing after loss take time and commitment to self-care. There are many strategies and supports that can help you gradually adjust to life without your loved one.

Self-Care Strategies

Taking good care of yourself physically and emotionally is crucial during bereavement:

  • Allow yourself to grieve fully – Make space for any emotions that may arise. Suppressing grief delays healing.
  • Be patient with yourself – There is no “normal” timeframe for grieving. Accept your own pace.
  • Embrace remembrance – Find meaningful, cathartic ways to honour your loved one, like memory books.
  • Commemorate important dates – Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays are significant. Plan commemorations.
  • Explore new roles and pursuits – When ready, take on new hobbies, volunteer work, etc., to find meaning.
  • Manage stress – Make time for exercise, relaxation techniques, proper nutrition and rest. Reduce obligations if needed.
  • Avoid harmful coping mechanisms – Don’t turn to substance abuse, overwork, or high-risk behaviours to numb grief.
  • Get support – Confide in trusted friends and family who can listen without judgment.
  • Consider counselling – If grief feels prolonged or disabling, see a counsellor for guidance. Our clinic offers specialized grief counselling both in-person and online.

Taking small steps to care for yourself helps you slowly integrate your loss. Be honest about what you need during this challenging time.

Support Systems

You don’t have to cope with loss alone. Seek support from:

  • Family and friends – Share cherished memories and your true feelings. Ask for practical help if needed.
  • Grief support groups – Connect with others experiencing similar losses. Therapist-led groups provide structure.
  • Online grief forums – Anonymously connect with others coping with loss 24/7.
  • Counselling – A grief counsellor provides professional guidance in processing loss.
  • Faith community – Spiritual counsel from clergy can help with existential crises normal in grief.
  • Multidisciplinary support – You may need different types of support. Create a diverse system.

Don’t isolate yourself. Being vulnerable strengthens connections and helps healing.

Celebrating Life

Rituals and remembrance activities can provide comfort during bereavement:

  • Funerals – Helps officially acknowledge the loss and say goodbye. Provides closure.
  • Memorial services – Meaningful way to share memories and pay tribute to your loved one.
  • Memory books/boxes – Compiling photos, writings, and objects keeps memories alive.
  • Foundations/campaigns – Creating charitable works in your loved one’s name memorializes their values.
  • Special remembrances – Light candles, plant trees, and cook favourite recipes to celebrate your bond.
  • Nature rituals – Scatter ashes, plant flowers, and visit meaningful places to feel a connection.
  • Social media memorials – Share memories and tributes virtually. Can connect you with others who know them.

Celebrating the life of your loved one can help you slowly transition into life without their physical presence.

When Grief Becomes Complicated

For most people, grief gradually becomes more manageable over time. But for some, acute grief transforms into a chronic, disabling condition called complicated grief or prolonged grief disorder. Seeking help is crucial.

Complicated grief may involve:

  • Persistent, intense sorrow, pain, and preoccupation with the loss
  • Extreme focus on reminders of the loved one, like avoiding anything associated with them
  • Intense longing and yearning for your deceased loved one
  • Feeling life is meaningless without your loved one
  • Severe loneliness and detachment from others
  • Disbelief or inability to accept the death
  • Angry rumination over the loss
  • Suicidal ideation

If acute grief persists in disabling ways for more than 6 months, complicated grief therapy may help.

Risk factors for complicated grief include:

  • Unexpected, untimely loss
  • Dependency on the deceased
  • Traumatic circumstances around death
  • Multiple losses
  • Lack of social support
  • Pre-existing mental health issues
  • Childhood trauma and attachment issues

Mental Health Professional 

Therapists who specialize in grief counselling can provide support through:

  • Processing trauma around the death
  • Challenging excessive avoidance and rumination
  • Addressing any guilt or anger slowing recovery
  • Redefining your relationship with the deceased
  • Re-engaging with personal and social life
  • Find a therapist near you!

Resources for Loss and Grief

1. Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA)

  • About: The CMHA provides a wealth of information on various mental health topics, including grief and loss.
  • Resource: They offer a section on understanding grief, the process, and coping methods.
  • Website: CMHA Grief

2. Bereaved Families of Ontario

  • About: This organization supports individuals and families grieving the death of a loved one.
  • Resource: They provide group programs, resources, and referrals to help people cope with their loss.
  • Website: Bereaved Families of Ontario

3. GriefShare

  • About: GriefShare is a network of grief recovery support groups meeting across Canada.
  • Resource: They offer a searchable directory for local support groups and events.
  • Website: GriefShare Canada

4. The Compassionate Friends of Canada

  • About: An organization specifically for families who have lost a child.
  • Resource: They offer local chapter meetings, a national helpline, and resources for grieving parents and siblings.
  • Website: The Compassionate Friends of Canada

5. KidsGrief.ca

  • About: A free online resource that helps parents support their children when someone they love is dying or has died.
  • Resource: They offer modules, Q&A, and resources tailored to kids’ unique needs.
  • Website: KidsGrief.ca

Personal Note: I remember when a close friend of mine lost her father. The weight of grief was immense, and she often felt isolated in her pain. But with time, support, and resources like the ones listed above, she found a path to healing. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Common symptoms include intense sadness, anger, loneliness, guilt, confusion, difficulty sleeping and eating. Crying frequently, withdrawing socially, and dreaming about your loved one are normal.

Take care of your health, connect with supportive loved ones, express your feelings, allow yourself to grieve, and consider joining a grief support group. Professional counselling may also help.

Listen without judgement, offer practical help, connect them with resources, reminisce about the deceased, validate their grief, and be patient over the long run.

Yes, anger is a very common reaction. It may be directed at doctors, God, yourself, or the deceased. Anger generally fades over time. Sharing it with trusted friends and writing can help process it.

Children and teens grieve, too, but may show it differently. Provide honest answers, maintain routines, allow them to express their grief, and get counselling if needed.

Yes, with time, patience and support, most people can heal and find meaning again. Your grief journey is unique - have faith that the pain will gradually lessen.

Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen’s career began in Behaviour Therapy, this is where she developed a passion for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy approaches. Following a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Psychology she pursued a Master of Counselling. Pareen is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC) with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. She specializes in CBT and Lifespan Integrations approaches to anxiety and trauma. She has been published on major online publications such as - Yahoo, MSN, AskMen, PsychCentral, Best Life Online, and more.

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