How to Manage Grief After Losing a Loved One
The loss of a loved one is an inevitable part of life. Bereavement is a tough and personal journey that can be overwhelming at times, whether the loss is a spouse, child, parent, relative, friend or pet.
Bereavement includes grieving, our internal thoughts and feelings on loss, and mourning, our outward showing of grief over loss. It provokes a wide range of emotions such as stress, hopelessness, helplessness, anger and sadness. These emotions vary in intensity, and you can’t always control when they will flare up or the pace in which you move through the process. In most cases, these symptoms will subside over time.
But when they don’t, we call this complicated grief . This is considered bereavement with severe symptoms that last longer than average. This can lead to mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. In extreme cases, bereavement may even elicit suicidal thoughts.
“If you or a loved one is struggling with suicidal thoughts, get help immediately; for instance, call your doctor,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP. “If the thoughts come on suddenly and you feel you don’t have time to get a hold of a professional, please call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.”
The Suicide and Crisis Lifeline provides free and confidential emotional support for people in suicidal crisis. They're available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Bereavement and Health Issues
Bereavement can cause more than just emotional turmoil. It also can wreak havoc on your physical health. Studies have found that bereavement may negatively affect your:
Digestive health. The stress and anxiety experienced during bereavement produce the hormone cortisol. It’s common for cortisol to upset your stomach, causing nausea, gastrointestinal distress and meal skipping. Malnutrition, ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome can become a problem if these issues aren’t corrected. Other times, cortisol triggers hunger, binge eating and cravings for high-sugar and high-fat foods, leading to weight gain.
“If you’re experiencing any of these issues, talk to you doctor, says Kaminetsky. “Your doctor may suggest exercise, prescribe an antidepressant, or suggest a probiotic supplement.”
Heart health. High cortisol levels also can raise your heart rate and keep it elevated for as long as six months. If you can’t lower your heart rate and it remains irregular, you risk blood clots, heart failure, sudden cardiac arrest and/or stroke. Emotional turmoil can weaken the left ventricle, raising the risk for Takotsubo cardiomyopathy – or broken heart syndrome. This type of cardiomyopathy also can mimic the symptoms of a heart attack. Fortunately, this condition usually resolves itself in a few weeks without lasting damage; however, it can reoccur. And the bereavement process can raise blood pressure and heart rate, tightening blood vessels which increase the chance that plaque will break off from the inner lining of the blood vessel and cause a heart attack.
“I know it’s hard when you’re grieving but do your best to pay attention to how you’re physically feeling. Keep track of your heart rate and blood pressure. You should have an automatic blood pressure cuff at home,” says Kaminetsky. “Report findings to your doctor. They may be able to prescribe medications to prevent a problem before it even begins.”
Immune system. Grief has been found to lower immune cells and raise inflammation markers. A weakened immune system with higher levels of inflammation can impair your body’s ability to fight illness and infections.
“Studies suggest that grieving a spouse can raise the risk of an earlier death among widows and widowers,” says Kaminetsky. “If you’re struggling with grief, work with your physician to help maintain a strong immune system, which involves lifestyle factors such as a healthy diet, regular exercise, adequate sleep, stress management, limiting alcohol and avoiding tobacco.”
Pain management. When we grieve, we may see an extra cortisol response. Cortisol can constrict blood vessels, slowing blood flow to the heart and causing chest pain. Stress also can tighten muscles, causing (or exacerbating) headaches, back pain and joint aches.
“Some researchers think that the pain centers in our brain may be triggered by emotional and physical pain, which also can lead to pain,” says Kaminetsky. “If you are in pain, don’t self-medicate, work with your doctor. Your doctor may advise an over-the-counter medication or write a prescription, but they also may recommend taking long walks, meditating, engaging in a hobby and getting enough sleep to ease the stress.”
Sleep patterns. Thoughts of your passed loved one can keep you up at night. Grief can actually interrupt brain patterns when we sleep, something researchers have been able to map, which is why if you’re able to sleep, dreams about your loved ones may awaken you or your sleep may be disrupted. Poor sleep habits can raise the risk for headaches and injuries, as well as serious health issues like dementia, obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
“Over time you’ll probably resume your normal sleep patterns. However, if you cannot, you need to speak with your doctor,” Kaminetsky says. “They may prescribe medication to help you sleep or suggest some natural sleep remedies.”
Support is essential in recovering from bereavement. Family and friends can be helpful; however, you might feel you need people around you who have experienced a similar loss or professional assistance.
“When going through the bereavement process, get all the support you need to heal. I would start with your doctor,” Kaminetsky says. “Your doctor is probably familiar with local support groups, community organizations or therapists that specialize in bereavement.”
Beyond your doctor, follow these five tips from the American Psychological Association that can help you better manage grief:
- Talk about the death of your loved one with friends or colleagues. If you avoid conversations about grief, it can lead to isolation and may slow down the healing process. Sharing your feelings can help you better understand what has occurred and help you remember your loved one.
- Accept your feelings of grief. What you’re feeling is real – anger, sadness, exhaustion. They’re normal. It may be helpful to talk to a grief counselor, therapist, clergy member or other mental health care professional to help you work through your feelings.
- Practice good health habits. Exercise, eat healthy and get enough sleep. Your physical health is related to your emotional health, and grieving can wreck your physical health. Don’t forget to check in on loved ones and make sure they’re taking these same healthy steps.
- Share your grief with others who are grieving. Don’t grieve alone. Spend time with others who are grieving your loved one. Sharing memories, breaking bread together, even listening to music together can make a difference. It’ll make all of you feel better.
- Finally, celebrate your loved one’s life. Remember and honor them on birthdays and anniversaries. These can be difficult times, but they can also be opportunities to work through lingering emotions. Make it a day to volunteer or collect donations for a charity or plant a tree in their honor. However, you acknowledge the moment is up to you, but use it to honor your loved one.
If you don’t have a doctor, consider partnering with an MDVIP-affiliated physician. They have time to really listen to you, develop a wellness plan and refer you to specialists. Find a physician near you and begin your partnership in health »