- There are many different types of loss and a plethora of different reactions to loss; loss might mean a loved one’s death, divorce, or moving, while common reactions to loss include depressive or anxious feelings.
- The way we react to such a loss has much to do with two systems: the sympathetic system and the parasympathetic system
- The sympathetic system can send us into panic and anxiety and the parasympathetic system propels us into a nonresponsive state (or state of shock).
- Regardless of how you initially react to the loss, you can utilize an assortment of techniques to aid your healing from the loss, such as journaling, spending time with others and writing a letter to the loved one lost.
- Additionally, practicing creative visualization, controlling your breathing, and simply smiling can help you process your feelings and ultimately heal moving forward.
*Christy Monson is an author and retired therapist. Her book Finding Peace in Times of Tragedy details the techniques listed in this article for healing after a tough loss and delves into client stories. It will be released in April 1, 2019.*
My husband of 54 years passed away suddenly during an afternoon nap. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I called 911, and I waited for the police and the mortuary. I phoned the children, sobbing out the details. Then I sat at the kitchen table, shaking and confused. I felt frozen—unable to act or think.
As a therapist, I had helped many clients face loss in their lives, but now it was happening to me. How would I handle it?
Types of Loss and Reactions to Loss
There are many types of loss in our lives: Death, sickness, estrangement, divorce, moving, secondary trauma and grief from current events, and natural disaster. Everyone’s loss is unique to them and everyone will react to their loss in a different way. I felt some anxiety and depression as I began to recover. I didn’t have all the symptoms of anxiety and depression, but I had to work through the feelings I did have.
- Shock, confusion
- Racing heart
- Difficult breathing
- Racing thoughts, worry
- Sleep problems
- Depressed mood
- Feeling fatigued
- Sleep problems
- Guilt feelings
- Worthless feelings
- Suicidal ideation
I had an acquaintance that said to me, “You’ve helped a lot of people through this. It will be easy for you to just get over it.” I just smiled at her and felt angry inside. It isn’t that easy. Researchers have found that depression and anxiety after a loss are real—something each of us will likely experience.
The Body After Loss
Our body has two systems that control our functions. They can send us into a state of ongoing stress, including panic and anxiety (sympathetic), or they propel us into a nonresponsive state (parasympathetic) of feeling frozen:
- The sympathetic system kicks in with our fight or flight symptoms.
- The parasympathetic system controls our freeze response.
Knowing that our mind and body will record and respond to our grief, gives us the validation we need to find solutions for what’s happening to us. When someone says, “It’s all in your head,” or “Just get over it,” you can respond with the reality of your feelings and search for solutions that will work best for you.
Solutions for Healing from the Loss
As I began moving on after my loss, I thought of all the techniques my clients and I had found over the years that helped them through their grief. Each of us must listen to ourselves and find our own way. Once you’ve taken the time to sit quietly and understand your heart, it’s important you release your feelings. I used a variety of these:
- Connect with others: I spent significant time with friends who had lost their husbands. It was freeing to share my feelings and know they completely understood. You can do the same or find a good counselor or a grief group. Check with your local hospice associations, mortuaries, or counseling agencies to see what’s available in your area.
- Journal: write your feelings, sketch your memories, or assign colors to your feelings. Create a collage journal.
- Track your dreams: Keep a journal by your bed to record your dreams—whether good or bad. If you have recurring nightmares, journal happy endings to them. Your brain will record your solutions and begin to let go of the pain.
- Write a letter to your loved one, telling them how you feel: Record your fears, guilt, anger, sadness, sense of loss, or whatever is going on with you.
- Set an empty chair in the middle of the room and talk to your loved one: This is an especially poignant exercise for the family to do together.
- Body work can be healing: Dance, work-outs, walking, running are all great pain-releases.
Creative arts of any kind can be a great release for pain and loss: Music, recorded or performed, art mediums, crafts, and hand work can all be therapeutic releases.
An Additional Effective Technique for Adjusting
My favorite time of the day comes when I meditate in my comfortable chair, picture my husband close, and share my feelings with him. This visualization process keeps me grounded. Here are some easy tips for doing so:
- Sit in a quiet area.
- Be mindful of your surroundings.
- Breathe in and out slowly.
- Count to ten.
- Picture yourself in a beautiful place—a healing place for you.
- Ask your loved one to be with you.
- Talk with them about your feelings.
- Share your love.
A Quick Pick-Me-Up
Sometimes when I’m out doing my daily activities, a wave of grief will wash over me, and I’ll start to cry—in the grocery store or the dentist’s office—not the time and place for it. So, I keep the following ideas in mind:
- Breathe deeply.
- Be aware of the noise and activity around me.
- Think of a humorous TV show I just watched or a joke my grandkids told me.
- Give myself permission to wait till I’m home to journal my feelings.
I am slowly recovering from my husband’s death, and I am adjusting to being alone. I fill each day with activities that I love. I practice many of the techniques I have outlined here. I spend time with my husband in my creative visualizations, and I enjoy friends and family.