5 Essential Coping Strategies after a Loss—How to Survive the Numbness.

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Even as a grief coach, some personal losses still knock me to my knees.

It’s something we are never quite ready for. And yet when that reality hits, you still have to get through those first hours and days—the arrangements, the questions, the family, the decisions—all when you can barely hold a thought in your head.

When my mother died suddenly when I was 25, it utterly wiped me out. I got a phone call at midnight and my world turned upside-down. Then I had to call my father and tell him, while shaking and screaming and going into shock. The next few days were an incomprehensible whirlwind of calling and thinking and going and doing, when all I wanted to do was crawl in a hole and stay there. But I couldn’t do that yet…I was in charge of her estate and the responsibilities were all mine. It felt soul-crushing.

So how do you take care of yourself and get everything done and not go insane in those initial days? Here are the things that I have found truly help, after having now been through over 30+ major losses—these five essential strategies stay the same.

1. Self-Care. It may sound obvious, but eating can easily just slip our minds. Grab a bite, have someone bring you take-out, or send a friend to the store. You must have fuel for your brain and body to think more clearly and to not become light-headed. Water is essential, too, you have to stay hydrated. I know I often just forget to eat in stressful times…or I “stress eat,” which is also not the best idea either. A little chocolate or a drink might not hurt, but I try not to go too crazy.

If you are taking medication, make sure you don’t miss doses. Set alarms, on your phone or computer, use post-its or have a friend remind you. Don’t give your body more stress to cope with than it already has.

And finally, do try and sleep—I know it’s tough. But don’t deprive your mind, body and spirit the chance to just rest. Naps are an excellent invention and can do a world of good. Just put your head down…crying yourself to sleep is perfectly acceptable.

2. Be Gentle With Yourself. There is simply no way to make perfect decisions or remember everything or not fall into blunders or miscalculations. Of course you don’t know what to do or what to do first. You are under a ton of stress and shock. So please be gentle, loving and compassionate with your inner self and your heart—and forgive yourself for being human.

3. Lack of Focus and Faulty Memory are Normal. You may forget simple tasks, you may lose things constantly, or trail off in the middle of a sentence. This is totally understandable, given the circumstances. I often talk about how after Mom’s death, I couldn’t drive—not just because I couldn’t remember how, but my focus and reaction time were completely off, plus I didn’t remember where anything was. I handed my keys to my boyfriend at the time and told him and my friends not to allow me in the driver’s seat.

The memory issue often causes people to honestly ask if they are going crazy, as their “normal” goes completely out the window. No, you are definitely not crazy—you are heartbroken and you are suffering, and I am so sorry this is happening to you. This phase does ease as the shock wears off, and the initial days pass.

The best coping approaches during this time are to let other things and people do the remembering. Just like with the medication, write notes, put reminders in your phone, or designate someone as your extra brain. Did someone order the food? Did you eat today? Who is getting Aunt Gina from the airport? Let your loved ones (the ones you can count on) help you with the details. And keep breathing.

4. Honor Your Emotions. Emotions go all over the place during these heightened times, and they really do run the gamut. Some people may burst into tears and that is expected and totally okay. But what if we start laughing? Or make inappropriate jokes? Or fly off the handle in rage?

We really have to allow for a lot of latitude, for ourselves and for others, because we cannot know how we will respond, and people respond in very different ways. But if we find ourselves laughing, that is just another way of releasing the tension and expelling the stress. We may get the hairy eyeball from certain folks, but it is not written anywhere that we must be doleful and somber through this entire process. Honor what you feel, let it out, take a deep breath and keep going.

5. One Minute at a Time. Finally, remember that you only have to take things one choice, one minute, one breath at a time. Especially because our emotions, memory, mind and spirit are disconnected and out of sync, we have to work to stay grounded and get through this painful period. Just do one thing, get through that, breathe, praise yourself for that success, breathe again, and then move on to the next decision or action.

Something no one talks about with grief is that time gets very weird. It slows down and gets very stretchy, such that a day may feel like forever. This may last longer than we think after a loss and it takes some getting used to. But it is absolutely normal and happens to so many grievers. So when people tell you to take things one day at a time, I say no, that’s an eternity. One minute is enough—only do what you can manage right now.

Loss and change and grief are universal.

We all lose those we love, whether over a long period or like a bolt of lightning, like my mother. We also lose jobs and friendships, move, have health struggles, financial crises and so much more. It’s a great opportunity for compassion and support, of yourself and your nearest and dearest. I wish I had known these things 20 years ago, but we don’t talk about this well in our culture, if at all. I think it’s time to change that. What do you think?


Author: Claire M. Schwartz

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Florent Chretien/Flickr

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About Claire M. Schwartz

Claire M. Schwartz comes from a world she calls The Dark Ugly™—a place filled with neglect, violence, trauma and loss. Following more than 20 years on her healing journey after 30+ losses and counting, she is finally learning to be comfortable in her own skin. She is the author of Putting Out the Fire; Nurturing Mind, Body & Spirit in the First Week of Loss and Beyond, to talk about that most intense, painful period and how to manage all that needs to be done without going insane. She blogs about grief and loss on her website. She has founded Miriam’s Well Healing LLC in New Jersey and uses her decade of experience as a BA, Spiritual Counselor, Reiki Master Teacher, Certified Professional Coach and Grief Relief Expert to try and bring a bit more light and truth into the world. It’s a tall order, and a work in progress.


12 Responses to “5 Essential Coping Strategies after a Loss—How to Survive the Numbness.”

  1. Cheryl Znapz says:

    Love this…not grieving the death of a loved one but I have been going through some tough stuff right now. I’ve been saying it’s like time has just stopped. The hours go by slowly and seem to last forever. This is the first time I’ve heard that loss can slow down time. I feel better now. I thought I was going crazy or something. Thank you for the insight .

  2. Fantastic post and so helpful. Its been a month since I had a miscarriage and I agree that time has indeed become very weird while I have been grieving. I lose track of the day, the time, but also find it feels like the intense, painful moments stretch on for hours a time.

    • Claire M. Schwartz says:

      Everyone tells me that, Felicity, that time gets strange and the suffering stretches out. I am so sorry for your loss, please take excellent care of yourself.

  3. Allan Day says:

    Thanks for this insightful and useful article Claire. I lost a very dear childhood friend and musical partner of over 30 years die to addiction 4 months back. Because of the lifestyle he was leading, the depth of our friendship had splintered in more recent years, but the music was the one common bond between us that was pervasive and a source of joy for us both. I cannot begin to express to you how empty it feels knowing that the bliss in creating something with him will never happen again. It’s gut wrenching and though I’ve been experiencing the gamut of emotions you mentioned and shifting through stages of grief, I’m at a point where some acceptance has crept in. Ugh. One other important thing to keep in mind is that the way we grieve is a very personal affair; our culture doesn’t seem to support taking time to do anything with presence of mind and ease; everything is paced so quickly. There have been a few times in the past few months where people have suggested that it’s time for me to move on after a few weeks or a month or so. Luckily, with some major losses in my life, I’ve learned how to grieve correctly – to allow things to be as they are without compromising my well being and I appreciate your article validating that. Thank you.

  4. Claire M. Schwartz says:

    I am so very sorry for the loss of your dear friend, Allan. The idea of "getting over it" or "moving on" is one of the most harmful in grieving. I try and encourage people to weave the loss into the landscape of their lives and build from there. I feel like that is less intrusive and more doable, don't you?

  5. Andrew D. says:

    Your article provides very useful tools to have at your disposal during pain and the healing process. One thought I believe is relevant here, is that when we experience a loss, we all too often get caught up in deep sorrow and a whirlwind of emotions. This is natural and should not be ignored. However, it is very important to stop and remind ourselves of all the good that person did and how it impacted our lives forever. The memories that person provided is a tool we can always refer to and count on to bring us relief, It is easy to get caught up in "grieving the loss". Instead, we should try and "celebrate that persons life" by recalling all the quality times shared and be thankful for how they may have touched our lives and even shaped who we are…..

    • You are absolutely right, Andrew. But I would also add that never every loss is of someone who was beloved. Some losses leave a very messy history behind them. There may be conflicted feelings of anger, guilt, relief and much more. Loss is so very complicated and each loss is unique. Even after my dozens of losses, I find I often need new ideas and tools for each one. Humans can be terribly complicated! But that is why it is so important to work on those, so that we can make room for joy and happiness, so we are not stuck in our sorrows all the time. What do you think?

  6. Andrew D says:

    Well…I have to respectfully disagree in part. While I do agree that some losses leave behind a messy and somewhat convoluted trail to clean up, your prognosis is more the “exception” rather than the “rule”. I believe, in most cases, that when one experiences a loss, it is either a loved one or a friend. Either way, again.. in most cases, the hurt is real with ones heart having to deal with a void. Either way, the strength in healing is derived from cherished memories left behind that we can recall, talk about and share with others, or perhaps meditate on within the privacy of our own minds. Consequently, it is for this reason, that conflicted feelings generated from “anger, guilt and relief”….. can be dealt with in a similar manner….

    • Sadly, I have to say that I have met, both personally and professionally, many more people with strong negative feelings about the deceased. And what if there are no, or very few, cherished memories? What about folks who were terrible to one another? What about abuse and violence in a family? When these are part of the emotional landscape, a different path of healing must be utilized. I don't know if they are an exception or a rule – my perspective is that grief healing in this country is geared toward people who are lucky enough to have those lovely things to fall back on, and if one does not have those, then healing is a much greater challenge, demanding deeper compassion and different tools of healing.

  7. Andrew D says:

    No doubt that every situation is different and requires a different type of healing. However I am getting the impression thatit you are suggesting that there are more people grieving a loss who come from unsettled backgrounds and highly negative situations.

    I certainly hope this is not the case.

    • No, absolutely not, I have no data to support that – though it would make a very interesting study. I am just making the point that the population who DO have that complication are not very well-served by the general cultural understanding of grief healing and the general healing materials available assume that everyone comes from a rosy background. I just want there to be better healing tools available for everybody, no matter what their circumstances! :o)
      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments, Andrew!

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