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Coping and adapting to the loss of a loved one

The death of a loved one is one of the most challenging experiences in life.

This information is for people who are struggling with this and the profound sense of grief this brings.

People react to grief in different ways. Some of the feelings that come up can be very intense and at times overwhelming. It is normal to feel any of the following, sometimes at the same time:

  • shock and disbelief
  • numbness and a sense it is not real
  • despair a sense of being overwhelmed/hopelessness
  • confusion
  • loss of life plans
  • loss of optimism
  • fear and/or anxiety
  • loneliness
  • guilt or regret
  • anger
  • a sense of unfairness or bitterness
  • a heightened concern about your own mortality
  • a sense of relief.

Physical reactions including nausea, sleeplessness, chest pain, weight loss or gain are also common, especially in the early period after losing someone you love. There may be a change in relationships with friends and family. You may find yourself questioning ‘the meaning of life’ and at times may reject long held spiritual or religious views.

It is normal to have any or all of these feelings and reactions to loss. However there are some special circumstances that may require extra help. These include:

  • the loss of a child
  • multiple losses at one time
  • a sudden or unexpected death
  • the loss of a parent in a young family
  • where there is a previous history of drug or alcohol abuse
  • where there is a previous history of anxiety and/or depression
  • severe or continuing depression
  • grief accompanied by thoughts of suicide.

NOTE: Anyone expressing suicidal thoughts needs to be assessed by a relevant health professional, such as a doctor, urgently. It is particularly important to seek help if you are experiencing any of the situations listed above.

The early months

In the early months, it is common for many people to experience flashbacks or recurring images of treatment and the last days prior to the death of their loved one. These are sometimes invasive and people can have trouble sleeping and may feel overwhelmed by memories of those experiences. These do however usually become less frequent and less intense as emotional healing takes place.

If you have looked after someone during a long period of illness you may feel considerable fatigue especially during the first few months after their loss. You may be prone to infections and illness during this time. It’s as though the body stays strong when needed and collapses and has to regroup afterwards.

Grief takes time

Grief can be a long and lonely journey with no clear time table. Processing grief takes time. Coming to terms with a significant loss can take many years. Unfortunately, there is little understanding of this process and most bereaved people experience the pressure to ‘get over it’ quickly. To deal with this pressure you need to know, and let those close to you know, that:

You will feel better in time. During the initial stages people can worry that they will never see ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’.
These feelings will slowly pass. You do not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one. With help and in time you will learn to live with the loss. The memory of your loved one will always be a presence in your life.
The work of grief is about building up a new life. This will happen, but it does take some time.

Helpful suggestions:
Feelings have a life of their own. The most helpful healing response from family and friends is to allow the grieving person to express their feelings in their own way and for as long as they need. Crying and laughter can have special healing powers. It is important to look after and nurture yourself at this time, to eat well, and exercise regularly. Reading books on grief and hearing the stories of others can be reassuring and helpful. Grief goes in cycles and it is normal to revisit intense feelings on special times of the day, e.g. at meal times or special days of the year such as festive occasions. Distractions may help such as a short holiday, reading your favourite book, playing CDs, going to a suitable movie or a night out with friends.

The grieving family

The loss of a loved one may have an impact not only on the immediate family but also on a wide circle of extended family and friends. Everyone involved will be dealing with their own feelings and this in turn will affect how they respond to each other.

In your own close family, remember everyone is grieving differently in their own time frame. Children especially will deal with their loss in their own way, depending on their age, their perception of the world, and their development level. It is important to maintain open and honest communication with children during this time. It is healthy for the family to grieve openly together when possible, to talkabout how each family member is feeling and especially to talk about the person who has died.

The need for support

It is common to experience an emotional void after the death of a loved one. This is a time when the expression of support and caring from others is essential. Demonstrating understanding and commitment to the grieving person will be greatly appreciated. Offering support is not always easy. Some people can lack confidence and be unsure as to how to respond to the grieving person.Tensions and unresolved conflicts can arise and interfere with giving or receiving the support that is necessary at this time. It is very common for a bereaved person to feel that they are being avoided by family or friends who are unsure of what to say or how to react.

Helpful suggestions:

  • Emotional and social support is essential during this time
  • The most effective way of demonstrating support for someone who is grieving is to just be there to listen
  • Understanding when to respect someone’s personal space and their need to be alone is also an important aspect of providing support
  • Other people who have had a similar life experience may be an important source of understanding and support
  • Tears are a healthy and normal part of expressing grief and other intense emotions.
  • Counselling and support groups
  • Individual and family bereavement counselling plays an important role in helping people to deal with grief and loss. During bereavement counselling many difficult emotions can be explored in a safe and supportive environment. Here you are given the emotional space to talk about ‘real’ feelings without the pressure to ‘get over it’ quickly. In addition, you are given useful information to help you understand the experience of bereavement.

Support groups are also important at this time. For many they provide important opportunities for mutual support, understanding and information. Sharing warmth, caring and laughter with members of the group can lead to a special bond with others who are facing similar challenges. Grief becomes normalised and you will come to accept and understand the many intense emotions shared by others who have lost a loved one.

Finding new meaning in your life

One of the greatest challenges of losing someone significant in your life can be readjusting to life without them. You may find that you are just going through the ‘motions of living’ where everything you do seems ‘meaningless’. The very person who you need to get you through this time, is the person who has died. There may be times when you are surrounded by people and still feel alone. You may find that in being a carer for a long period of time and having lost the person you love has left you uncertain of who you are, your role in life and what you enjoy.Rediscovering yourself and accepting that you are important can be challenging, yet it is a crucial step in finding new meaning in your life.

Helpful Suggestions:

  • Self talk: A simple reminder every day that you are important
  • Gain Evidence: Start by simply noticing and writing down what it is that makes you ‘feel a little better’ in a day. Nothing is too insignificant. Keep adding to your list. Examples might be: Sitting in the sun, having a bath, drinking a cup of tea, the company of particular family or friends, not being around certain people, leaving the house, having a massage or a facial, playing pool, gardening, reading, listening to music, going to the movies, walking, yoga, meditation, volunteering.
  • Access: As your list grows, you may notice that some things are more easily accessible than others. The rule of thumb is ‘do whatever makes you feel a little better as often as you can access it”
  • Notice: At the end of each day notice and write what has ‘worked for you today’. Again nothing is too insignificant. Examples of this may be: Someone smiled at me, the sun was out so I did my washing, my house is clean, I called my friend and he/she was home.
  • Swap the word ‘should’ for ‘choose’: Be kind to yourself. Instead of saying ‘I should do the housework’, swap it for ‘The housework needs doing but I choose to lie on the lounge and read. When I choose to do the housework it will get done’.
  • Acknowledge your Strengths: All too often we focus on what we are not good at. Write down your strengths and start ‘getting better at what you are already good at’. Remember that everyone has deficits and strengths.Focus on your strengths.
  • Be gentle on yourself: Everything takes time and practice. You are going through one of the most difficult periods in your life. Allow yourself the time to grieve, take little steps and know that although life may never be the same as you knew it, you will find a ‘new meaning in your life’. Remember you cannot hurry healing, you can only nurture yourself to allow it to occur naturally.
  • Seek help: You are important. Your loved one wants you to find meaning in your life. Asking for help from family, friends and professionals will help the healing process.

Last updated on April 22nd, 2020

Developed by the Leukaemia Foundation in consultation with people living with a blood cancer, Leukaemia Foundation support staff, haematology nursing staff and/or Australian clinical haematologists. This content is provided for information purposes only and we urge you to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis, treatment and answers to your medical questions, including the suitability of a particular therapy, service, product or treatment in your circumstances. The Leukaemia Foundation shall not bear any liability for any person relying on the materials contained on this website.

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