How do I cope with my grief after a sudden and tragic loss?

Managing the impact of grief.

20 January 2020

Counselling and Clinical Services would like to express our deepest condolences to those touched by the loss of our beloved friends, family members and colleagues in the recent tragedy of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752. May precious memories of these lost ones bring us moments of comfort in this time of unimaginable sorrow and loss.

Grief is the last act of love we can give to those we loved. Where there is deep grief there was a great love. - Anonymous

Grief is a universal human experience that we will all experience at some point in our lives. Although losing those we love is part of being human, a sudden, abrupt, traumatic or violent loss can be even more difficult to process. Emotions such as rage, shock, terror, bewilderment and horror can mingle with grief, causing it to be even more disruptive and intense. Many people in our community are likely experiencing a range of emotions as we process the recent losses of friends, family, and colleagues. Navigating through this experience can be challenging and confusing. In continuing to cope with these losses, the following ideas may be helpful:

Acknowledge your pain and allow yourself to feel it. You just unexpectedly lost someone you cared about deeply; for some, this might also be the first time experiencing a loss of this magnitude. Grief can trigger many intense and sometimes unexpected emotions. Sometimes people feel confused by their reactions and even fear they are "going crazy." It is normal, for example, to have changes in sleep and appetite, to experience mood swings (e.g., moments of despair shortly after moments of feeling okay), or to expect to hear from your lost loved one at any moment. Although the emotions can be very strong and your thoughts may be scattered, it is important to remember that you are having a normal reaction to an abnormal event. You are not crazy; you are a person in great pain.

Remember that it's okay to talk about how you feel. It can be helpful and meaningful to share your feelings with someone you trust. Talk about your loved one. Mention what you miss, who they were, your loss of shared hopes and dreams, your loneliness, anger and sadness. You may yearn to reach out to those who also knew the person you lost. This is natural, and can be helpful. Others are more comfortable talking to people outside of the immediate situation, such as a friend unrelated to the loss, or a helping professional. Counselling and Clinical Services is available for students whereas staff and faculty can access counselling at no charge through Homewood Health. Use your own comfort level as a guide. Although talking can be challenging when you're in pain, depriving yourself of connection can add to your sense of isolation and at times intensify your suffering.

It's also okay to spend some time on your own if you need it. Alone time can also be healing, and taking it when you need it is allowed, even if others are mourning too. Learning of a death can lead people to reflect on their lives, their own mortality and sense of meaning. It can be helpful to give yourself time on your own to process these thoughts and feelings. Be honest with the people around you if you need time to yourself and don't be afraid to be direct.

Be compassionate and patient with your grief. There is no timeline for grief and there is no pressure to be "over it." Dealing with a loss is neither easy nor predictable. Feeling and experiencing your emotions is what allows the pain to reduce over time. You may fear you will never feel good again. Grief is a process and you can have faith that at some point you will begin to feel a little bit more like yourself. Although missing a person doesn't stop, the pain of missing them lessens with time.

Allow yourself to focus on self-care. Taking care of yourself is important during times of grief. You might be crying a lot or feeling exhausted, which means you might need to drink more water and get more sleep. You can also take care of yourself by eating healthy and exercising or doing things you enjoy to recharge or relax. Start with small steps, such as going for a short walk, spending time with friends or allowing yourself a comforting ritual, like watching a favourite movie.

Reduce expectations for yourself. It's okay to slow down or give yourself a break after a loss. You will likely need more rest time and breaks than you usually do. If you are working, it's normal to consider a leave or reducing your hours. If you are a full time student, it's reasonable reduce your course load. There are no rules for how much extra time to give yourself when grieving. It just depends on what works best for you and your current needs. Most work projects, classes, or activities can be put on hold while you care for yourself. Speak to your faculty adviser or your employer to review your options.

Don't forget that you're allowed to experience happiness and feeling happy is not disrespectful to the person you lost. Although the overriding feeling of grief usually involves sadness, as the days, weeks and months progress, you may have moments or periods of contentment, joy and happiness. Returning feelings of happiness is how people naturally adapt. It doesn't mean you are forgetting about the person you have lost.

We hope this article can provide you with some comfort knowing that we at Counselling and Clinical Services are thinking about you, and we are holding the family, friends, and colleagues of those impacted in our hearts.

Written by Maddalena Genovese, Registered Psychologist in collaboration with the team at Counselling and Clinical Services.

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