5 steps for coping with the loss of a loved one

It’s inevitable. We will all face the death of a loved one in our lives — most of us many times. As a physician, I thought I knew what to expect, but nothing prepared me for the devastating pain I experienced when my 57-year-old husband died of cancer. Moving past that pain into a new life without him was incredibly difficult, but now, two years later, I have some insight into the process. When someone you love loses his or her life, you do too, in a sense — you lose the life you thought you had with them.

So how do you survive? How do you find comfort? Here are five ideas that can help.

1. Honor the pain

Don’t listen to people who say you need to move on, or pick up the pieces, or get back to the land of the living, until you are ready. One person might heal in two months; another might heal in two years. Don’t bury your pain, or it will eventually push itself back to the surface and explode.

Grief can’t be avoided, hurried or ignored. Don’t self-medicate. Alcohol, cigarettes or even recreational drugs might make you feel better briefly, but they won’t help in the long run and, eventually, will make things worse. There is a medical condition called complicated grief, so if you don’t feel you are making some progress within a few months, talk to your doctor.

2. Honor yourself

Eat: You might not be hungry, but eat a few bites. And if you are hungry, try to eat healthfully. I ate junk food to subconsciously punish my body for being alive when Neil wasn’t. Once I recognized that, I was able to make better choices. Overeating comfort food will make you feel better in the moment, but you will pay the price of gaining weight and feeling sluggish.

Sleep: Mourning is exhausting, not just emotionally but physically, too. Try to sleep even if it means asking your doctor for a prescription to help temporarily. Alcohol causes disrupted, nonrestful sleep, so avoid it. Also avoid caffeine later in the day. It will provide a short burst of energy but can make it harder to fall asleep at night.

Move: It might be the last thing you feel like doing, but exercise will help boost your energy and clear your thinking. A walk in the park or around your neighborhood can even be a meditative prayer if you take the time to notice and appreciate the beauty there.

Ask: Yes, I know how hard it is to ask for help. When my husband died, I suddenly was faced with the two-person job of running a household and had to learn to do it myself. The washer flooded the bathroom, the pipes froze and burst, the water heater sprung a leak — all within a month of Neil’s death. I believe God made my need for help so dramatic that I had no choice but to ask for it. Honestly, people are typically relieved to be asked to do something concrete — they can stop wondering what you need.

Pope Francis on Coping with Loss
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“In the People of God, by the grace of his compassion granted in Jesus, many families prove by their deeds that death does not have the last word: this is a true act of faith. Every time a family in mourning — even terrible mourning — finds the strength to guard the faith and love that unite us to those we love, it has already prevented death from taking everything. The darkness of death should be confronted with a more intense work of love. ‘My God, lighten my darkness!’ is the invocation of evening prayer. ...

3. Honor your loved one

It is OK to take your time going through their things. It took me two years to give away my husband’s shoes, but only two weeks to give away his tools. I still haven’t given away his books. I kept some of his clothes to sleep in, shared some with our daughters and his friends for mementos, and gave the rest to Goodwill. As you give away those things, pray — not only for the person they once belonged to, but for the person who will receive them now. It’s a concrete way to recognize and accept “new life,” not only for belongings, but for ourselves.

4. Honor God

When my husband died, it was really hard to pray. I was furious with God because he hadn’t cured Neil’s cancer. And I told him that often. But you know what? He can take it. One day in one of my angry tirades, I got a sense that God heard my cries and responded: “Colleen, I didn’t take Neil away from you; I took him to me.” It was hard to argue after that, and gradually my anger softened. And in those times when I simply couldn’t talk to God, I could at least read his word. In Scripture, I found reassuring, comforting words that I pasted up all over the house. These are some of my favorites:

• “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Mt 5:4).

• “Do not fear: I am with you; do not be anxious: I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you; I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (Is 41:10).

• “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid” (Jn 14:27).

• “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me” (Ps 23:4).

• “It is the Lord who goes before you; he will be with you and will never fail you or forsake you. So do not fear or be dismayed” (Dt 31:8).

• “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people, and God himself will always be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order has passed away’” (Rv 21:3-4).

• “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you — oracle of the Lord — plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope” (Jer 29:11).

5. Honor your life

In her book, “Healing After Loss” (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99), Martha Whitmore Hickman tells a story about a young boy. Faced with the outpouring of food and kindness following his father’s death, he remarks, “There are so many good things, and only one bad thing.”

I think about that story a lot since Neil died. I can’t let the one bad thing obscure all the good things. Whenever I start to feel paralyzed with grief and fear, I remember that sweet quote. I bring myself back to the moment and cherish the blessings in it.

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Those blessings are not permanent parts of my life, simply gifts that God has temporarily, but generously, provided. I can let my memories be sad reminders of all I have lost, or I can let them be precious treasures I hold in my heart to ponder with gratitude.

Grief is not easy, but it does slowly get better. These five tips helped me survive when I didn’t see how I possibly could. They will help you, too. I promise that with time you will cherish what you’ve lost and embrace what lies ahead.

Colleen Arnold writes from Virginia.