Dealing with grief: Confronting painful emotions

A Mayo Clinic oncologist offers both his personal and professional insights about the grieving process after a loved one's death.

By Edward T. Creagan, M.D.

Grieving the loss of a loved one is a challenge like no other. How can you cope with the loss and heal your emotional wounds? How can you imagine a life without that person while honoring memories you shared?

Facing the unexpected emotions of grief

As an oncologist, every day I see people who have cancer struggle with death and dying. Every day, I also see families struggle with the inevitable end of life — families who aren't prepared for the avalanche of emotions that sweep over them when the final moment comes, even if they knew death was imminent.

I know how challenging and devastating the raw, intense emotions of grief can be, because it's happened to me.

Nearly 30 years ago, I went for a run one frigid winter morning. When I got home, my son, Ed, then 18, compassionately broke the news — my mother had died. Even though my mother had struggled with breast cancer and alcoholism, the news struck me like a two-by-four across my abdomen. I felt drained of every ounce of vitality. It took all the energy I had to keep from slumping to the floor. As the hours evolved into days, it became exhausting — even physically painful — to make any decisions. Our family was completely unprepared for the feelings of confusion and disorganization following the news.

Easing the healing process of grief

Painful as my own grief was, my mother's death gave me new insight on dealing with grief. Although there are no quick fixes for the anguish after a loved one's death, I learned that you can take steps to make the coping easier. Here are my suggestions:

  • Understand that grief is normal. Grief is the normal, expected response to death — the intense pain, sadness, disbelief, anger or guilt. It's the tears, numbness and physical exhaustion — the rush of memories and the yearning for the person you lost. It's also normal to be surprised by the intensity of your grief.
  • Allow yourself to mourn. Mourning is the outward or public expression of grief, a means of sharing grief with people who also are grieving or who want to support you. Religious rituals, cultural traditions and personal beliefs often shape how we mourn. Whatever form it takes, mourning is a critical process that can help you lessen the intensity of grief and help you adapt to your loss.
  • Look to others for support. It's not uncommon to feel alone in your grief or want to avoid others. However, the support of family members, friends or a spiritual leader is often essential in moving on from the severe, immediate grief after a death. Let people know when you need someone to listen and be open to their offers of company.
  • Take care of yourself. Grief commonly results in disrupted sleep, a loss of appetite and a lack of interest in everyday tasks — all factors that can affect your health and well-being. Be mindful of your health and daily habits. Try to get adequate sleep, eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly. You might find that including a friend in meal or exercise routines can keep you motivated. Consider a medical checkup to ensure your health has not declined, especially if you have any existing health conditions.
  • Don't make major decisions while grieving. Grief might cloud your ability to make sound decisions. If possible, postpone big decisions, such as moving, taking a new job or making major financial changes. If you must make decisions right away, seek input from a trusted family member or friend.
  • Remember that grief is unpredictable. Grief doesn't move along a predictable path or at a fixed pace. The overwhelming grief following your loss will become more of a cycle of grief. And over time your grief will likely become more subdued, or it may feel less constant as if it's moved into the background of your emotions. But long after a death, you may also find yourself caught off guard by a moment of profound grief, for example, on the anniversary of the death, during holidays or on your loved one's birthday.

Grieving is a process. It will be unique to you, depending on your own personality, your relationship to the person you lost and even the circumstances of the death. The acceptance of your loss, the memories of your loved one, and your sorrow will gradually become an integrated part of how you see yourself as a whole person.

Jan. 12, 2018 See more In-depth