Wellbeing

Dealing With Loss: Healthy Ways To Handle Grief

To state the obvious, dealing with the death of a friend or loved one sucks, but there are healthy ways to mourn.

There are a wide range of feelings that you experience when coming to grips with the fact that a person in your life is not there anymore, and there are a variety of coping mechanisms one uses to, well, cope.

Many of those feelings and coping mechanisms are natural and should be experienced in their entirety, letting those emotions out and then letting them go.

Dealing with the loss of a loved one is something that I have had to get used to recently. In the space of a year I have lost two relatives, with a third just being diagnosed with terminal cancer. We don’t know how long he has left.

What’s made the heartbreak and loss more acute, is that I live abroad so I haven’t always been there for my family when I wish I could have. This can lead to some pretty bad spirals of rumination, but I’ve also found solace, talking through things with friends and relatives.

As Dr Stephen Carbone, Research and Evaluation Leader from Beyond Blue explains, grief and death is a part of life, and there’s a wide array of healthy and unhealthy ways to manage it.

But learning how to deal with death and grief can help you gain a better perspective of life and how to appreciate it.

#1 Accept your emotions

“Most people initially experience a level of shock, disbelief and even denial after learning about someone’s passing, particularly when it is someone close and the situation is unexpected,” Dr Carbone said, adding that these as humans, it is hard to recognise the negative feelings of grief as normal, even essential.

“This is common and not necessarily a problem as it can just be a way that the mind uses to protect itself from a major emotional trauma.”

“We are all programmed to try to avoid negative feelings, but we can all benefit from accepting that these feelings are normal, cannot be bottled up or avoided forever, and that with the right support from friends, family or even health professionals, the vast majority of people will gradually find the intensity of the emotional distress will pass and they will be able to cope with and accept the loss.”

#2 Don’t drink away the pain (you can’t, anyway)

As part of the grieving process, people both young and old turn to the bottle as a source of comfort. This can be as a celebration of the person’s life such as a wake, but as Dr Carbone says, it can become an unhealthy coping mechanism if we end up relying on it to mute the emotions we feel when dealing with loss.

“As with any situation involving alcohol, it is important to drink in moderation for your own health and safety and that of others. It is also reasonable – and certainly not disrespectful – to abstain from drinking,” he says.

“Ultimately grief is a process that takes time, so while drinking at a wake is one thing, continuing to drink to cope with the loss of a loved one is not helpful, and could be sign that the person is not coping and might need to seek some advice and assistance.”

#3 Distance doesn’t mean it doesn’t count

You don’t have to live thousands of kilometres away to experience feelings of frustration and isolation in the immediate aftermath of the death of a friend or relative.

It can be a nauseating feeling: thoughts of what could have been said and done before that person was gone.

Conversations that could have happened, future hopes and experiences you wanted to share with that person, now dashed.

Dr. Carbone said while it is better to grieve with people rather than alone, the very nature of death in its cold unpredictability means these feelings of frustration and loss can be hard to manage. But the important thing is to express them.

“Death can happen at any time and we don’t always have a chance to say goodbye, express our love, or resolve our differences before someone passes away,” he says.

“These feeling can be very intense if the deceased is someone we had a very close relationship with or paradoxically someone we had a difficult relationship with, such as someone important to us but who has hurt us in some way.”

“During this time it is okay and important to express our feelings – whether positive or negative – rather than bottling them up as this will assist us to process the situation, deal with any unfinished business as best we can and accept the death rather than carrying this emotional weight with us into the future.”

#4 Death is a part of life, and our twenties is a time when we should try and come to terms with it

Outside maybe grandparents and the dog, if you were lucky in your teens and early adult years you may not have had to deal with experiencing a death of a friend of close relative. Your twenties is a time when that begins to change. As our lives branch off into more varied and unpredictable stages, the chances of ourselves, or someone we know having lost someone increases. Dr Carbone says that death is an inevitable part of life and knowing how to deal with it can lead to a richer, more satisfying and more mindful way to experience life and the relationships we form within it.

“It can be painful, but we usually all get through it and the process of grieving and coming to accept death can often help us to mature and develop as a person,” he says.

“The key is not to be scared and try to numb the sadness or fight it. Sit with it, work through it. You don’t have to do it on your own. Talk to others. Seek support from others. Over time the intensity of the emotions will pass and you will be able to recover from the loss.”

If you are struggling with the death of a friend or loved one, you can contact the following counselling services.

Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 Headspace 1800 650 890 Relationships Australia 1300 364 277


Mark is a Perth-born journalist and writer based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He spends too much time on the internet and his writing probably reflects this. You can follow him on twitter via @mark_tilly1  or visit his website https://markthedays.wordpress.com/