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Life after loss: Walking the path to wholeness

You expect to grieve when a loved one dies, but grief also can occur following a divorce, a move from a beloved family home, being downsized from your job or any other loss that makes a major impact on the quality of your life and happiness.

Whatever the nature of your loss, active grieving can help you get through the following months and years.

“Healthy grief isn’t a passive experience; in fact, there’s a lot you can do in response to a serious loss other than wait for time to pass as you suffer,” according to Bob Deits, M.Th., author of Life After Loss. “At best, you can turn the pain into something that makes you learn and grow.”

Everyone’s experience of grief is different, but most people take similar steps along the path to recovery. Grief may be take the form of a mental, physical, social or emotional reaction, the American Cancer Society says. Mental reactions include anger, guilt, anxiety, sadness and despair. Physical problems can include sleeping difficulties, changes in appetite and illness. A person who is grieving often deals with feelings about care-giving, seeing family or friends, or returning to work.

“Being aware of and understanding the stages will help you deal more effectively with grief because you won’t have the added burden of thinking something is wrong with you when you’re actually reacting in a normal way,” says Mr. Deits.

Shock and numbness

In the first seven to 10 days after a major loss, you’ll probably feel stunned, shocked and overwhelmed. That’s because your emotional system has shut down for the time being as a temporary protection against the full impact of your loss.

“Shock tends to follow every loss experience to some degree,” says Mr. Deits. “The important thing to know about shock is that it’s a necessary first step to recovery; it doesn’t last long and you won’t always feel this way.”

Denial and withdrawal

When the shock wears off, most people try to deny what has happened through anger, blame and disbelief.

“It’s natural to deny a loss when to acknowledge it leads to profound pain,” says Mr. Deits. “But as unavoidable and natural as loss is, we’re seldom ready to admit it’s a normal part of life.”

You may feel anger toward the person who died or disbelief that a divorce is final. These are ways that people try to deny what has happened, to make it go away. Such responses are an attempt by the mind to withdraw from pain.

Acknowledgment and pain

The acknowledgment phase is a long one composed of forward and backward steps, but it’s likely to be the most important step of your recovery.

At this point, you’re again willing and able to take full charge of your life and responsibility for your feelings. A sense of balance returns when you can acknowledge your loss is real and permanent.

“At times you’ll be tempted to slip back into denial,” says Mr. Deits. “You can do that periodically and feel better for a little while, but the only way to wholeness is to accept your loss and the changes it brings as the ‘new normal’ for your life.”

Joining a support group or seeing a grief counselor can help you during this important and difficult stage.

Adaptation and renewal

The first sign that the roughest part of your grief is over will be when you start asking yourself “how” instead of “why” questions.

The initial question from the time of your loss may be a variation on, “Why did this happen to me?” “Why did my partner have to die?”

Often a year or more after the loss you’ll start asking yourself questions such as, “How can I grow through this to become a better person?” “How can I learn from my divorce?” Or, “How can I fill the void my spouse’s death has caused?”

“When that day comes, you’ll know you’ve completed your journey through grief and are ready to get on with a good and full life,” says Mr. Deits. “On that day, you’ll be a stronger person than you have ever been before.” 

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