Mayo Clinic Health Library

Dealing with grief: Confronting painful emotions

Updated: 01-07-2012

Sooner or later, each of us will experience that dagger in the heart called grief — and dealing with grief is a challenge like no other. How can you pick up the pieces, heal the wounds and move on with the rest of your life without feeling like you're betraying the memory of your loved one?

Facing the unexpected emotions of grief

Photo of Edward T. Creagan, M.D.Edward T. Creagan, M.D.

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 really 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.

I went for a run one frigid winter morning nearly 30 years ago. 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 whipsawed 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:

  • Actively grieve and mourn. Grief is an inner sense of loss, sadness and emptiness. Mourning is how you express those feelings. You might plan a funeral or memorial service, wear black, and carry a somber demeanor. Both grief and mourning are natural and necessary parts of the healing process after a loss.
  • Acknowledge your pain. If you don't face your grief, your wounds might never quite go away. Accept that the pain you're feeling is part of dealing with grief and moving toward a state of healing and acceptance.
  • Look to loved ones and others for support. Spending some time alone is fine, but isolation isn't a healthy way to deal with grief. A friend, a confidant, a spiritual leader — all can help you along the journey of healing. Allow loved ones and other close contacts to share in your sorrow or simply be there when you cry.
  • Don't make major decisions while grieving. Grief clouds the 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 the input or guidance of trusted loved ones or other close contacts.
  • Take care of yourself. Grief consumes a significant amount of energy. Your will to live and ability to follow normal routines might quickly erode. To combat these problems, try to get adequate sleep, eat a healthy diet and include physical activity in your daily routine. Consider a medical checkup to make sure your grief isn't adversely affecting your health — especially if you have any existing health conditions.
  • Remember that time helps, but it might not cure. Time has the ability to make that acute, searing pain of loss less intense and to make your red-hot emotions less painful — but your feelings of loss and emptiness might never completely go away. Accepting and embracing your new "normal" might help you reconcile your losses.

Losing a loved one is devastating. Someday, however, the sun will shine again. The day will seem brighter and your life will go on — even if it'll never be quite the same.

Edward T. Creagan, M.D.
Division of Medical Oncology
Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.

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