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Coping with Grief & Loss after the Death of a Loved One

Updated on March 23, 2016

One of the Hardest Things in Life

It is said that writers should write about things they know through personal experience. That is good advice, and it qualifies me to write about coping with the grief and pain we feel when someone close to us dies. I am no stranger to those feelings, or to that experience. One by one, nearly everyone I have loved and cherished through the years, and around whom I had centered my life and my world, has disappeared from my life while I remained here without them. This includes nearly everyone in the family I was once a part of, my partner and companion of nineteen years, and several of the dearest and closest friends anyone has ever had.

I know all too well the depths of that dark loneliness that replaces their companionship and love. I know the longing to see them again; to hear their voices and their laughter; to feel once again the touch of their hand or their embrace .I know the aching heart, and the rivers of tears. I have known these things not just once, but many times during the course of my life. I have been there, I know the feelings, and I understand what it is like. The death of someone you love, and trying to cope with the terrible pain and grief that follows it, is one of the hardest things in life. My own pain and grief have taught me a few things that I hope may help someone else who is going through the same experience and trying to find their way through it to the other side.

Only You Know How Much Time You Need

Be patient with yourself, and give yourself plenty of time. Only you can know how much time you need to heal. If your loss was sudden and unexpected, as some of mine have been, it takes a while just to realize what has happened. Your whole system, your body as well as your mind, goes into shock. You are unable to grasp, or to understand, that the person who meant so much to you, who was like a part of yourself, was with you smiling and talking, happy and seemingly healthy one day, and then by the next day they have been snatched from your side without warning and you are left standing alone. It feels as if a huge hole has been blown in your heart, a vast yawning emptiness that nothing can ever fill again. It feels as if you have been torn in two.

If your loss was preceded by a long illness, then the shock of a sudden death is replaced by the debilitating exhaustion of long months or years of care giving, and the erosion of the spirit that comes from watching the heartbreaking changes in the person you love as the illness progresses and takes its toll. In such instances, when death finally comes it may be greeted with relief and even gratitude on the part of both individuals. I have experienced this kind of situation also, and I know the complete devastation it can have on the lives and happiness of all concerned. The thing that is needed above all now is rest and recovery for those who are left behind. You have done all you could for the person who is gone. You are the one now who needs to be loved and cared for.

Don't demand or expect too much of yourself for a while. This is not the time to make major changes or life-altering decisions. In all likelihood you will not be able to use good judgement and you could make some choices that you will very much regret later on. If there are people you trust who can help you, by all means allow them to do so. You need time, and some distance from what has happened, before you can even begin to return to normal thinking and functioning. Chances are that the longer the relationship lasted, the longer it will take to recover when it comes to an end through death. Don't let anyone else decide for you how long that needs to be. You will know when you begin to heal and it will come in its own time and way.

You need time, and some distance from what has happened, before you can even begin to return to normal thinking and functioning

You Are Not Alone

Try not to take your loss personally. Remember that you are not alone in your grief and sadness. Don't think, even for a minute, that you are being punished somehow by your loved one dying and leaving you alone, or that "If God really loved me, this would not have happened." Sooner or later, if they live long enough, everyone loses someone they love. This is a universal human experience. It could be said that grief is the price of love. No relationship, whether it is a husband and wife, parent and child, brothers and sisters, or the kind of friendship that is like the bonding of relationship lasts forever. The sad fact is that sooner or later, one person dies and the other one is left behind without them.

The grief and sadness you are feeling has been felt and shared by countless others, all over the world and throughout history. To fully realize this, walk through an old cemetery and read the many inscriptions that speak of pain, loss, and longing on the headstones. It is all there, sadness and loss of every kind. Don't ever feel that you were singled out somehow by God or by life to have your loved one taken away from you. You have the company of millions whose hearts have been broken just as your is, reaching all the way back to the beginning of time.

Sooner or later, if they live long enough, everyone loses someone they love. This is a universal human experience. It could be said that grief is the price of love.

"In The Garden" original oil painting by Stan Awbrey
"In The Garden" original oil painting by Stan Awbrey

Depression & Escape

It is only natural to feel depressed after the death of someone you love. You need to allow and honor those feelings, and accept them. The healing power of tears and emotional release is well known and valid. Acknowledging your feelings and releasing them is the gateway to healing and recovery.

On the other hand, if the depression is so severe or long lasting that you are unable to cope with it, or if thoughts of suicide begin to take hold, you must seek professional help immediately. Even thinking this way a few times is more than enough reason to find and talk to a professional grief counselor or psychologist. While life may seem unbearable right now, things will get better with time if you just hang on.

Turning to alcohol, drugs, or other forms of addictive or compulsive behavior in order to find an escape from your grief and pain is also not an option. This will only make matters worse by adding another whole set of problems to the ones you already have. It won't bring your loved one back, or restore things to the way they were before, and you will mess up your life at the same time. If you look inside yourself, you will find a calmness and strength that you can call on to get you through, under all the tears and heartache, under the loneliness and pain. Believe me, it is there, and if you look for it you will be able to find it and use it.

Think about the person who died, and remember the way they felt about you. If you loved them, you can be certain they loved you just as much. Ask yourself what they would want you to do. Would they want you to kill yourself, or destroy your life with an addiction? Of course not. They would want you to keep yourself together as best you can, and go on with your life. If you believe you will see each other again someday on the "other side", think about what you want to be able to say to them. Try to live the rest of your life in a way that will make you proud to tell them about it, and make them proud to hear it. You can make the rest of your life a tribute to them. Let their memory and their love for you be your guide.

Your life has meaning and purpose beyond your relationship with the person who died. You are more than that relationship. You may not think so now, but life needs you and has a purpose for you. It may be in ways that you are unable to imagine or dream of right now. That purpose will be revealed in time, and you must wait for it and be ready for it when it comes. If this were not so, you would not still be here.

Try to make the rest of your life a tribute to them. Let their memory and their love for you be your guide.

They Didn't Belong to You

A hard thing to realize, but a true one, is that the person who died didn't belong to you. They were never yours to keep. I only began to see this after many years of losses and grief. We are in each other's lives for many different reasons. It may be to help one another, to learn from one another, to be protectors and guides until we are able to stand on our own, to comfort and love one another, or just for the joy of being together to share a time on this plane. However, it is always only for a time, not forever. Whether that time is measured in months, years, or decades, it eventually must come to an end. Only then do we fully realize that the person we loved was never ours to keep. They were only on loan to us for a while, to share life with and to love.

All that is left for us to do when they leave us is to be grateful for the time we had together, and to try to accept that it had to come to an end someday. If our time together was long, and we were very close, so that the other person seems to have been a part of us, this can be very hard to do. However, only through acceptance and release is there any path to peace. As long as you feel anger, resentment, or bitterness over what has happened, peace and healing will never fully be available to you, and you will continue to carry your grief with you in your heart and your mind, even if you seem to have dealt with it outwardly.

Only through acceptance and release is there any path to peace.

Walking and Nature

One of the best things you can do to help yourself heal is to go out into nature and the fresh air, and go for a long walk. After my beautiful, elegant mother died a lingering and horrible death from cancer, I walked for a solid year. I still feel that it helped me more than anything else I did. If you live in the city, go to a park and walk in it until you start to relax. If you can go to a nature trail or protected natural area, so much the better. Just be sure you are in a place that is safe, and where you will not be exposing yourself to potential danger.

Look very closely at all the details of the world around you, at all of the life and the activity. Let the beauty of this world fill you and flood over you. Observe deeply the trees, grass, flowers, birds, insects, and animals. Hear the sounds and listen for the smallest whispers of this world. In this way you will stop your painful thoughts and be released from grief for a time. There is peace for your soul here, and relief for your mind.

If you are not physically able to walk for long distances, try getting in your car, or have someone else take you for a drive, just to get away for a while and have a change of pace and of scene. It doesn't have to be someplace special, just go somewhere you feel comfortable and safe and stay there for a while to rest your mind and your heart.

"Riverwalk" original photograph by Stan Awbrey
"Riverwalk" original photograph by Stan Awbrey

Give Your Grief an External Expression

If you carry your grief and feelings of loss inside of you, there is a risk of becoming identified with it and letting it become a part of who you are. You will then begin to live through your grief and pain, and it will perpetuate itself indefinitely. We have all known someone this has happened to. They talk about their loss repeatedly, sometimes even after many years have passed since it actually happened, and you can see the deep lines that pain and sorrow carried inside have etched on their faces. Their grief has taken them over almost completely because they were never able to release it and let it go.

Giving your grief an external expression and a physical form helps to keep this from happening. Get it outside of you, where you can see it and touch it. In Victorian times, when someone died the women in the immediate family wore black for an entire year. This allowed them and everyone else to see their loss, and gave it an expression, a color of its own, and a time when it would be laid aside. Gravestones serve this same purpose in a way. Of course, they are placed in memory of the one who has died, but they are also for the living, to give a place where they can go and grieve, leave flowers or tributes, and externalize the feelings of the ones who are left behind.

You could try making a personal shrine in the memory of your loved one. It can be in your home, in your room, in your garden, or even a special place you pass every day on your walks. You could place a photo of your loved one there, a small vase for flowers, a candle, a little box where you can leave notes or prayers, or anything that has meaning for you and connects you in some way to the person who has died. You will know what to put there, and where it needs to be. You can go there and talk to them, ask for guidance, or just express your love. Don't be surprised if you receive an answer, sometimes in a very unexpected way, or through dreams or unexplained occurrences. I have received many such answers over the years, so that I have now come to expect them.

Making a journal about your loss and your feelings can also be very helpful. No one needs to see it or read it but you. Here you can feel free to pour out all of the pain and sadness, write about it until you feel relief and some calm. Blank journals are very inexpensive and you can fill as many of them as you need to help yourself come to terms with your loss.

If you carry your grief and feelings of loss inside of you, there is a risk of becoming identified with it and letting it become a part of who you are.

They Will Always Be With You

No one is ever really lost. When someone has been very close to you for a long time, they become a part of you. You have spent so much time together and you have known them so well that you can still hear their voice and see their face, even after they are no longer physically present. You know exactly what they would say and think about every situation. what they would like or dislike, what they would feel about every experience. No matter where you go or what you do, they will be there with you in your heart and your mind. You can still share everything with them, smile together, laugh together. They never really leave you.

You Will Make It

In the depths of your grief and sadness, you may feel that things will never be any better, that you are not going to make it through this, and you will never be happy again. I promise you, none of these things are true. You will make it. Deep down in the depths of your being lies a strength you may never have known you had until this happened. You may never stop missing the person who died, and certainly you will never forget them or stop loving them, but gradually you will be able to find peace and to move forward. Healing comes to everyone differently in its own way and time, but it will come. If you stay open to it you may find a new depth and dimension has formed within you, and you may begin to see the world in unexpected ways.

I am not saying that things will go back to the way they were before your loved one died. Of course they won't. When someone who is close to you dies, it changes things forever, but you will find new ways of being in the world to replace the old ones. Life takes things away from us with one hand, while at the same time giving us gifts with the other. Our job is to look for the possibilities and hope in those gifts, while we continue to honor the past. Be gentle with yourself and have patience. Life is full of love and there is an ample share of it there for you. All you have to do is let it in.

Life takes things away from us with one hand, while it gives us gifts with the other.


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    • profile image

      under the rainbow 

      17 months ago

      Mom has been dead for 10+ years and I cant "feel" her like others do. I have done something completely unforgiveable I feel. I have betrayed her trust. There are things that happened after her death but I CANNOT move on. How do I seek her forgiveness for something I can never forgive myself for

    • profile image

      lost lady 

      2 years ago

      I was married to my husband for over 48 years we were high school was not all good or bad, but then he got cancer suffered for over 7 years and I took care of him he could not eat or drink we tube fed for 7 years. so what do I do now?

      I cry, I want to feel his hand in mine. I want to see him wink at me again and that is not going to happen..

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Thank you Mr. Awbrey for writing this article. It is helping me and giving me comfort.

    • Stan Awbrey profile imageAUTHOR

      Stan Awbrey 

      2 years ago

      I am so sorry for your terrible loss Kenny. My heart goes out to you. Please try to hang in there. Your time with Joey was a priceless gift, and nothing can ever take away your love for him. It will be part of your life forever.

    • profile image

      Kenny Guillemin 

      2 years ago

      Thanks for sharing

      . My beautiful youngest son fell and hit his head on April 14th 2016 His name is Joey Ray Guillemin He passed away on April 20th 2016 which was on my birthday. Joey was my everything I loved Joey more then life, I am having a very hard time I fill lost it's like I am in hell , I don't know if I can get through this I miss him so much I want to be with him, I do believe in the lord and Joey loved the lord,This is truly hell on earth ,

    • Stan Awbrey profile imageAUTHOR

      Stan Awbrey 

      2 years ago

      I'm so sorry for your loss Denise. I hope you will be able to find peace and comfort in the fact that he was healthy right up to the end.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 

      2 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      We recently experienced the loss of my father-in-law. His wife passed away just two years ago, and it has been hard for him to be alone. For a time, one of his children lived with him, but lately, that was not sufficient to meet his needs. He has been living with one of his sons and their family. He was able to be healthy right up to the end, and his death was sudden and unexpected. We miss him, but are gradually making those adjustments that allow us to move on with our lives.

    • Stan Awbrey profile imageAUTHOR

      Stan Awbrey 

      2 years ago

      Thank you. I hope it was helpful to you.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      A beautifully written and illustrated about human loss and how to deal with grief.


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