Losing a close friend or family member can be devastating. All the small details of daily life — getting out of bed, making meals, going to appointments, taking care of children, handling responsibilities at work — may seem monumentally hard or inconsequential. It is important for people to let the nonessentials slide and focus on ways to get through this difficult time.
Dr. Michael Hirsch, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and medical editor of Harvard Medical School's Special Health Report, "Coping with Grief and Loss: A Guide to Healing," offers the following advice. Although some tips may seem basic, they're vital for enabling people who are grieving to work through the process:
Eat well. A well-balanced diet is essential as you withstand the stress of grieving. That means eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins, and drinking plenty of water and other healthy liquids. If your appetite is diminished, try eating small portions more frequently. A daily multivitamin can cover any missing nutrients.
Take necessary medications. Grief makes people more vulnerable to illness, so it's important that you keep taking your regular medications.
Get enough sleep. Grief is exhausting. If you feel tired, nap to make up for a sleep deficit. Paradoxically, doing more exercise is likely to improve your energy. Watch your caffeine and alcohol intake, as these substances can interfere with sleep.
Exercise every day. A simple walk, a bike ride, yoga, or a harder workout can ease agitation, anger and depression. Depending on your needs, exercise can provide you with a distraction when you need a break from grieving, or offer you some quiet time to focus on your loss.
Avoid risky behavior. In the wake of a profound loss, people often justify using dangerous coping strategies — such as drinking too much alcohol (more than one drink a day for women or two for men), using drugs, or engaging in impulsive or self-destructive behavior. The short-term relief of pain is likely not to be worth it if the pattern of dangerous behavior persists or intensifies, leading to further losses.
Delay big decisions. Grief can cloud thought processes, and people who make abrupt decisions may regret them later. Many experts suggest that you wait a year, if possible, before moving, changing jobs, clearing out keepsakes, and making other momentous decisions.
Practice self-care. Keep asking yourself, "What would help me most today?" The answer may vary from day to day and even from hour to hour. Sometimes you need to cry, or talk to a friend, or just take a break from grieving.
Reaching out, or not
Alan Wolfelt, a grief counselor and author of "Healing Your Grieving Heart" (Companion Press), suggests that people who are grieving identify three friends or family members who can provide support on a regular basis in the first weeks and months after a loss. The following tips may also be helpful:
Tell people what helps — whether you need to be alone, or you need someone to listen.
Embrace mixed feelings. It's normal to have mixed emotions about the loss and about your loved one. It helps to express these so other people understand what you are going through.
Find others who understand. People who have also lost a loved one may be more understanding. Ask them what helped, and what they did to recover.
People who are grieving sometimes want to be left alone. If you express this need too forcefully, though, you may drive people so far away that they won't be there when you do need them. Be sure to leave the door open to future support.