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Coping with Loss: the Healthy Way

Unfortunately we all have to face bereavement at some time. We all cope with grief in different ways.

Some people cry or talk to friends, while others will deal with things quietly, by themselves.

Some will take a relatively short time to revert to a ‘normal’ existence, where they are not submerged by grief, whereas others can take years.

In most situations, however, the strongest emotions gradually tend to reduce in intensity and frequency over time.

But, following the death of a loved one, there is something that a lot of us share; that is, indulging in bad habits to help us cope with the loss. Sometimes this is down to the fact that we are also facing our own mortality and we decide ‘what’s the point’, when it comes to our own health. But what many people overlook and fail to remember, is that eating well and exercising are the key cornerstones of mental health also. So if we are living a healthy life, we are also significantly improving our ability to cope with the loss of our loved one; and that is worth everything.

Part of Life: in More Ways than One

The problem with bereavement is that, traditionally, it’s not openly discussed, even though it is such a major part of our lives and our experiences. Also, we have become a culture of short-term fixes, with the ‘just-get-over-it-and-move-on’ philosophy over revered. This puts pressure on individuals to minimise their sense of loss whereas, in reality, the truth is that grieving is a long process that cannot be rushed.

Also, psychologists say that there is a lack of recognition of the universality of loss in our society. It is actually something that permeates all aspects of life. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t just about death. We grieve for many reasons – not just the loss of a loved one, but also the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, the loss of youth or status, or even the loss of good health.

In fact, even events of a wider scale, such as natural disasters or terrorist attacks, can cause people to grieve at the loss of their sense of safety and security. Anytime something significant is taken away from us, we grieve. And that grieving process can trigger a host of unfamiliar and confusing emotions and behaviours.

What’s the Healthy Way Through?

We see many clients who are going through a bereavement. Many will be drinking too much alcohol or relying on junk foods to get them through the day, with very little or no exercise. Although we do congratulate them for being so brave and proactive in coming in to see us, and to deal with their weight problem, we do immediately point out that these habits, which often seem to be helping, won’t actually help with grief.

In fact, these coping ‘strategies’ may even intensify feelings of loss, leading to a vicious cycle of self-harming behaviours that can spiral into depression, anxiety and ill-health.

Ultimately, most people find a way to carry on after a bereavement. But the process we go through to do that can be complicated and emotionally messy. People always tend to do better when they face their emotions, no matter how difficult that is. In the long term, it has been shown to be so much more effective. As you do this, be mindful of the habits you can develop during the grief process. Ensure that the habits you’re developing aren’t covering up the emotions and feelings you are really feeling. And, if you notice yourself trying to ‘numb’, then that’s a sure sign that you need to sit with your emotions and feel them. Read our blog on ‘The Power of Good Habits’ here.

As a first step, knowing what is a healthy response to bereavement / loss and what is not can help you stay on an emotionally healthy path to recovery.

Below are some of the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy grieving to be aware of;

Healthy Grieving

The following are all perfectly normal grief responses:

– Intense pain

– Sadness

– Disbelief

– Resentment

– Mood swings

– Lack of focus

– Loneliness

– Fear

– Excessive worry

– Anger

– Guilt

– Crying

– Irritability

– Change in appetite

– Lack of energy

– Difficulty sleeping

– Difficulty concentrating

– Wanting to be alone


Unhealthy Grieving

The following habits would be generally considered ‘unhealthy’:

– Significant weight loss or gain

– Prolonged sleep disturbances

– Prolonged hostility or aggression

– Constant desire for what was lost

– Continued lack of interest in normal activities

– Self-destructive behaviour

– Panic attacks, irrational fears or phobias

– Trouble keeping your normal routine such as work or home duties

– Inability to stop blaming yourself

– Thoughts of harming yourself

– Thoughts that life isn’t worth living

– Addiction

– Absent grief (where you attempt to feel the same as you did before the loss)

– Delayed grief (where you were busy and haven’t slowed down to grieve)


Four Unhealthy ‘Coping Strategies’ to Watch out For

1. Using screens as an escape: On the surface, using screen time to distract yourself may seem pretty harmless. After all, it’s just a way to entertain yourself while you pass the time, right? While screens and social media may help take your mind off the pain of loss, they actually prevent you from really dealing with your grief and facing the reality of your new life. They also subtract time away from other, more helpful activities such as exercise or preparing healthy meals. Try to limit the amount of screen time to one or two hours a day at most. Instead, call up a friend and get out of the house for the day.

2. Self-medicating with alcohol (or other addictive substances): If you know that you have a higher propensity to drink when dealing with difficult emotions, then this is the very time to try to avoid it. It may be hard at first, but try distract techniques and choose other pleasurable activities to replace alcohol (read our blog on this very subject here).

It’s important to remember that alcohol is a natural depressant, and since you’re grieving, alcohol will only intensify the sadness that you already feel. If you’re feeling depressed after the loss of a loved one, turn to a therapist or family member to help you through your grief and avoid self-medicating with alcohol (visit iacp.ie or www.iarm.ie for more information about a therapist near you).

3. Emotional eating: It’s very common for people’s eating habits to change following a bereavement. You may feel like food is a source of comfort at a time when you are feeling very discomforted. This can lead to mindless emotional eating, which can then lead to weight gain, which only serves to compound your low mood. The last thing you need when you are grieving is another reason to be unhappy, especially with yourself.

That’s where Motivation can help you.

Our consultants are trained to listen and to help with your struggle to lose weight. We also use a mental weight report that will determine habits and attitudes that you currently engage in which are contributing to your excess weight, and then we give you tips to help overcome these habits, read more here.

4. Isolating yourself: It’s crucial to have a support network of some kind when you are grieving after a bereavement. The temptation is to remove yourself from the rest of the world in an attempt to find some solitude during this difficult time, but it is one of the worst things you can do. While some solitude and self-reflection is beneficial, ultimately we all have a need to connect and to allow others to help us with our grief.

Make sure that you’re getting time outdoors (a daily walk would be a great place to start) and that you’re spending time with your loved ones and your support group. By relying on each other, we can often move through the stages with less complication and difficulty.