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Coping with the death of a loved one – resources to help

Coping with the death of a loved one is incredibly difficult.

At times, you could feel the loss tests you beyond your limits. However, there are practical things you can do to help you cope with grief – and transition back into a healthy and functioning life, one in which you can take joy in once again.

Use a survivor’s checklist

You might think a checklist sounds sterile. But it will come in very handy when waves of emotion drown out any sense of practicality — and you’re left feeling overwhelmed.

We’ve created a checklist that will help you get started.

If your loved one was an adult, it’s likely that he or she was employed and/or had business dealings with or was the member of several organizations. So you will need to inform them of your loved one’s passing. To reach a wider audience, write a post about it on social media.1

You will need several documents to help you complete the checklist, including death certificates (get 10 to 20 copies), Social Security card, marriage license, birth certificate, birth certificates of children, insurance policies, deeds and titles to property, income tax returns, W2 and other tax forms, automobile title, and registration papers. If your loved one was a veteran, you’ll also need discharge papers and a VA claim number.2

Prioritize what needs to be done first and enlist the help of other family members or friends. You can’t do it alone. So don’t.

Recognize your grief

Checking items off a list might seem easy compared to coming face-to-face with your grief.

Your reaction might be to run away from your grief. It’s not healthy, and it’s possible you’ll never recover from your grief if you do so.

Understand that grief is normal. It may manifest in tears, anger, numbness or sadness and may cause exhaustion or other physical reactions. Mourning your loss is a critical process and can help you lessen the intensity of your grief.

The grieving process also allows you to embrace the memories you have of your loved one.3

Allow yourself to grieve

In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In recent years, we’ve learned that we oscillate in our grief, meaning the emotions linked to the stages go back and forth during the grieving experience.

Unfortunately, grief doesn’t magically cease after a set period of time. In fact, an anniversary, a holiday, or a reminder can reawaken grief. Be prepared for it.4

A strong social support system and healthy habits can help the grief-stricken heal over time — whether it’s several months or a year down the road.3

Take care of yourself

So how do you get yourself on the pathway to healing? There are steps you can take to help with the grieving process:5

  • Don’t pretend that everything is fine
  • Recognize your feelings and let yourself feel and process them
  • Set realistic expectations and be compassionate with yourself
  • Have a daily routine and make plans
  • Pursue a hobby or do something enjoyable
  • Honor your loved one by talking about them, putting together a picture album (digital or analog), or doing something else
  • Don’t expect the grieving process to be over in a certain length of time. Instead — over time — expect the grief to change and integrate into your life, so that you can adapt to it.
  • Find a listening ear, whether it’s in the form of a good friend, a sympathetic neighbor or colleague, or a support group
  • Let yourself cry

It’s important to accept help from loved ones. And make time for friends and family — even though you need to spend some time alone to process your feelings.

Other practical tips include making healthy choices, such as getting enough sleep, eating nutritious foods, drinking plenty of water and exercising moderately.

Eat healthy foods

Making healthy food choices when you’re grieving can be difficult because you might have “decision fatigue” — resulting from making numerous decisions in a short amount of time. Plus, you just want a little comfort.

Foods heavy in carbs offer momentary comfort. As does alcohol, which tends to numb the emotional pain. However, you will feel worse if you overindulge in either. Try to have a protein-rich diet and limit your alcohol intake (one glass per week). Also, choose foods that help with memory (blueberries), reduce stress (foods rich in vitamin B, such as salmon, milk, eggs and legumes), and build stamina, strength and your immune system (such as iron-rich broccoli, spinach and meat).

Crying can dehydrate you, so stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. And avoid too much caffeine.6

It’s important to have healthy food options (such as fresh produce and healthy proteins) at the ready. This will help you avoid gaining weight, which leads to lower energy. And low energy can lead to more stress.

Exercise

Make time for moderate exercise, such as going for walks.

If you were a rigorous exerciser before your loved one died, you might need to scale back your workouts — and allow your body some time to heal. Grief can cause people to be more accident-prone and fatigued.

Listen to what your body is telling you. And, when you’re ready, ease back into an exercise routine that’s good for you.6

Don’t forget about sleep

It’s important to get a good night’s sleep during the grieving process. If grief disrupts your sleep too much, you are at greater risk of developing complicated grief — making the grieving process even more difficult. Most individuals with complicated grief (91 percent) report having sleep problems.7

Some things that can help you sleep better is not drinking alcohol or caffeine past the early afternoon, getting daily exercise, avoid using electronics one hour before bed, and creating a cool and dark environment conducive to sleep. Cognitive behavioral therapy and medication might be needed as well.7

A serious shortage of magnesium in the body is rare. However, a lack of magnesium negatively impacts sleep. So, be sure to eat your leafy green veggies; nuts and legumes; yogurt and milk; and whole grains. Or take a magnesium supplement.8

Try to find some normalcy

Here are some more ideas that can also help you during the grief process, especially when you are coping with the death of a spouse. It can be helpful to have something to do every day — writing down your weekly plans. Here are a few activities to look forward to:9

  • Take a walk with a friend. That way you get out in nature and strengthen a social connection, both of which are good for your overall well-being.
  • Volunteer for a worthy cause. Perhaps you’ve always wanted to read to children or care for animals in need. Helping others may renew your sense of purpose.
  • Plan a little getaway (even if it’s for just a day) to a neighboring town.
  • Join an exercise class, or learn a new hobby that brings you some joy.

However, be careful not to rush into anything. Wait at least a year to make any major decisions.

Seek grief support

It’s helpful to talk to loved ones about your loss. However, sometimes you need to step outside your circle of friends and family to help you deal with your sadness. Check to see if your employer or your deceased loved one’s employer offers bereavement counseling — for free or at a discounted rate.

People in your community are also coping with the loss of loved ones. You can locate support groups and mental health therapists who specialize in grief counseling through local hospitals, hospices, funeral homes and counseling centers.

When to seek professional help

You’ll want to get professional help right away if you’re experiencing symptoms of clinical depression or complicated grief, which linger or worsen over time and can keep you from healing. Telltale signs include:10

  • Wishing you had died with your loved one
  • Feeling numb or detached
  • Ability to focus only on your loved one’s death
  • Extreme focus on or excessive avoidance of your loved one’s memory
  • Feeling that life doesn’t have purpose or meaning
  • Disconnected and unable to perform daily activities
  • Blaming yourself for the loss

Here are some questions you should ask when you’re looking for a good therapist:

  • Do they have experience treating what you’re experiencing?
  • How do they do their treatment (which varies by therapist)?
  • Do they have a current license in your state?
  • Do you trust and connect with the therapist (if not, find another one)?

Keeping the memories alive

Ways to honor your loved one’s memory are endless. They include planting a memorial garden or tree, volunteering at your loved one’s favorite charity (or collecting donations for it), naming a baby after the loved one, creating a scrapbook with favorite pictures and quotes by them, and more.

Anniversaries are times when you may especially feel your loved one’s absence. So, you may want to focus on them especially at these times.3

Spending time with others to tell fun-loving stories can also make you smile, laugh — and, hopefully, heal your heart.

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End of life planning resources

End-of-life planning decisions can be difficult to think about and discuss with loved ones. We've prepared information to help guide you through the process — from wills, directives and final arrangements to resources for coping with the death of a loved one.

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  1. Potts, Leanne. “What to do when a loved one dies.” aarp.org, June 11, 2020.
  2. What documents do you need after a loved one dies?” usbank.com, March 5, 2021.
  3. Grief: Coping with the loss of your loved one.” apa.org, January 1, 2020.
  4. Grief: Coping with reminders after a loss.” mayoclinic.org, November 14, 2020.
  5. Blumberg, Perri O. “Your guide to coping with the loss of a loved one.” womenshealthmag.com, April 16, 2021.
  6. Frey, Malia. “Exercise and Nutrition Tips to Ease the Grieving Process.” verywellfit.com, July 14, 2021.
  7. Pacheco, Danielle. “Grief and its effect on sleep.” sleepfoundation.org, April 22, 2021.
  8. Meadows, Austin. “How magnesium can help you sleep.” sleepfoundation.org, November 11, 2021.
  9. Mourning the death of a spouse.” nia.nih.gov., August 20, 2020.
  10. Complicated grief.” mayoclinic.org., June 19, 2021.
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