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Coping with Grief and Loss: A guide to healing when mourning the death of a loved one

The loss of a loved one can be a profoundly painful experience. The grief that follows may permeate everything, making it hard to eat, sleep, or muster much interest in the life going on around you.

This emotional maelstrom can affect behavior and judgment. It's common, for example, to feel agitated or exhausted, to sob unexpectedly, or to withdraw from the world. Some people find themselves struggling with feelings of sorrow, numbness, anger, guilt, despair, irritability, relief, or anxiety.

While no words can erase grief, Coping with Grief and Loss can help you navigate this turbulent time.

In its pages, you'll find advice on comforting yourself, commemorating your loved one, and understanding the difference between grief and depression. You'll also find special sections on coping with the loss of a child, parent, or spouse.

Coping with Grief and Loss also includes information on navigating life when a loved one is terminally ill, on end-of-life planning, and on ways to talk about death.

Prepared by the editors of Harvard Health Publications in consultation with Michael Hirsch, M.D. Medical Editor, Massachusetts General Hospital Psychiatry Academy, Instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. 40 pages. (2014)

  • What is grief?
    • Grief’s effects on mind and body
    • How long does grief last?
    • Are there stages of grief?
    • How other losses shape grief
    • Denial, anger, and guilt: The difficult emotions of grief
  • Comforting yourself
    • Tend to the essentials
    • Turn to family and friends
    • Commemorate your loved one
    • Consider your culture and preferences
    • Check out books and CDs
    • Keep a journal
    • Try some stress-relief techniques
    • Join a grief support group
    • Seeking professional help
    • Comforting others: Suggestions for friends and family members
  • Losses and life stages
    • Grief in the later years
    • Grief in men in midlife
    • Grief in women in midlife
    • Grief in children
    • Losing a child
    • Losing a parent
    • Losing a spouse or life partner
  • When someone you love is terminally ill
    • Anticipatory grief
    • Talking about death
    • End-of-life planning: Addressing practical matters
    • Making arrangements
    • Planning for a funeral or memorial service
    • Gathering essential records
    • Contacting the appropriate agencies
  • Glossary
  • Resources

Grief’s effects on mind and body

Grief affects the mind and the body. It can go hand in hand with a wide range of physical and mental problems, including memory impairment, difficulty concentrating, nutritional deficiencies, poor work performance, and difficulties in relationships. Indeed, bereavement increases the risk of death from a variety of causes, including suicide. The emotional maelstrom that grief stirs up can affect behavior and judgment. It’s common, for example, to feel agitated or exhausted or to sob or withdraw from the world at times. Sometimes intrusive or upsetting memories surface, as can temporary sensations of things being unreal. Less commonly, grief can be associated with brief experiences of sensing the presence or hearing the voice of the deceased. Frequent thoughts of the person who died and feelings of self-reproach about aspects of the death are normal, too. At first, your grief may permeate everything. You may find it hard to eat or sleep. It may be difficult to muster much interest in the life going on around you. Symptoms similar to those the deceased had described may crop up in your own body—a frightening experience if he or she died from an illness. Some people, particularly children, may have other physical complaints, such as headaches, stomachaches, dizziness, or a racing heart. Restlessness, appetite fluctuations, and trouble sleeping are also common. Often, people note a surge in ailments such as colds and more serious illnesses. Studies show that people have a higher risk of sickness and even death after losing a spouse. Research stretching back for decades points to some reasons why this might occur. Many researchers believe that over time, stress-induced physiological changes cause or exacerbate physical ailments. In the 1980s, research reported in The Lancet and The Journal of the American Medical Association noted that the white blood cells in bereaved spouses were less able to fight off disease than they were before the death or compared with those of individuals who weren’t grieving. Such research is yet one more reason why it’s so important to take care of yourself during difficult times

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