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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.

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.

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

You will need several documents to help you complete the checklist, including death certificates (maybe a dozen), Social Security card, marriage certificate, birth certificate, birth certificates of children, insurance policies, deeds and titles to property, automobile title, and registration papers.1

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.2

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.

For example, in a study by psychologist Toni Bisconti at the University of Akron, recent widows filled out daily questionnaires. Over the course of three months, their emotions fluctuated greatly from one day to the next. One day they might feel depressed and they next day cheerful. Eventually, mood swings diminish until they’re back in balance.3

There’s no set time limit as to how long the grieving process lasts. For example, in a recent Columbia University study, 50 percent of widows and widowers said some of the intense grief symptoms (anxiety, depression, intrusive thoughts) had lifted six months after the death of their spouse.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: 4

  • Set realistic expectations for yourself
  • Don’t expect the grieving process to be over in a certain length of time
  • 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.

That’s why 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.5

Don’t forget about sleep

Grief disrupts our sleep. Some things that can help is not drinking alcohol or caffeine before bed, creating a cool and dark environment conducive to sleep, and going to bed at the same time every night. Magnesium — a natural supplement —helps promote sleep, too. 6

Try to find some normalcy

Here are five more ideas that can also help you during the grief process:7

  • Fit in some recreation
  • Keep a routine
  • Plan a little getaway (even if it’s for just a day)
  • Renew your sense of purpose by helping others
  • 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. Telltale signs include: 8

  • Wishing you had died with your loved one
  • Feeling numb
  • Disconnected and unable to perform daily activities
  • Blaming yourself for the loss

Here are four questions you should ask when you’re looking for a good therapist:9

  • 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, creating a scrapbook with favorite pictures and quotes by them, and more.

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 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. Stacy, Julien. What to Do When a Loved One Dies: This checklist could help you cope with practical tasks during an emotional time,” AARP, 2018.
  2. Edward T. Creagan, M.D., “Dealing with grief: Confronting painful emotions,” Mayo Clinic, January 12, 2018.
  3. 5 Surprising Truths About Grief: New research reveals that common conceptions about dealing with loss of a spouse are all wrong,” Ruth Davis Konigsberg, AARP, 2018.
  4. Coping With Loss – One Step at a Time,” AARP (previously published by Johnson & Johnson), 2018.
  5. Kristi Hugstad, “What to Eat When Grief is Eating You,”, updated June 19, 2017.
  6. Kristi Hugstad, “Not-So-Goodnight? Why Grief Is Leaving You Sleep-Deprived,”, updated May 8, 2017.
  7. Coping with Grief,” American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO),, March 2018.
  8. Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., “Coping with Grief and Loss: Dealing with the Grieving Process and Learning to Heal,”, July 2018.
  9. Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., “Finding a Therapist Who Can Help You Heal: Getting the Most out of Therapy and Counseling,”, updated April 2018.
  10. Finding Support After the Death of a Loved One,”, March 15, 2018.

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