One of the toughest emotions to handle is grief. We know there are multiple stages of it, we can rationally support each other through it, but all bets are seemingly off when it’s our turn to grieve. How do you deal with the pain of loss when you’re in it? We reached out to Hope and Grace Initiative Advisory Board Member Belisa Vranich, PsyD, a renowned clinical psychologist and author, to get her thoughts on the subject:
Philosophy: First of all, let’s talk about grief strategies. How does death affect mental health?
Dr. Vranich: Obviously it can make you very sad. You can go into a state of mourning, but it can also make you angry. That’s one of the things that’s not talked about often, the fact that the people who are left behind end up being angry as well. They may feel it’s not as expected to talk about anger when speaking about the death of a loved one. The feeling might not make sense at first: someone may have passed of perfectly natural causes or older age, but you can still be angry at their leaving. Feelings of sadness, of despair and obviously of missing them, of feeling scared of the future without them — all of this can cause anger and frustration along with feelings of deep sadness.
Philosophy: If you already have an existing mental health condition, can grief amplify it?
Dr. Vranich: Absolutely. If you are already prone to depression and you go through a depressing event, it can definitely stir things up for you. It’s good to know that if you have a predisposition for depression and you go through something that causes more sadness, you should protect yourself and make a plan for self-care.
Philosophy: Interesting. If you have a pre-existing condition and somebody in your family or close to you passes away, what are some things you can do to safeguard your mental health?
Dr. Vranich: You’ll want to contact your physician to let them know what’s happening. They might have to up the medication for a bit. Maybe not, but you should definitely look ahead.
Philosophy: Are there things you should be doing to manage self-care like sleep, food, what are some day to day things you can do?
Dr. Vranich: If you’re primary caretaker of a person dying, you take care of yourself secondary, thinking they’re not going to be around unless you care for them as selflessly as possible. You have to care for yourself, so make sure you keep sleeping, going to therapy, etc. Also, if you’re going through grief or in a position where you’re dealing with the inevitable passing of a loved one, you need to make sure you have a place to express yourself and cry, and you do need a community of support. A lot of folks who are grieving grieve by themselves, and they end up grieving for a very long time. Having a group is crucial, and then getting involved with therapy can help tremendously. I’m particularly fond of group therapy when it comes to dealing with grief. You’re all at different stages of grief, and the group setting ensures you don’t feel you’re the only one grappling with this tremendous pain. Sometimes it feels this way, particularly in isolation: that you’re the only one that has a terrible situation. But, when you get in a group, you realize there are a lot of people who’ve lost someone they love.
Philosophy: What’s your strategy around eating during times of grief? Should you just eat whatever makes you feel better, or are there things you should avoid?
Dr. Vranich: I wouldn’t say eat whatever you want during grief. It might make you feel better in the short term, but it’s probably going to make you feel rough in the long run. Even though you’re probably craving comfort food, I would say make the effort to stick with healthy stuff. Comfort food isn’t the best solution long term.
Philosophy: How do you feel about sharing grief on things like social media?
Dr. Vranich: Facebook and social media helps people express themselves a little bit more, but if they would go the next step and actually talk to someone else, particularly a mental health professional, about their pain, they would find their way through their grief in a better way. Sometimes, people feel ashamed to be grieving or ashamed to be grieving as long as they are, so social media has actually helped with that. It helps you express to a politer audience (in theory) things you can necessarily say in your office if you’re having a particularly rough day. My Dutch friend died in 2008, and the other day on his birthday, I posted something about it on Facebook. I probably wouldn’t tell my friends that day because it’s like, “Oh come on, you need to get over it,” but I felt it was OK to do that on Facebook.
Philosophy: Did I miss anything in regards to grief? How long does it last?
Dr. Vranich: I remember speaking to a friend about stages of grief, and he said “You know, I shouldn’t stay in denial forever,” which gave both of us a great laugh because many of us get stuck in one stage of grief for longer than we should. Know that grieving is natural and it takes time, but it shouldn’t take forever. Usually, when it’s an extended process, it means there’s some unresolved issue with the person who passed away. There’s usually unresolved guilt. Also, the way the person left can make grief very different from one person. For instance, a grandparent dying would be different from a teenager who commits suicide. At any rate, know that grief is normal, it happens, and that there are solutions to move through it with hope and grace.