Coping With Loss

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Coping With Loss

by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

This summer in Colorado Springs, with over 300 houses in flames, there were firefighters trying to save salvageable homes while they knew theirs were burning to the ground. How do you cope with that?

Most who deal in rescues know you don’t—at least right then. You put it in a little corner of the back of your mind, and it smolders … and smolders. If you don’t finally deal with it, it can (like the fire to the houses) permanently damage, even destroy you, both mentally and physically.

Whether it be injury, death, loss of property, or loss of a way of life, coping with loss is central to moving on. As a doctor, I’ve seen too many times of major loss to remember them all. And like most of you, I’ve experienced it also.

One of the best books you can ever read about coping with loss is On Death and Dying, by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. After spending intimate time with multiple patients who knew they were dying she came up with five stages of grief common to them all. These stages can be found in not only people who know they’re dying but in anyone suffering a loss. And knowing the stages can help you better cope or comfort those suffering.

One thing you need to remember is these stages can last varying periods of time, from minutes to months. It’s healthy to have time to complete each stage and go on to the next so you can get to the last one—acceptance. In fact, I’ve seen people time and again not be able to finish a stage only to come back a year later and have to relive the situation. Eventually, everyone mourns a loss.

On the other hand, some get stuck in one of the stages. At that point, expert help is needed. If it’s not available, it can be very helpful to talk to someone with an empathetic ear—someone who’s a good listener.

Stages of Grief
  1. Denial: Our mind has to have time to sort through a shock. When first told of a terminal illness or that your house has been robbed, the initial reaction is denial. No, there’s no way. This a dream or it’s a lie, or someone has the wrong information. This stage hopefully lasts only a few minutes, but sometimes days. It becomes more important to get through this stage quickly if there’s action you need to take—like call the police or put out a fire. The only way I know you might do this is to become mentally prepared for likely disasters in your area. If you’re helping someone through a loss, just give them some time.
  2. Anger: Accept this as a stage you have to go through. It can be anger at yourself, your country, the doctor, the disease, or God. If you’re trying to help someone through a loss, remember it can be anger at you. You need to try not to take it personally and retort. After the person gets through this stage, they’ll need your help.
  3. Bargaining: This is the “if only I had done” such and such. Or the, “Please, God, if you’ll take away this, I’ll do whatever you want.” I’m not saying God doesn’t answer prayers. Just sometimes not the way you’d like.
  4. Depression: This is when the event fully hits you. You become sad, cry. It’s normal. Let yourself or the other person feel this. It’s healthy, to a point. Unfortunately, some people don’t go through this right away. But it’ll hit them, whether it be days, months, or even years later.
  5. Acceptance: At some point, you accept the reality. It doesn’t mean you’re not sad, and it doesn’t mean you might not go through the stages again. It just means you’re learning to live with it.

Now during a disaster, these stages might be delayed or get all jumbled. You may have no time at first because you’re trying to save your life or property. But at some point, they’ll come. Recognizing they will can help you get through them.

Do any of you recognize these stages from past grief? Do you have any tips on how to get through them?

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Photo by Konrad Summers on Flickr. (Photographer’s description, truncated: Monument for Jennie Roosevelt Pool, cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt, in Cypress Lawn Cemetery, California.)

  • William

    My loss is a little different from some. I was diagnosed bi-polar II. What this meant was that the memories of a really cool life were in jeapordy. And, after a long time in mental health care, I still do not have the “complete” feelings of happiness, contentment, drive, a loss of interaction with others in “normal” relationships because of a battle with constant depression.

    Although I am not where I want to be, little bits of improvement occur that I do notice. I appreciate and pray for these small improvements. I do know that I will never be what I was, and my mental and now developing physical handicaps limit me even more.

    With family and treatment, sharing the disease and my experiences with others, doing things that do make a difference in my life and little things that just happen that help me along the way (caught a 11 pound bass, got a letter from a niece that meant a lot, etc) make it a day to day thing where I am no longer wishing for another life (my past). Learning to live and appreciate what I have has been the greatest gift after seeing others with so little, or seeing those that are where I was 10 years ago.

    Not sure if I follow the pattern 100%, but I sure do see some similarities.

    Struggle is part of it. Acceptance is the hardest struggle at times. It is on going, and I am doing pretty well. Always want to be better, but I hold on to the positives and have learned to ask for help when I need to (and that is a lot!)

  • Todd

    Thank you for sending this article out today. My family and I are in the hospital now dealing with the loss of a child. You are a blessing.

    • James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

      Todd, I’m so sorry.

  • Roly Beaumont

    My darling wife succumbed to ovarian cancer a little over a year ago. The cancer was truly ‘the silent killer’ , as from diagnosis to the end was only 5 months. It is apparent in retrospect that my darling wife had had the cancer for some time, and she had covered up/ignored the symptons as being the menopause.
    But my main emotion was GUILT. This I suppose could be put in the same bracket as ‘bargaining’ and ‘anger’.
    I came quite close to self immolation, as I truly felt that a life had been wasted, and that I was primarily responsible. After all, at our wedding, I did promise to look after my wife, which patently I had failed to do.

    • James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

      Roly, guilt is certainly common. We all go through the “if I’d only done … .” And we usually can find something, with hindsight. I hope you’ve come to realize it wasn’t your fault.

  • Trace

    After my loss, I dealt with anger a long, long time. The others, though I did experience them all to some degree went fairly quickly, but anger hung on. Finally I was able to accept. Not “get over it”, because you don’t, but realize now that there would be a new normal that’d we’d all have to adjust to.

    • James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

      Trace, that’s very true. Thanks.