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Grief & Loss

Grief and Loss. Losing someone or something you love is very painful. After a significant loss, you may experience all kinds of difficult and surprising emotions, such as shock, anger and guilt. Sometimes it may feel like the sadness will never let up. While these feelings can be frightening and overwhelming, they are normal reactions to loss. It is important to accept these emotions as part of the grieving process and that you allow yourself to feel what you feel is necessary to heal.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve; but there are healthy ways to cope with the pain. You can get through it. Grief that is expressed and experienced has a potential for healing that eventually can strengthen and enrich your life.

Grief: Coping with Reminders after a Loss

When a loved one dies, you may be faced with grief over your loss again and again, sometimes even years later. Feelings of grief may return annually on the anniversary of your loved one’s death and on special days throughout the year such as a birthdays or religious holidays. Even memorial celebrations for strangers who die in catastrophes, conflicts or disasters can trigger the familiar pain and sadness of your own loss.

The return of these feelings of grief isn’t necessarily a setback in the grieving process, rather view them as a way to reflect on the lives of others who were important to you and that you still miss them. Learning more about what to expect and how to cope with reminders of your loss can help make the grieving process a healthy, healing one.

What to Expect when Grief Returns

The memories and emotions of a lost loved one that are re-awakened through reminders are often called anniversary reactions. These reactions, which can last for days or weeks at a time, can raise a host of emotions and physical problems like the ones you faced while you were first grieving, including:

  • Sadness
  • Loneliness
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Nightmares
  • Lack of interest in activities
  • Crying spells
  • Replaying images in your mind related to your loved one
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sleep problems
  • Headaches
  • An upset stomach

Anniversary reactions can also evoke powerful emotional memories- experiences in which you recall the feelings and events surrounding your loved one’s death. You might remember in great detail where you were and what you were doing, for instance, when your loved one died.

Common Triggers of Grief

Some reminders of you loved one are almost inevitable, especially during the first year after their death. During the first year, you will face a lot of difficult “firsts” like those first days that’ll pass without your loved one. As the weeks and months go by, you may also face other significant days or celebrations without your loved one that can trigger your grief again. Some of these “firsts” and other special occasions that can reawaken your grief include:

  • The first holiday
  • Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or another day you would have honored your loved one
  • Weddings and wedding anniversaries
  • Family reunions
  • Childhood milestones, such as the first day of school, prom, homecoming and other child-oriented days
  • Anniversaries of special days- when you met, when you became engaged, when you last saw your loved one alive or when you took a big trip together

Your reactions to these firsts and special occasions might be intense initially. As the years pass, you will probably find it easier to cope, but you will not forget.

Reminders can be anywhere and are often unexpected. It is important to remember that these reminders aren’t just tied to the calendar. They can be anywhere- in sights, sounds and smells, music and movies, and in the news or on television programs. They can ambush you, suddenly flooding you with emotions when you drive by the restaurant your wife loved or when you hear a song your son liked so much. Another death, even that of a stranger, can leave you reliving your own grief.

Even years after a loss, you may continue to feel sadness and pain when you’re confronted with such reminders. Although some people may tell you that grieving should last a year or less, grieve at your own pace – not on someone else’s expected time line.

Tips to Cope with Reawakened Grief

Time itself can lessen the intensity of your grief. You can also take measures to cope with anniversaries, special days and other reminders of your loss so that you can continue the healing process, including:

  • Remembering that although it may never go away completely, that anniversary reactions are common and normal and that pain fades as the years pass.
  • Preparing for episodes of grief. Knowing that you’re likely to experience anniversary reactions can help you understand them and even turn them into opportunities for healing.
  • Looking for healing opportunities. You might find yourself dreading upcoming special days, fearful of being overwhelmed by painful memories and emotions. In some cases, the anticipation can be worse than the reality. In fact, you may find that you work through some of your grief as you cope with the stress and anxiety of approaching reminders.
  • Reminiscing about the relationship you had with the person who died. Try to focus on the good things about the relationship and the time you had together, rather than the loss.
  • Planning a distraction like taking a weekend away or planning a visit with friends or relatives.
  • Starting a new tradition in your loved one’s memory. For example, make a donation to a charitable organization in the person’s name on birthdays or holidays, or plant a tree in honor of your loved one.
  • Tuning out. Limit your exposure to news reports about tragic events if you become more anxious, sad or distressed.
  • Connecting with others. Draw family members and friends close to you, rather than avoiding them. Find someone who encourages you to talk about your loss. Stay connected to your usual support systems, such as spiritual leaders and social groups. Consider joining a bereavement support group.
  • Allowing yourself to feel sadness and a sense of loss. But also give yourself permission to experience joy and happiness as you celebrate special times. As you do so, you might find yourself both laughing and crying.
  • Attend a memorial. You may find it healing to attend a public memorial service or ceremony that marks the anniversary of tragedies, disasters and other events that claimed lives. These kinds of ceremonies can help draw people together and allow you to share experiences with others who feel similarly.

When Grief Becomes Overly Intense or Painful

The normal symptoms of grief gradually start to fade within six months or so. In some cases, though, your grief may get worse over time instead of better, or it may last for years.

In these cases, you may no longer be simply grieving. Your grief may have progressed into a medical disorder, such as:

  • Depression
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Complicated grief

If your grief interferes with your ability to function in your daily life, see your doctor, primary care provider or mental health provider for evaluation and possible treatment.

The Five Stages of Grief

Denial and Isolation. At first, we tend to deny the loss has taken place, and may withdraw from our usual social contacts. This stage may last a few moments, or longer.

Anger. The grieving person may then be furious at the person who inflicted the hurt (even if the person is dead), or at the world, for letting it happen. He may be angry with himself for letting the event take place, even if, realistically, nothing could have stopped it.

Bargaining. Now the grieving person may make bargains with God, asking, “If I do this, will you take away the loss?”

Depression. The person feels numb, although anger and sadness may remain underneath.

Acceptance. This is when the anger, sadness and mourning have tapered off. The person simply accepts the reality of the loss.

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