A Psychologist’s Advice for Coping the First Time You Lose a Family Member


It’s estimated that in the time it took you to read this sentence, four people died (about two people per second). With death, it’s a matter of when and how, not if, it will come. However, despite its inevitability, it remains one of life’s harshest realities. No matter how distant it might feel during a person’s younger years, death finds each of us—often, for the time, in the loss of a loved one.

Emotions will be strong.

At any age, losing a loved one is a traumatic experience. As co-author of Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens and Resilient Builder Program for Children and Adolescents, Mary Alvord is familiar with such loss among young persons. “There is a great range of emotions one might feel,” she explains.

Often, shock is the first emotion to hit. The person might feel trapped a surreal “fog”. Dr. Alvord also notes that “there is a mind-body connection”, so “much grief can be felt in physiological sensations.” Muscles might tense up, stomachs might be unsettled, breathing may be hard, chests might tighten, and heads might hurt. Dr. Alvord cites the work of Dr. Kubler-Ross and Mr. Kessler in identifying a few possible stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, and finding meaning.

Nevertheless, Dr. Alvord emphasizes that these stages are no more than “guideposts.” There is no specific timeline for when grieving people will experience them, and how grief is expressed can vary from person to person.

Each reaction will be unique.

Tufts University professor emeritus David Elkind agrees. He has spent a 64-year career studying healthy cognitive, perceptual, and social development among children and adolescents. “There are so many considerations,” he ponders.

How the loved one passed away is one major determinant of the young person’s reaction. Dr. Elkind explains by example: “If it was after a long illness, the family is prepared for the death” and has been able to “adjust to the idea of a loved one’s absence.” While such a death remains painful, it is “far less stressful than a sudden unexpected death”, in which “guilt over recent arguments” and lack of closure might compound the person’s grief.

The person’s relationship with the deceased is also impactful. “If it was not a good relationship,” Dr. Elkind says, the person “may well feel much guilt and depression for having said or done something they cannot undo.”

Moreover, when individuals are deeply attached to a loved one, their grief is often amplified. Dr. Elkind describes how certain persons may be “more attached to one parent than another” and consequently “feel the loss more strongly,” regardless of whether they’ve experienced a loved one’s death before.

With “so many variables in play,” Dr Elkind concludes, “it is hard to generalize” a person’s response to their first loss, or to any loss for that matter.

Express yourself and share your sorrow.

Facing your feelings is key to coping with the loss of a loved one. Dr. Alvord reminds sufferers to be kind to themselves. “It’s okay to experience many feelings, including guilt, sadness, anger, and fear,” she says, “It’s important to talk about them rather than stifle them.” The more complicated the relationship with the deceased, she warns, the more conflicted your emotions might be and the more important it becomes to express them in healthy ways.

“Talk about your emotions,” Dr. Alvord counsels, “talk about your loved one.” Sharing how you feel with sympathetic friends and family is therapeutic when dealing with the loss of a loved one.

Dr. Elkind cites support groups as one of the biggest aids in recovery, observing that “the larger the support group, the more the grief is spread out and the less it is felt individually.”

Both Drs. Alvord and Elkind encourage sufferers to focus on the happy memories they’ve shared with their departed loved one. “Focus on the good about the person you love and remember that you will always keep them in your heart and memory,” says Dr. Alvord.

Take the right fork in the road of emotion.

While expressing emotion is natural and healthy, there is a point at which it becomes damaging. “Sometimes people turn their sorrow into unhealthy thought patterns,” Dr. Alvord laments.

Brooding over the “negative” aspects of their relationship with the deceased is a common mistake that people fall into. For healing to occur, it’s important to keep a balanced perspective “so that anger and guilt don’t dominate.”

Care for yourself.

Abusing drugs or alcohol might temporarily numb the pain, but it only sets the individual on a self-destructive cycle. In caring for oneself during a time of grief, Dr. Alvord urges sufferers to remember that “everyone’s”—including their own—”life is important and valued by many.”

“Make sure you get sleep, eat properly, and don’t isolate yourself,” Dr. Alvord advises. Your loss is not your end. “When your thoughts become unrealistic, ask yourself what other possibilities exist.”

It’s normal to feel acute pain for up to six months after a loved one’s death. However, if intense grief persists beyond this point, or if it interferes with your life, you should seek professional guidance.

With care, you can heal and grow.

Each time death claims a loved one, the world is changed—in a way innocent minds cannot fathom until they have lived through it. Although the pain you feel at the loss of a loved one never entirely resolves, the intensity of your emotions will calm as time passes. “It doesn’t mean you honor the person any less,” assures Dr. Alvord. Rather, it’s a sign of healing.

Although we cannot turn back time, “we never forget those we love.”

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