Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : October 2005

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WORK/LIFE
SUPPORT

MSBA Lawyer Assistance Program

"Grief: How to Cope with Loss"
By Carol P. Waldhauser

As an older law student; Jean did not complete her legal education and go on to practice law as planned. Ironically, just as Jean was about to reach her goals, she derailed. Within a two-year period, she experienced numerous losses (i.e., the diagnosis and subsequent death of her future law partner, the emotional dealings with care-giving to both her mother and her best friend; the loss of her job, empty-nest syndrome; the loss of financial security, etc.). Jean said that she “cried and cried” with each of these losses. Unfortunately, Jean soon employed negative coping skills to deal with these losses.

Just think about the losses that you have experienced in the past, as well as those that you are currently going through. Like Jean, they might include (but are not be limited to) the death of a loved one, loss of a pet, empty nest, divorce, loss of a job (or your professional license), retirement, illness – even moving from one house to another. No matter what person, place or thing, a loss usually means pain. As human beings, this pain due to loss – any loss – generally results in grief. Accordingly, there are different degrees of loss and pain, although the stages of grieving are often similar.

What is Grief?
Grief is the way we feel when we lose a person, place or thing. It involves mixed emotions, such as sorrow, anger, shock and fear. Grief is not a disease; rather, grief is a process – the process of dealing with the emotions that are a direct result of experiencing a loss.

Unfortunately, we cannot know how a particular loss is going to feel until that loss actually occurs. One of our first reactions is to shut down. In other words, we react to our loss with shock, numbness and disbelief. This reaction cushions us from overwhelming feelings during the first hours or even weeks. How long it takes an individual to come out of his/her numbness to the loss depends on the individual circumstances surrounding each loss.

At some point, however, the individual realizes that the loss is real. As the numbness wears off, he or she begins to realize what the loss is going to mean. This explains why many individuals feel worse after a few months have gone by. The reality of this loss starts to sink in. Generally, the most difficult grieving starts at this point because the support received immediately after the loss has tapered off.

Still, we must allow ourselves to experience the pain of our loss in all of its forms. There are no shortcuts through the pain. We can “stuff down” feelings and delay grieving, but the grief will not diminish until we travel through it by experiencing it fully.

Some common emotions and behaviors that comprise the pain of grief include:

bullet Anger
bullet Cannot eat/overeat
bullet Cannot sleep/over sleep
bullet Crying
bullet Denial
bullet Disbelief
bullet Guilt
bullet Inability to think straight
bullet Mood swings
bullet Numbness
bullet Resentment
bullet Sadness
bullet Shock
bullet Tiredness

Whether your loss is that of a loved one, a marriage, a pet, a job, or even a license, dealing with these emotions is intense and complex. Furthermore, this journey cannot be traveled overnight. To travel successfully through our emotions (grief), we need to take an active role in our own healing processes. Accordingly, it helps to understand how human beings respond to loss and whether or not our feelings and reactions are normal.

The Stages of Grief

bullet n Stage 1 is shock. In other words, the individual normally cannot believe that he or she has incurred the loss. During this stage, the individual usually experiences the following signs: numbness, disbelief, emptiness, disconnection, lack of stamina and isolation.
bullet n Stage 2 is hurt. Generally, the individual actually feels the hurt in this stage. Subsequently, the hurt often develops into pain and emotional turmoil. More specifically, the individual experiences one or more of the following: anger, bitterness, guilt, sadness, depression, loneliness, panic and/or hopelessness.
bullet n Stage 3 is often referred to as the “stuck” stage. In other words, an individual may believe that nothing is worthwhile. The individual may become further isolated, fearful, insecure, disorganized, lethargic, blue, exhausted and dispirited.
bullet n Stage 4 is acceptance and affirmation. Very slowly, change has taken place and a new life is not only accepted but also affirmed. Put simply, the individual is ready to go on with life.

The Correct Way to Cope with Grief
First and foremost, there is no right or wrong way to deal with the emotions of loss – only your unique way. Similarly, there are differences about grieving. Men and women may grieve differently. Men tend to hold feelings inside, feel responsible and keep busy, while women tend to show their emotions, may experience flashbacks of the loss; and usually seek support from others. Whatever the different, be it cultural or gender-based, your way of coping with the emotions resulting from the loss may be positive or negative.

Unfortunately, Jean chose the latter way of initially dealing with her losses, using wine to take away the pain that she felt. It worked at first, though she did not consider that she was high-risk for the potential for abuse and/or dependence. Clearly a more positive way would have been to allow herself to experience the pain of her losses, in all of its forms.

Because grieving is like a roller coaster – one day you may feel up, the next down – here are some positive ways to cope with a loss:

bullet Allow yourself time to grieve
bullet Accept that you will have bad days and good days
bullet Don’t let others tell you how you should feel; it is different for everyone
bullet Use a support system. Let family and friends help you. Tell them what you need; it is okay
bullet Do positive things that bring you comfort
bullet Move a muscle; change a mood – walk
bullet Let your feelings out, such as through talking, crying, praying or writing
bullet Try not to get caught up in thinking
bullet Don’t play the “if only” or “I wish I had” game
bullet Grow in a positive direction
bullet Seek professional counseling
bullet Eat plenty of good food
bullet Limit use of alcohol, caffeine and sugar
bullet Get enough of rest
bullet See your doctor.

Other Helpful Tips for Coping with Loss

bullet Give yourself time before making important decisions
bullet Wait before moving or selling a house until you are sure what is best for you
bullet Get involved with a charity or organization
bullet Try a new hobby or take a class
bullet Join a support group or locate a chat group on the Internet
bullet Read books on loss and coping (sometimes it helps to know that you are not alone).

Remember: in life, loss is inevitable. It is up to us to use positive coping skills to deal with the change that arises from a loss. Going through the stages above and using most of the aforementioned tools allow hope to break through the dark clouds. Slowly, new life incorporates both the loss and the change, and we have the stamina to go on.

For more information about coping with loss or with reference to any other work/life topic, call or e-mail Carol Waldhauser, Assistant Director of the MSBA Lawyer Assistance Program, at (410) 685-7878 or (800) 492-1964, ext. 3041, or e-mail cwaldhauser@msba.org.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: October 2005

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