Highlights:

  • Dealing with the death of a friend or family member can lead to a variety of emotional responses
  • Grief is an important part of the recovery process
  • Though they may not make the process easier, there are ways to help manage grief, including counseling, creative outlets, and more

The loss of a family member or friend is not easy. Colon and rectal cancers are a leading cause of cancer related death in the United States, which means that there are many loved ones facing loss. But it doesn’t stop with close friends and family either, as we all know, the cancer community has a strong hold on the social media landscape.

Logging on to Facebook can be hard because we’re never sure what challenges people will be posting about. And sometime, we open the app only to see that someone we knew, was close to, or someone who left a kind comment in the past, has passed away. Seeing this can elicit a response–sadness, despair, anger. And grief isn’t linear, it can come in waves, it can pass and then return. Even when you think you are ‘better’, you may find yourself grieving again.

We talked to Ali Schaffer, a licensed clinical social worker from Nashville, Tenn., to learn more about grief and how to manage.

Q: When a friend/family member dies of cancer, what could be some typical emotional responses to be aware of, and what are some recommendations of how to manage them?

Some common emotional responses to the death of a friend/family member can include:
anger, sadness, relief, peace, denial, numbness, depression, resentment, shock, guilt, fear, disbelief, despair, loneliness, and anxiety.

Individual responses to death and expressions of grief and loss are personal and may be impacted by factors such as the relationship to the deceased, circumstances surrounding the death, previous experiences with loss. The timeline of emotional response varies and there is no set schedule in which people experience the emotions associated with death of a loved one.

Even though it may be incredibly painful or uncomfortable, a willingness to fully experience the emotions of loss is an important part of the grieving, healing, and recovery process. It’s not about getting over the loss, instead it is about moving through it, learning to live with it and ultimately, integrating the experience of loss into your life versus getting stuck in the experience of grief.

It can be helpful and important to talk about (or journal) your feelings and experiences with others; could be family, friends, a support group, or a licensed counselor. Additionally, taking care of yourself (rest, food, exercise) is critical to managing the short and long-term responses of grief.

Q: After the loss of a friend/family member, waves of grief can come and go over time. How can someone deal with ebb and flow?

Grief is an ever-changing, dynamic experience that impacts emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being and often unfolds in waves, surfacing at both anticipated times (anniversaries, birthdays) and at unexpected times (a “random” Monday, traveling to new places).

Grief is unpredictable, very personal and each person expresses their grief differently, although there are common themes and milestones. It’s a process of acceptance and adjustment that occurs over time. It is helpful to accept that the experience of grief will change as well as come and go over time and this is a reflection of the healing and recovery process. Over time, most people experience a change in the intensity and frequency of waves of grief and an increase in their capacity to navigate the waves and to live with and through grief.

It can be helpful to stay connected with your support system, practice consistent self-care, and increase self-care when navigating new phases of grief. And, to allow your needs to change overtime–what was helpful in the initial stages of grief may not be helpful later on.

Q: What can you share about creative outlets and recovery from loss?

For many people, words are not enough to fully experience, process, and support the personal recovery from loss. There are many creative outlets to facilitate and personalize the recovery process and help you to feel engaged in the healing process.

You are a unique individual and you can leverage your interests, coping styles, and curiosity to help you express feelings and memories through different mediums and activities. Be willing to try new things and have new experiences that may offer insight into your feelings and create opportunities to develop and connect to parts of yourself that are changing/changed as a result of the loss.

Some examples include:

  • Creative Expression: This might be done alone, in a class, or with a group of people and may include journaling, art-making, photography, dancing, videos, etc.
  • Engage in Ritual: Can be a meaningful way to honor the loss and the relationship or history shared, or to maintain the memory of your loved one as well as the acknowledge the changes occurring in your life related to loss. This ould include: visiting their favorite place and lighting a candle in their honor, preparing their favorite meal and inviting loved ones to gather with you, writing a letter to your loved one to express your feelings, or planting a tree in their honor.
  • Commit to a Task or Project in Their Honor: This may include running a 5k, volunteering (when you’re emotionally ready), taking a new class, or completing a project you were working on together.
  • Try new things: A willingness to have new experiences can be an important step and milestone in moving forward and learning to live with loss. This can include taking a class, starting a new project, getting a new job, or even just trying new foods.

What are some ways you have managed grief? Comment in the comment box below!

Ali Schaffer is a licensed clinical social worker with a private counseling practice in Nashville, TN and provides individual and group therapy for adults navigating life transitions, coping with health challenges and desiring to live more fully. Connect with Ali over on IG @alischaffercounseling or alischafferlcsw@gmail.com

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