You may feel a range of strong emotions, such as sadness, anger, relief, guilt or anxiety. Sometimes people are overwhelmed by the strength of their feelings or find that their mood changes quickly and often. These are common ways of coping with loss. How your body responds to grief can also affect your emotions.
Learn more about:
- Coping with your emotions
- Shock and numbness
- Depression and despair
- Guilt and regret
- Fear and anxiety
- Tips for coping with your emotions
Coping with your emotions
Try to use the coping strategies that have worked for you in the past. Remembering how you have coped with other difficult situations may help you feel more able to cope now with your emotions. Or you may find that your usual ways of coping are not helpful with your current loss, and you need to find other coping strategies. Explaining how you are feeling to family and friends can help them understand what you’re going through.
People who tend to adjust well to difficult or challenging situations (resilience) often find that they show this quality after a loss. This doesn’t mean they are not grieving, but that they already have coping strategies.
Shock and numbness
When someone dies, you may feel nothing at first. This may be because you can’t believe it’s true, you’re still in shock or you’re protecting yourself from the enormity of what’s just happened. It may feel like the person who died will suddenly walk through the door again.
This numbness can be helpful during the first days and weeks after a loss, when you need to focus on practical arrangements, such as planning and attending the funeral. Don’t feel you have to push yourself past this emotional numbness. For most people, it will start to change in a few days or weeks, although it may return from time to time. The reality of your loss may be more deeply felt as time passes.
You may feel like the sadness will never go away. You may long to see the person so much you don’t know what to do with yourself. You may cry, or you may feel unable to cry, even though you are terribly sad. If you release emotions with crying, you may find it hard to stop crying, with tears sometimes coming when you least expect them.
This could mean you avoid going out because you can’t predict or control the crying. While this is understandable, it’s a good idea to try and gradually do some outings where possible.
I knew he was going to die, but nothing prepared me for the depth of my sadness when he did. Even though I was surrounded by family, I felt so very alone.Vanessa
Depression and despair
When the reality of the loss sinks in, you may find your sadness overwhelming or feel like your life has lost meaning. A loss of enjoyment in life and a lack of direction are common.
If you have continued feelings of sadness, have trouble getting up in the morning or have lost motivation to do things that previously gave you pleasure, you may be experiencing depression. This is quite common.
Talk to your GP, because counselling or medicines – even for a short time – may help. You may be eligible for sessions with a psychologist. Cancer Council may also run a counselling program in your area.
Many people feel anger when they are grieving. And you may find it comes and goes. You may feel angry with your god, with the person who has died, and with yourself. You may also feel angry with the cancer, the reality of death, with those involved in caring for the person who died, with people living their lives as if nothing has happened – even the person behind you in the supermarket queue – or for no obvious reason. If the person died at a younger age, you may feel anger when you see other people who are well and happy because the person who died did not get the opportunity to live longer.
Finding ways to express your anger can help. This may include talking with a trusted friend or counsellor, doing physical activities such as gardening or exercise, listening to or playing music, getting creative, or joining a support group.
You may be surprised to feel relief that the person has died, and then guilt for feeling this way. The relief may be because they were unwell for a long time, they needed a lot of care or they had symptoms that were challenging, such as anger, irritability or changes to personality. Seeing someone in pain is hard, so it’s natural to feel relieved that they are no longer in pain. The relief may be that the inevitable has happened and that you’re no longer living in anticipation of their death.
If your relationship with the person was challenging or complicated, you may also feel relieved and a mix of other feelings such as sadness, anger or guilt at their loss. When a person dies, we are often expected to focus on their good points and not criticise them – but dealing with cancer is bound to show all sides of people. Try to remember that the person who died was human, with good and bad traits.
Guilt and regret
You may feel guilt or regret for various reasons, including for the:
- way you behaved to the person in the past
- things you did or didn’t do
- decisions you made about their care
- things you left unsaid.
Try to remember that no-one is perfect, especially when dealing with the stresses involved in caring for someone with cancer. Remind yourself that you tried your best, often in difficult circumstances.
Sometimes people feel guilty when they find themselves joking and laughing, feeling happy at times, or getting on with life. But it is normal to experience a range of emotions as you learn to live with the loss – it doesn’t mean that you didn’t care about the person or that your grief is not genuine. Light-hearted or joyful moments can help to counter the lack of control that grief can bring and help you release some of the physical tension that often comes with grief.
Fear and anxiety
People often become very fearful when they have a major loss in their life. You may be afraid of what the future holds and how you will cope, worry about other people you love, or fear for your own health. You may be anxious about how you’ll cope with tasks you’ve not done before, such as finances, cooking or parenting. You may find yourself worrying about things that were no trouble to you before, such as going for a walk, doing the shopping or going back to work.
If you find that your fear or worry is affecting your ability to do your usual roles and routines, or is causing you enduring and severe distress, it might be worth seeking support.
Podcast: Coping with Grief
A/Prof Lisa Beatty, Associate Professor in Clinical Psychology and Consulting Clinical Psychologist, Flinders University Institute of Mental Health and Wellbeing, SA; Sandra Anderson, Consumer; Dr Alexandra Clinch, Palliative Medicine Specialist and Deputy Director, Palliative Care, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Royal Melbourne Hospital, VIC; Christopher Hall, Chief Executive Officer, Grief Australia; Nathan MacArthur, Specialist Grief Counsellor and Accredited Mental Health Social Worker, Sydney Grief Counselling Services, NSW; Linda Magann, Clinical Nurse Consultant – Palliative Care, St George Hospital, NSW; Palliative Care Australia; Richard Upton, Consumer; Lesley Woods, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA.
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