A Balanced Approach to Coping With Life After Loss

When coping with grief, it’s logical to prioritize managing the distressing thoughts and emotions that have become a part of your life since your loved one’s death. This makes sense for a number of reasons. Chief among them the fact that painful grief emotions stink.

The need to focus specifically on the loss and manage corresponding emotions is echoed in many of the most popular grief theories. Especially those that formed around the “grief work hypothesis”, which says that in order to come to terms with loss, one has to engage in ongoing efforts to confront the death of their loved one.  You may recognize these theories by their “stages”, “tasks”, and “phases”. This is obviously an oversimplified explanation, but for those who are interested, we have an entire section on grief theory.

Anyway, I’m not here to refute existing grief models or the need to confront the loss and cope with difficult emotion. I absolutely know these things are a crucial part of coping with grief.  However, when conceptualizing coping with grief I like to take a step back and look at the bigger picture of what it means to cope with life after loss.

Since we’re already talking about grief theory, I’d like to mention one more grief model — The Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement (DPM). This model as put forth in 1999 by theorists Stroebe and Schut in response to perceived shortcomings in the prevailing grief work hypothesis models.

Briefly, the DPM describes the ways people cope with the loss of a close person. Coping, according to the DPM, happens in the context of everyday life and focuses on loss- and restoration-oriented stressors. Here’s how it breaks down:

  • Loss-orientated stressors: Refer to the processing of the loss itself and may involve yearning and rumination about the deceased, memories of the past, thoughts about the death, etc.  A person copes with loss-orientated stressors on-and-off in an ongoing way over time. 
  • Restoration-orientated stressors: Refer to the attention one must give to adjusting to changes and secondary losses. These might include taking on new roles, dealing with finances, and adjusting one’s identity to accommodate a new reality (Stroebe & Schut, 1999).
  • Oscillation: An important part of the DPM is “oscillation” which refers to shifting back and forth between loss-oriented and restoration-oriented stressors AND occasional “confrontation-avoidance”. Under this model, a useful and adaptive part of grief is taking a break and seeking respite from grief, as long as the avoidance isn’t extreme or persistent.

So now that you have a very basic understanding of the DPM, here’s what we like about it as it relates to coping with life after a loss:

  1. It acknowledges that grief is an ongoing process that one has to learn to live with.  There isn’t an ultimate resolution, an endpoint, or a return to ‘normal’. Grief requires coping and adjusting on a day-to-day basis.
  2. It acknowledges the impact of secondary losses and secondary stressors. As well as the reality that a grieving person must spend almost as much time coping with these stressors, as they do coping with the actual loss.
  3. It acknowledges that taking a break from grief and occasional grief suppression/avoidance can be adaptive and useful for grieving people. (If you want to know the difference between occasional avoidance and chronic, maladaptive avoidance, read this article).

WYG Conceptualization of Coping

While many people think coping with life after loss is only about confronting and coping with difficult grief emotions, we believe that coping encapsulates anything that helps you feel better and gives you a boost of positive emotion.  Following what we’ve learned from the DPM, it’s important to find ways to cope with the thoughts, experiences, and emotions directly related to the loss. However, it’s also equally important to engage in coping that promotes adjustment and overall well-being (‘taking a break’ type coping)

We conceptualize coping as big things like seeing a therapist or small things like making time to play with your kids, walking your dog, or to reading for a half an hour.  Our rationale is that the better you feel, the more strength you’ll have for dealing with grief.  Even though you may not immediately realize it, there is a lot of overlap between well-being coping and loss-related coping. The coping that you use to deal with loss will ultimately increase your sense of well-being, while much of the coping that you use to simply feel better will also help you cope with a loss.

What do you mean by ‘well-being coping’?

We are going to define well-being coping using the framework of positive psychology’s well-being theory.  This theory is outlined in the book Flourish by Martin Seligman. It is a detailed theory that we’re going to distil down for the purposes of this discussion.

Well-being is both the subjective experience of feeling good and also the very real experience of experiencing meaning in your life, healthy relationships, and a sense of personal accomplishment. Basically, well-being theory says that there are five elements that work together to contribute to personal well-being.

Elements of well-being:

(1) Positive Emotions: Even though you may feel far from having a positive view of life, there are things you can do to generally increase positive emotion. For example, you can:

  • Assess whether your current outlook is excessively negative.
  • Give yourself permission to feel positive emotion.
  • Ask yourself: What types of things do I enjoy? What makes me laugh? What makes me feel hope and optimism? What creative outlets do I enjoy? What makes me feel intellectually stimulated? 
  • Do more of these things.

(2) Engagement: Engagement is concerned with activities that allow you to experience a sense of “flow”.  If you aren’t familiar with “flow”, the below video explains it well.

Engagement encapsulates activities that fully absorb you in the present moment, grabbing your whole focus, and creating the sense that time is flying by. What a person considers engaging depends on the individual and can include things like sports, music, cooking, photography, woodworking, reading, crossword puzzles…you name it.  Whatever activities feel most engaging to you – do more of them!

(3) Relationships: People are social animals and, regardless of whether you identify as an introvert or extrovert, you need social connection.  Identify your support system and nurture these relationships.  If you find that your social support is lacking, reach out and get connected with those in your community.

(4) Meaning: Meaning speaks to a person’s purpose in life. Unfortunately, this is one area that is particularly impacted by grief and loss. That said, this area may become redefined as you cope directly with your grief-related emotions and experiences. Coping that may be helpful in enhancing a sense of meaning and/or guiding the search for meaning include:

  • Journaling
  • Reading
  • Connecting with your faith
  • Gratitude journaling
  • Talking through things with a counselor, friend, or support group
  • Volunteering (perhaps with a cause your loved one supported)
  • Advocacy (perhaps related to your loved one’s death)

(5) Accomplishments: Accomplishments refer to personal achievements that give you a sense of satisfaction and pride. These don’t necessarily have to coincide with outward accolades, awards, or titles, although they can. Something can be considered an accomplishment if it simply gives you a feeling of gratification knowing you succeeded, survived, or finished. Your accomplishments and what you would like to accomplish is very specific to you. However, as we discussed earlier this week, I hope that you will view the progress you’ve made in grief as an accomplishment.

July 14, 2017

4 responses on "A Balanced Approach to Coping With Life After Loss"

  1. Bravo! A helpful and concise roundup of evidence-based bereavement grief coping strategies. Nice work!

  2. Ironically, I’m just now reading this after sort of “taking a break” from intense grieving. I haven’t read many of your grief theory articles, but this one really rings true for me. Thank you- your site is always so helpful.

  3. What if one is in the midst of a grief process, and then experiences severe professional set-backs, and then realizes that even after 3 years, one is totally susceptible to professional set-backs and grief, and they become self-defining?

    • Elizabeth, I am 3 years in and also still struggling. I don’t have a good answer, just wanted you to know you aren’t the only one. I am thinking I need a change in my work. This article was helpful in defining a process.

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