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Man feeling emotional pain from grief

The Grief Experience: Emotional Pain

Suggestions on how to manage your emotional pain following the death of a loved one.

The pain of grief can be all-consuming and overwhelming. It can hijack us out of the blue and pull us under a metaphorical tidal wave. Emotions may be conflicting, confusing, and entangled with each other, so we may experience the pain of loss but also feelings of despair, hopelessness, anger, guilt, isolation, fear, and more, all at the same time. It is important to make time to engage with our emotional pain following the loss of a loved one so that it does not hijack us when we are unprepared or leave us disconnected from our feelings, life, others, and ourselves.

Here are some ways to navigate through the emotional pain of grief:

Set a time limit – It is crucial to make space for our feelings in our time of grief. Observe what feelings come up, how they feel in your body, and what they mean to you. You can sit with them or write about them if that helps you to focus more. Set a time limit that feels manageable in your day for connecting with your emotional pain. It can be 5 minutes, 15 minutes, half an hour, or an hour. When the alarm goes off, finish up on a soothing activity, for example breathing exercise or a hot shower, and gently disconnect from this space. Staying with this structured reflection time can be challenging at the start, but with practice our brains learn that we will give our pain deliberate attention and space, and that reduces the need for our emotions to break forward unexpectedly. Emotional pain will feel more manageable over time this way. 

Be gentle – Grief is a period in which to be gentle with yourself and practice self-compassion. The loss of a loved one is a trauma to our whole system. Our brain’s main purpose is to keep us alive, and we have evolved to connect with other people to enhance our likelihood of safety and survival. Thus, death in particular can trigger deep survival instincts and fears. We may feel abandoned, unsafe, or lost without our loved one. We may fear for our own lives. All of this is exhausting for the body. Make time for yourself to rest and be gentle in your self-talk.

Engage in soothing activities – Emotional grief can feel like the only thing that will make it better is getting the person we have lost back. It can feel like they have been ripped from us and we have lost a chunk of ourselves in that process. It is crucial to look after yourself and engage in activities that feel naturally calming, soothing, safe, or otherwise good. That can include massages to help stimulate oxytocin and the vagus nerve system, going out with friends or family, indulging in your favourite music, connecting with nature, or doing something creative or playful.

Remember that mourning is not a linear process – Some days we may feel better and think we are out of the thick of it, before something triggers a memory that pulls us back under. That is not a set-back, this is how mourning works. We may go up and down in our mood, feel calm only to suddenly feel overwhelmed. This is all a normal part of grief. It can help to practice mindful awareness of how we are feeling, and engage with both the positive and negative emotions without judgment. 

Engage in Creativity – Sometimes, there are no words for the emotional pain of grief. We may struggle to express how it feels inside us because we cannot describe it or find a fitting label. It can help to instead use art to connect with our pain and allow it to flow into something creative. Pick colours intuitively that feel like they reflect your inner world, use your hands to sculpt guided by emotion, sing notes that vibrate through you, or move to music in a way that feels right. Grief is a full body experience, so allow your full body to heal and recover. 

Article written by Dr Esslin Terrighena

If you have experienced loss and would like some guidance through the grieving process, please book a consultation by calling (852) 2521 4668 or email [email protected].

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