Humans seek connection with others. Throughout our lives, we develop relationships that sustain and support us. When an important person in our life dies, the loss creates a gap that often leaves us feeling lost and unbalanced. This imbalance can create stress or tension as we attempt to move through a different life without that person.
We cannot change the fact that this loss occurred, but we can learn to adapt to it by regaining our footing and re-establishing balance as we find a way to move forward.
People cope with the stress from a life-changing experience in several ways. These ways of coping sometimes stay the same over time, while other ways change. Though people use whatever coping strategy makes sense to them at a particular time, some strategies can be more effective and healthier than others.
It’s important to find a healthy balance of coping activities that works best for you.
Researchers who study how people cope with stressful experiences have found that coping activities can usually be grouped into three types of strategies. Although the names of these types sometimes differ between research studies, they generally can be categorized as: active coping, support-seeking coping, and avoidant coping. People who are grieving might use one or more of these stress-management strategies as they regain balance in their lives.
Active coping: Working to control a stressor through appropriately-targeted behavior, embracing responsibility for resolving the situation using one’s available internal resources.
Support-seeking coping: Turning to others for emotional or practical support
Avoidant coping: Ignoring or not acknowledging what happened, trying not to think about it by avoiding reminders or by using alcohol or drugs, or trying to imagine that it didn’t have to happen by blaming yourself for circumstances related to the death
There is no right or wrong way to cope. Coping is most effective if the coping strategy is matched to the stressful situation. Different people cope in different ways and different strategies can be helpful depending on the situation. The coping strategy you use may change as you move through the grieving process. For example, avoidant strategies can be helpful in early grief, but they become problematic if they persist as a main coping strategy.
Researchers have suggested that the most effective coping requires a healthy balance of different types of coping. The ability to look forward and balance types of coping (coping flexibility) is associated with reduced risk of prolonged grief disorder (PGD). If you tend to use one type of strategy more than others and that strategy does not seem to help you, it might be important for you to try other ways of coping.
Most studies have found that active coping and supportive coping are helpful.
Active coping has been associated with less intense grief and less hopelessness, in addition to increased optimism and increased personal or posttraumatic growth.
Posttraumatic growth refers to a positive change that occurs after experiencing something stressful. Examples of posttraumatic growth can include: developing new interests, improving relationships with others, increasing self-reliance or personal strengths, experiencing spiritual changes, and appreciating life.
Supportive coping after bereavement has been associated with reduced anxiety, depression, suicidality, and PTSD. It has also been associated with increased personal growth. Supportive coping has sometimes been associated with reduced grief symptoms and prolonged grief disorder (PGD). There is no evidence suggesting that supportive coping is harmful or unhealthy.
Although grief is a natural response to loss, a small subset of people experience intense grief that persists and causes problems in their ability to function. Prolonged grief disorder (PGD) refers to this intense and persistent grief that interferes with daily life.
On the other hand . . .
Avoidant coping can be used in different ways. Sometimes it is a “timeout,” or a period that is not focused on grieving (laughter, focusing on other connections and rewarding activities). These can be positive distractions. As avoidance has been associated with lower grief severity in some circumstances, avoidant coping may be helpful, likely because it can allow you space and time to adapt.
But sometimes coping is focused on trying not to face the reality of a death and a person uses avoidant coping for a long time without other strategies. This can make it harder for a person to learn to live with a loss. In fact, avoidance of reminders of the loss is associated with difficulties in social, work, and daily functioning. A high level of avoidant coping following bereavement has also been associated with increased hopelessness and reduced optimism, and higher levels of grief, PTSD, mental distress, and depression.
That's why it’s important to minimize long-term avoidant coping by acknowledging and accepting the reality of the loss and learning how to handle the emotional pain and feelings of grief.