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Here Are Healthy (and Unhealthy) Ways to Cope When You Lose a Loved One, According to a Therapist
Here are five productive strategies to help work through grief, and five destructive behaviors to look out for, according to family therapist Dr. Paul Hokemeyer.
The Real Housewives of New York City's Bethenny Frankel was triggered by Luann de Lesseps' teasing of Tinsley Mortimer for slurring her words — and Bethenny tearfully continues to elaborate as to why she's so sensitive to Luann's comments (and in general) after Dennis Shields' death last August from an overdose. (Watch the emotional moment, and the ladies discuss their concern for Bethenny, in the After Show clip above.)
We saw something similar when Jax Taylor and Lala Kent both struggled after losing their fathers — the Vanderpump Rules cast put any past differences aside to rally around each of them to show their support, and the tragedy even brought the two closer together. (See for yourself in the After Show clip here.) And, the same holds true for their support for their boss Lisa Vanderpump after her brother Mark's death.
As it turns out, being that supportive ear, shoulder and voice is a great place to start if you find yourself in a similar situation. Personal Space reached out to family therapist Dr. Paul Hokemeyer to learn about healthy coping strategies and how to help friends going through these same situations.
According to Dr. Hokemeyer, “when we lose a parent [in particular], we lose a part of ourselves” and “this is true regardless of whether we were extremely close to them or distant from them.” Losing a parent is a “very primal experience” that we are going to react to on both the conscious and unconscious levels of our being. Therefore, Dr. Hokemeyer explains that “it’s important to be hyper aware of our reactions and not dismiss, discount or get stuck in them.”
Here are five healthy strategies to help work through grief:
Writing is a wonderful way to discharge our negative thoughts and feelings out into the world. Even five minutes a day, preferably in the morning before you get out of bed, will help you begin your day with clarity and focus.
Physical activity causes our bodies to produce what are known as endogenous opioids. These are hormones like serotonin and dopamine that help fill us with a sense of well-being.
Americans spend too much time walking around with earbuds in their ears and not nearly enough time hugging. In the 90 days after the death of your parent, make a conscious decision to hug and be hugged. The act of hugging causes our body to release oxytocin, the hormone that soothes and comforts us.
4. Staring at the wall
Just sitting still and looking out the window is incredibly beneficial in processing grief. When we are in a state of discomfort, we've been taught we need to do something about it. With grief, however, we just need to sit with it and allow it to have its process.
5. Joining a grief support group
While we may feel profoundly alone in our grief, we're not. Death and dying is part of every living organism's cycle. Being a part of a community of people who have gone through and are in various stages of the grieving process is incredibly beneficial to you — and to them.
On the other end of the spectrum Dr. Hokemeyer described unhealthy behaviors, which should be avoided as coping mechanisms.
Here are five destructive behaviors to look out for:
1. Eating our emotions
The nurturing and comfort we get from food is similar to the nurturing and comfort we got from our parents. Also many foods are associated with our childhood, therefore it’s very easy to find yourself eating to soothe your emotions.
2. Numbing out with drugs and alcohol
The loss of a parent is jarring, intense and exhausting. Drugs and alcohol provide an immediate fix that temporarily takes the edges off of the experience.
The loss of a parent makes our world feel unsafe and chaotic. Spending money, enables us to quantify these feelings. (e.g., "I feel sad, so this $2,000 Louis Vuitton will make me feel better.") Unfortunately, like the temporary relief we get from drugs and alcohol, shopping to make ourselves feel better only compounds the problem in the long run.
4. Sleeping too much
Sleeping is a great from of escape. And while it certainly has health benefits and helps us process the enormity of our emotions, sleeping too much will only make us feel worse about ourselves and the situation.
5. Cutting off important people in our lives
Healing occurs best in a community of others. The key is to allow those others into our lives. When we are processing grief, we feel raw and vulnerable. These feelings will make us want to push people away.
According to Dr. Hokemeyer, a good way to help someone who is grieving is by “providing a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on.” He explains that it is “important for friends to be aware that every parent-child relationship is unique,” and everyone grieves any loss differently. Therefore, instead of offering advice or analysis of their situation, it’s better to provide your friend with a “nonjudgmental ear.”