Grief & Loss: Coping with Loss of a Loved One

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2019

Watching a loved one slowly change due to Alzheimer’s disease is hard for loved ones and caregivers. The nature of Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias is such that many family members and friends experience grief and stress while the person is still living – in fact, caregivers for those with Alzheimer’s disease experience a level of stress in caregiving before the person dies that is equal to or more than the stress in bereavement.1 The grief associated with a disease like Alzheimer’s disease can involve anticipatory grief prior to actual bodily death, and grief at all of the losses the disease incurs – the loss of their former personality, their abilities, their memories, and so forth.

What is grief?

Grief is a natural reaction to loss, and is both universal and personal at the same time.2 It is a strong feeling for people, whether it’s grief about a diagnosis or grief about a physical death. People can grieve over the loss of a job, a pet, a relationship, life changes, or deaths – experiences can differ depending on the situation and person, but the feelings of sometimes overwhelming sadness are real and normal. Grief is not linear or static, but fluid: it can come and go, even over years, although the intensity can change over time.

Grieving and mourning are normal, but if it interferes with life to the point of impairing the ability to function or do daily activities, it might be time to seek professional assistance. A counselor can be very helpful in helping navigate grief and mourning, especially when the loss has been compounded over time by a progressive disease like Alzheimer’s.

Coping strategies

Grief and loss are hard, and it can be tempting to ignore it as best as possible, but that’s not a healthy way to cope. Nothing is easy about the loss of a loved one, but there are strategies that can help make things a little less difficult:3,4

  • Face your feelings: feel whatever it is that is necessary to feel; there is no right or wrong way to feel about this
  • Grief is cyclical and ebbs and flows, the grief and feelings of loss will come and go
  • Don’t isolate yourself: get together with a friend for coffee or a meal, or just spend time with others
  • Join a support group, either in-person or online (or both!)
  • Don’t make any major life changes, give yourself time to adequately grieve
  • Take care of your mental and physical health, and see a doctor regularly to ensure health and wellness
  • Accept the things that you have control over
  • Know that not everyone will understand grief or your grieving process
  • Seek outside help when needed; talking to a trained professional can be beneficial
  • Talk with clergy or congregation leaders
  • Pray or meditate
  • Some find reading books or memoirs on losing loved ones/grief to be helpful

Losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s disease is hard, and the grieving process may have started well before your loved one passed away – this is normal. Grief and mourning don’t look the same for everyone, and everyone deals with loss in their own ways. If grief starts to interfere with everyday activities or functioning, talk with a doctor about finding additional support and counseling. Loss is difficult, but it’s important to be in the present moment and live life, as well.

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