Caregiver Stress and Burnout
The demands of caregiving can be exhausting and overwhelming—especially if you feel that you’re in over your head or have little control over the situation. But there are steps you can take to rein in stress and regain a sense of balance, joy, and hope in your life.
What is caregiver burnout?
While caring for a loved one can be very rewarding, it also involves many stressors. And since caregiving is often a long-term challenge, the emotional impact can snowball over time. You may face years or even decades of caregiving responsibilities. It can be particularly disheartening when there’s no hope that your family member will get better or if, despite your best efforts, their condition is gradually deteriorating.
If the stress of caregiving is left unchecked, it can take a toll on your health, relationships, and state of mind—eventually leading to burnout, a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion. And when you get to that point, both you and the person you’re caring for suffer.
That’s why taking care of yourself isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. Cultivating your own emotional and physical well-being is just as important as making sure your family member gets to their doctor’s appointment or takes their medication on time.
Signs and symptoms of caregiver stress and burnout
Learning to recognize the signs of caregiver stress and burnout is important, so you can take immediate action to prevent things from becoming worse and start improving the situation for both you and the person you’re caring for.
Common signs and symptoms of caregiver stress
Anxiety, depression, irritability
Feeling tired and run down
Overreacting to minor nuisances
New or worsening health problems
Feeling increasingly resentful
Drinking, smoking, or eating more
Cutting back on leisure activities
Common signs and symptoms of caregiver burnout
You have much less energy than you once had
It seems like you catch every cold or bout of flu that’s going around
You’re constantly exhausted, even after sleeping or taking a break
You neglect your own needs, either because you’re too busy or you don’t care anymore
Your life revolves around caregiving, but it gives you little satisfaction
You have trouble relaxing, even when help is available
You’re increasingly impatient and irritable with the person you’re caring for
You feel helpless and hopeless
While caring for a loved one will never be stress-free, the following tips can help you to lighten the load, avoid the symptoms of caregiver burnout, and find more balance in your life.
Avoid caregiver burnout by feeling empowered
Feeling powerless is the number one contributor to burnout and depression. And it’s an easy trap to fall into as a caregiver, especially if you feel stuck in a role you didn’t expect or helpless to change things for the better. But no matter the situation, you aren’t powerless. This is especially true when it comes to your state of mind. You can’t always get the extra time, money, or physical assistance you’d like, but you can always get more happiness and hope.
Practice acceptance. When faced with the unfairness of a loved one’s illness or the burden of caregiving, there’s often a need to make sense of the situation and ask “Why?” But you can spend a tremendous amount of energy dwelling on things you can’t change and for which there are no clear answers. And at the end of the day, you won’t feel any better. Try to avoid the emotional trap of feeling sorry for yourself or searching for someone to blame.
Embrace your caregiving choice. Acknowledge that, despite any resentments or burdens you feel, you have made a conscious choice to provide care. Focus on the positive reasons behind that choice. Perhaps you provide care to repay your parent for the care they gave you growing up. Or maybe it’s because of your values or the example you want to set for your children. These deep, meaningful motivations can help sustain you through difficult times.
Look for the silver lining. Think about the ways caregiving has made you stronger or how it’s brought you closer to the person you’re taking care of or to other family members.
Don’t let caregiving take over your life. Since it’s easier to accept a difficult situation when there are other areas of your life that are rewarding, it’s important not to let caregiving take over your whole existence. Invest in things that give you meaning and purpose whether it’s your family, church, a favorite hobby, or your career.
Focus on the things you can control. You can’t wish for more hours in the day or force your brother to help out more. Rather than stressing out over things you can’t control, focus on how you choose to react to problems.
Celebrate the small victories. If you start to feel discouraged, remind yourself that all your efforts matter. You don’t have to cure your loved one’s illness to make a difference. Don’t underestimate the importance of making your loved one feel more safe, comfortable, and loved!
Get the appreciation you need
Feeling appreciated can go a long way toward not only accepting a stressful situation, but enjoying life more. Studies show that caregivers who feel appreciated experience greater physical and emotional health. Caregiving actually makes them happier and healthier, despite its demands. But what can you do if the person you’re caring for is no longer able to feel or show their appreciation for your time and efforts?
Imagine how your loved one would respond if they were healthy. If they weren’t preoccupied with illness or pain (or disabled by dementia), how would your loved one feel about the love and care you’re giving? Remind yourself that the person would express gratitude if they were able.
Applaud your own efforts. If you’re not getting external validation, find ways to acknowledge and reward yourself. Remind yourself of how much you are helping. If you need something more concrete, try making a list of all the ways your caregiving is making a difference. Refer back to it when you start to feel low.
Talk to a supportive family member or friend. Positive reinforcement doesn’t have to come from the person you’re caring for. When you’re feeling unappreciated, turn to friends and family who will listen to you and acknowledge your efforts.
Ask for caregiving help
Taking on all of the responsibilities of caregiving without regular breaks or assistance is a surefire recipe for caregiver burnout. Don’t try to do it all alone.
Look into respite care. Enlist friends and family who live near you to run errands, bring a hot meal, or watch the patient so you can take a well-deserved break. Volunteers or paid help can also provide in-home services, either occasionally or on a regular basis. Or you can explore out-of-home respite programs such as adult day care centers and nursing homes.
Speak up. Don’t expect friends and family members to automatically know what you need or how you’re feeling. Be up front about what’s going on with you and the person that you’re caring for. If you have concerns or thoughts about how to improve the situation, express them, even if you’re unsure of how they’ll be received. Start a dialogue.
Spread the responsibility. Try to get as many family members involved as possible. Even someone who lives far away can help. You may also want to divide up caregiving tasks. One person can take care of medical responsibilities, another with finances and bills, and another with groceries and errands, for example.
Set up a regular check-in. Ask a family member, friend, or volunteer from your church or senior center to call you at a regular time (daily, weekly, or as often as you think you need it). This person can help you spread status updates and coordinate with other family members.
Say “yes” when someone offers assistance. Don’t be shy about accepting help. Let people feel good about supporting you. It’s smart to have a list ready of small tasks that others could easily take care of, such as picking up groceries or driving your loved one to an appointment.
Be willing to relinquish some control. Delegating is one thing, trying to control every aspect of care is another. People will be less likely to help if you micromanage, give orders, or insist on doing things your way.
Give yourself a break
As a busy caregiver, leisure time may seem like an impossible luxury. But you owe it to yourself—as well as to the person you’re caring for—to carve it into your schedule. Give yourself permission to rest and to do things that you enjoy on a daily basis. You will be a better caregiver for it.
There’s a difference between being busy and being productive. If you’re not regularly taking time-off to de-stress and recharge your batteries, you’ll end up accomplishing less in the long run. After a break, you should feel more energetic and focused, so you’ll quickly make up for your relaxation time.
Maintain your personal relationships. Don’t let your friendships get lost in the shuffle of caregiving. These relationships will help sustain you and keep you positive. If it’s difficult to leave the house, invite friends over to visit with you over coffee, tea, or dinner.
Share your feelings. The simple act of expressing what you’re going through can be very cathartic. Sharing your feelings with family or friends won’t make you a burden to others. In fact, most people will be flattered that you trust them enough to confide in them, and it will only strengthen your bond.
Prioritize activities that bring you enjoyment. Make regular time for hobbies that bring you happiness, whether it’s reading, working in the garden, tinkering in your workshop, knitting, playing with the dogs, or watching the game.
Find ways to pamper yourself. Small luxuries can go a long way towards relieving stress and boosting your spirits. Light candles and take a long bath. Ask your spouse for a back rub. Get a manicure. Buy fresh flowers for the house. Whatever makes you feel special.
Make yourself laugh. Laughter is an excellent antidote to stress—and a little goes a long way. Read a funny book, watch a comedy, or call a friend who makes you laugh. And whenever you can, try to find the humor in everyday situations.
Get out of the house. Seek out friends, family, and respite care providers to step in with caregiving so you can have some time away from the home.
Take care of your own health
Think of your body like a car. With the right fuel and proper maintenance, it will run reliably and well. Neglect its upkeep and it will start to give you trouble. Don’t add to the stress of your caregiving situation with avoidable health woes.
Keep on top of your doctor visits. It’s easy to forget about your own health when you’re busy with a loved one’s care. Don’t skip check-ups or medical appointments. You need to be healthy in order to take good care of your family member.
Exercise. When you’re stressed and tired, the last thing you feel like doing is exercising. But you’ll feel better afterwards. Exercise is a powerful stress reliever and mood enhancer. Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes on most days—break it up into three 10-minute sessions if that’s easier. When you exercise regularly, you’ll also find it boosts your energy level and helps you fight fatigue.
Practice a relaxation technique. A daily relaxation or meditation practice can help you relieve stress and boost feelings of joy and well-being. Try yoga, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or mindfulness meditation. Even a few minutes in the middle of an overwhelming day can help you feel more centered.
Eat well. Nourish your body with fresh fruit, vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats such as fish, nuts, and olive oil. Unlike sugar and caffeine—which provide a quick pick-me-up and an even quicker crash—these foods will fuel you with steady energy.
Don’t skimp on sleep. Cutting back on time in bed is counterproductive—at least if your goal is to accomplish more. Most people need more sleep than they think (8 hours is the norm). When you get less, your mood, energy, productivity, and ability to handle stress will suffer.
Join a caregiver support group
A caregiver support group is a great way to share your troubles and find people who are going through similar experiences each day. If you can’t leave the house, many online groups are also available.
In most support groups, you’ll talk about your problems and listen to others talk; you’ll not only get help, but you’ll also be able to help others. Most important, you’ll find out that you’re not alone. You’ll feel better knowing that other people are in the same situation, and their knowledge can be invaluable, especially if they’re caring for someone with the same illness as your loved one.
Local vs. Online Support Groups for Caregivers
Local support groups:Online support groups:
People live near each other and meet in a given place each week or month.People are from all over the world and have similar problems.
Meetings provide you with face-to-face contact and a chance to make new friends who live near you.You meet online, through email lists, websites, message boards, or social media.
The meetings get you out of the house, get you moving, provide a social outlet, and reduce feelings of isolation.You can get support without leaving your house, which is good for people with limited mobility or transportation problems.
Meetings are at a set time. You will need to attend them regularly to get the full benefit of the group.You can access the group whenever it’s convenient for you or when you most need help.
Since the people in the support group are from your area, they’ll be more familiar with local resources and issues. If your problem is very unusual, a rare disease, for example, there may not be enough people for a local group, but there will always be enough people online.
Author: Melinda Smith, M.A.
What Are Grief Dreams?
Common and comforting, dreams about the dead are changing during the pandemic
By Kevyn Burger
“He said, 'Hey babe, I love you and goodbye,'” Britt Louie recalls of a grief dream featuring her deceased husband, Fred.
In the middle of the afternoon, Dan Callahan flopped on the couch for a nap. Roused briefly by his daughter, he rolled over to resume his snooze.
That’s when his wife Brenda walked in. The same Brenda who had died suddenly two months earlier at age 59.
“It wasn’t a dream; I know what a dream is. This was a…visitation. She was there,” insisted Callahan.
“She was dressed for work, wearing her blue skirt. She sat down beside me and I felt her weight. The Dan of the dream knew she was dead. I said, ‘How is this possible?’ She gave me little peck kisses and said, ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s okay. I’m okay, you’re okay. Let it be. Just go with it.’”
At the time of the dream, Callahan, who lives in the Twin Cities, described himself as “disoriented” by the loss of his wife of 38 years.
The Callahans met the summer after high school when they worked at Valley Fair, a local amusement park, and had been together ever since. With their four children raised, the couple had begun to contemplate their post-work options. But on a January morning, Brenda felt out of breath on her way to work. She drove herself to a hospital where she suffered a massive heart attack and could not be revived.
“It’s been traumatic to lose the person you were so happy with for so long,” Callahan said. “She died before I got the chance to say goodbye. Seeing her filled me with joy and calmness.”
Unique Characteristics of Grief Dreams
What Callahan experienced, termed a “grief dream” by psychologists and social scientists who study them, is a fairly common occurrence. In the midst of the current global pandemic, dreams of those who have died may become more common as thousands of people come to terms with the loss of a loved one.
And while most such dreams bring comfort, not all of the dreams of the dead console the dreamer.
“Grief dreams have unique characteristics. They’re vivid; they don’t fade by the time you wake up. Forty years later, people can still describe them in detail,” said Joshua Black, of Ontario, Canada, whose research prompted him to create the GriefDreams website and a weekly podcast, with 155 episodes (and counting) that include interviews with people who dreamed of dead parents, spouses, siblings, children, grandparents, even dreamers who suffered prenatal and pet loss.
“I see these dreams as playing an important role in how we survive as humans,” he said. “They help at the time of greatest stress.”
Grief Dreams of His Father
While earning his master’s and doctorate in psychology at Brock University in Ontario, Black contributed significantly to the limited research on grief dreams. He conducted a half-dozen studies on the phenomenon, then co-authored articles published in academic journals. One of his studies concluded that grief dreams are quite common, especially among bereaved husbands and wives.
“If the deceased had been sick in life, they look healthy in the dream. Often the spouse returns with advice or to help with parenting.”
“Our survey on spousal loss surprised us. Within two years, eighty-six percent had a dream of their deceased spouse or romantic partner and ninety-two percent considered them positive,” he said. “If the deceased had been sick in life, they look healthy in the dream. Often, the spouse returns with advice or to help with parenting. There are sexual encounters. Some spouses appear in dreams to give their approval to a new relationship.”
Black’s research was inspired by his own grief dream, which he called life-changing.
“After my father died, I went though a rough phase. It was like the color went out of my life. I was going through the motions,” he said. “Then I had a dream that my father was in my room. He’d had a lot of issues in life but he never looked better. There was a lightness to him. I told him, ‘I miss you, I love you.’ I hugged him. When I woke up, the darkness I had carried was gone. That dream gave me what I had been longing for.”
The Pandemic Pierces the Dream World
The current pandemic-induced bottleneck at hospitals interfered with Britt Louie’s ability to be with her dying husband Fred. Diagnosed with an advanced form of cancer, Fred had brain surgery on March 31 and survived for a week following the operation. Because of visitor restrictions at the hospital in Glens Falls, N.Y., Britt saw him only once.
“He told me, even if I die, I won’t leave you,” she recalled.
Six weeks after her husband’s death, during a week she described as “really rough,” Louie had three dreams about him in three subsequent nights.
“In the first, Fred didn’t say anything, but I told him how much I miss him. He wrapped me in his arms, put his head on my shoulder and we cried together,” she said. “In the second, he was sitting in my car and gestured me over, then he kissed me so tenderly. The third night, my phone rang and it was him. He said, ‘Hey babe. I love you and goodbye.’ He hung up and in the dream I knew he was dead.”
Louie is still trying to make sense of her experience.
“The day after the first dream, I was wrecked. It was so real, but when I rolled over he wasn’t there and that hurt,” she said. “But now I cherish those dreams. I think about them every day.”
Author TJ Wray predicts the COVID-19 era will produce many dreams that are far less comforting than Louie’s.
“It’s too soon in the pandemic to have the data, but I’m assuming that those who lose someone to COVID-19 may experience trauma dreams caused by the scenario of that loved one dying alone and frightened. It’s all in place right now,” said Wray, the author of Grief Dreams: How They Help Us Heal After the Death of a Loved One.
Wray didn’t set out to study dreams. The death of her 43-year-old brother prompted her to write, Surviving the Death of a Sibling, a book aimed at others suffering the same wrenching loss. When many of the bereaved brothers and sisters she interviewed mentioned grief dreams, she got curious and that became the basis of her next book.
Wray learned that a small percentage of grief dreams are what she identifies as trauma dreams.
“Trauma dreams are the most challenging, the ones when someone wakes up in a cold sweat, screaming. They happen when a loved one died in a shocking or gruesome way; they were murdered or died in a horrible accident, or if the person witnessed the death or found the body,” she said.
Wray manages a Facebook group for grieving adult siblings and said that she is hearing from siblings who suffered traumatic loss and are now “re-triggered” by the pandemic.
“There’s a resurgence of trauma dreams from previous grief experiences they thought they’d dealt with. We see siblings who are ten years out now re-traumatized by this scenario of mass death,” she said. “They haven’t lost anyone to the virus. Just watching their newsfeed and seeing images of people on ventilators can do it.”
Black anticipates the dreams of the pandemic will ultimately be a rich source of research for academics and analysts. He has already begun to collect stories.
“Maybe a portal opens when you sleep and there’s communication we don’t understand.”
“I’m hearing from people who have worked through their initial grief. They are experiencing their loved one coming back to try to reduce their fears and help them regulate their emotions,” he said. “People wake up after these dreams and say they feel less anxiety.”
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Dealing with Caregiver Guilt
by Malika Brown, MSW, LSW
Caregivers often carry around undeserved guilt, believing that they aren’t doing enough for their loved ones. This guilt can make the caregiving role even more stressful than it already is. One might ask why a caregiver feels guilty when they’re doing such a courageous job. Here are some reasons:
Resentment for personal time lost – It’s normal to feel like you’re missing something when so much of your time is taken up taking care of someone else. The caregiver thinks that they shouldn’t feel this way.
Unresolved issues – Many times, there are issues stemming from childhood or arguments in the past that hinder the caregiving process. Many caregivers feel guilty about this.
Comparing yourself to others – Some caregivers will look at another caregiver and think that they could never accomplish what that other person did.
Knowing placement is inevitable – There can be tremendous guilt involved when a caregiver has to place their loved one in assisted living or a nursing home.
Dealing with your own issues – You may be dealing with personal or health problems yourself, which takes away from your caregiving responsibilities.
Ways to Cope with Caregiver Guilt
Acknowledge the guilt – It’s normal to feel guilt from time to time. Once it’s recognized, we are better able to deal with it.
Look at the bigger picture – Although you may be stressed with a particular situation now, it will not last forever. Look at the sacrifices you make for your loved one and realize that you are doing a great job.
Accept that you’re human and have flaws – All of us make mistakes from time to time. Some of us may be good at the physical aspects of caregiving, while others may be better able to handle the emotional toll. Recognize your strengths and don’t focus on the negative.
Make time for yourself – This is easier said than done, but it’s a must! Even if it’s just an hour or two a week, go out and have coffee with a friend, catch a movie, attend a caregiver support group, or just curl up and read a book. Taking time out helps you put your situation in better perspective.
Know that you are making the best decision for you and your loved one at that time – This can be hard to accept, especially if you’ve made a promise to a loved on in the past that you can no longer keep. A change in a situation may force you to break that promise, but realize that the promise was made under different circumstances. You are making the best decision with new circumstances.
Deal with unresolved issues or accept them for what they are – Many times, we may be taking care of someone who we resent, for many reasons. You can choose to try and resolve those feelings from the past to allow you to care for that person fairly. You can also choose to allow someone else to care for that person because you know you cannot rightfully do so. Either way, this is something you need to consider if your past with that person is an issue for you. Talk to a professional if necessary to make the best decision for both you and your loved one.
Reach out for support from family and friends; seek caregiver support groups or professional help to work through your feelings of guilt. Know that you are not alone in your caregiving journey and the help is available. Most of all, remember that you are doing the best that you can!
Grieving the loss of a parent: it’s personal
End Of Life Care
by Jane Vock
Nancy Kriseman, author of The Mindful Caregiver, draws on the concept of “finishing well” to describe a way to approach loss. What does it mean to “finish well” and what is required of you as a caregiver, as a daughter or son, to do this? First off, it means working on your “unfinished business.” Alright, so what is that? For caregivers, it means when you are stuck in negative feelings about your caregiving situation and experiences such as guilt, anger, regret, resentment, etc. When stuck in these negative feelings, the natural flow of grieving is blocked and this can, in Kriseman’s words, “…wreak havoc on your mind, body, and spirit.”
Let go of all judgements and criticisms. Yes, all of them!
In truth, you did the best you could as a caregiver. Period. If you could have done better, you would have. Your parent also did the best they could. If they could have been a “better parent” or “better care receiver,” they would have. Period. This is a time to let go. If you are stuck in anger, guilt, or resentment, for example, the natural feelings of grief that typically come with loss become blocked. And in essence, you create more “unfinished business.”
As with all other LifeStages of caregiving, you will experience this Closing Lifestage with more ease if you allow the feelings to come up and flow through you. Caregivers are no strangers to loss. In fact, the entire caregiving journey is often defined by various types of loss. When the end of caregiving is approaching because your mom or dad is nearing death or has already died, there is also the loss of a caregiving role/identity as well as the loss of a father or a mother.
What is the best advice?
Grieve it out. Complete the experience. Grief is a natural response to loss. While we usually associate grief with the death of someone, any loss can trigger grief including the loss of the caregiver role (loss of identity) and the loss of a cherished dream (how you imagined your life would be, your relationship with your parents or aging would be, retirement would be, etc.).
Some people may refer to the stages of grief and this may be a helpful type of map for you to make sense of how you are feeling and may feel in the future. Be careful, however, not to impose a rigid way of grieving onto yourself.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, widely known as the expert on grief and grieving in North America, wisely states that the stages of grief “…were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages…there is not a typical response to loss , as there is no typical loss. Our grieving is as individual as our lives.”
The messiness of grief makes us acutely aware that the processing of loss cannot be controlled, and is, by definition, untidy and complicated. The only thing you can do “wrong,” so to speak, is to push your feelings away, ignore them, dismiss them, or judge them.
Common grief responses
Even though there is tremendous variability, there are some common grief responses:
shock and disbelief
guilt and remorse
anger and blaming
feeling of being separate
loss of interest
lack of appetite
dreams and/or nightmares
I know. The list is long! You may be surprised to see relief, peace and joy on the list. Grief and relief can, and often does, show up at the same time. Caregivers who are grieving are often reluctant to publicly acknowledge these latter feelings and can even judge these feelings and then feel guilty. Yikes! Add this guilt to your “unfinished business.”
The process of grief and grieving
So-called ‘normal’ or common grief often begins with the experience of highly intense, time-limited periods of distress that are sometimes referred to as grief bursts or pangs and metaphorically as a (tidal) wave of grief. The experience of grief symptoms tends to occur less frequently, with a briefer duration and lesser intensity over time. Again, be cautious about imposing or accepting someone else’s imposition of a time frame for your grieving. Experts have no agreement on any specific grieving time period, and the best that can be said is that grieving symptoms resolve within the first year or two.
How you grieve, and even if you grieve, depends on many factors including your personality, your coping style and strategies, your life experience, your values, your faith and/or spiritual belief system, the quality of the relationship with the person you were caring for, and the nature of the loss (its significance to you). These factors (and perhaps others not cited here) are exactly what make grieving a highly personal and individual experience.
If you have questions as to whether you are experiencing ‘normal’ grieving, you can consult a health care professional. It may also be beneficial to access a bereavement group or bereavement counseling.
Helping Children Cope
with Traumatic Events
Children and teens are more vulnerable to being traumatized by the coronavirus pandemic, violent crime, or other disasters. But with the right parental support, they’re also able to recover faster. The effects of trauma on children and teens.
Being involved in the COVID-19 pandemic, a serious accident, violent crime, terrorist attack, or natural disaster, such as an earthquake or hurricane, can be overwhelmingly stressful for children. A disaster, crisis, or other troubling event can cause traumatic stress, undermine your child’s sense of security, and leave them feeling helpless and vulnerable—especially if the event stemmed from an act of violence, such as a mass shooting or terrorist attack. Even kids or teens not directly affected by a disaster can become traumatized when repeatedly exposed to horrific images of the event on the news or social media.
Whether your child lived through the disturbing event itself, witnessed it, or experienced traumatic stress in the aftermath, they’re likely to be affected by an array of intense, confusing, and frightening emotions. While unpleasant symptoms may fade over time, there’s plenty you can do as a parent or guardian to support and reassure a traumatized child. Using these coping tips, you can help your child manage symptoms of traumatic stress, rebuild their sense of safety, and move on from the traumatic event.
Signs and symptoms of traumatic stress in kids and teens
Traumatic stress is a normal reaction to a natural or manmade disaster or other disturbing event. It can leave children of any age feeling overwhelmed by stress and trigger a wide range of intense emotions and physical or behavioral reactions. These in turn can affect your child’s mood, appetite, sleep, and overall well-being.
Signs of Trauma in Kids and Teens
Infants under age 2 may:
Fuss more or be harder to soothe
Exhibit changes in sleep or eating patterns
Children age 2 to 5 may:
Show signs of fear
Cling to parent or caregiver more
Cry, scream, or whine
Move aimlessly or freeze up
Regress to earlier childhood behaviors, such as thumb-sucking or bedwetting
Children age 6 to 11 may:
Lose interest in friends, family, or activities they used to enjoy
Experience nightmares or other sleep problems
Become moody, disruptive, or angry
Struggle with school and homework
Complain of physical problems such as headaches or stomachaches
Develop unfounded fears
Feel depressed, emotionally numb, or guilty over what happened
Adolescents age 12 to 17 may:
Have flashbacks to the event, suffer from nightmares or other sleep problems
Avoid reminders of the event
Abuse alcohol, drugs, or nicotine products
Act disruptive, disrespectful, or aggressive
Complain of physical ailments
Feel isolated, guilty, or depressed
Lose interest in hobbies and interests
Have suicidal thoughts
Whatever the age of your child, it’s important to offer extra reassurance and support following a traumatic event. With your love and guidance, the unsettling thoughts and feelings of traumatic stress can start to fade and your child’s life can return to normal in the days or weeks following the crisis or disturbing event.
Helping your child cope with a disaster or traumatic event
Your child’s reaction to a disaster or traumatic event can be greatly influenced by your own response. Children of all ages—even independence-seeking teenagers—look to their parents for comfort and reassurance at times of crisis. If you experienced the traumatic event alongside your child, it’s crucial to take steps to cope with your own traumatic stress.
Even young infants can pick up on their parents’ anxiety and stress. By taking care of your own emotional health and well-being, you’ll be more of a calming influence and better able to help your child. Since the childhood impulse to imitate is strong, if your child sees you taking steps to cope with the effects of the trauma, they’re likely to follow.
You can also:
Remember that children react to trauma in different ways. And their feelings can come and go in waves. Your child may be moody and withdrawn at certain times, frozen with grief and fear at other times. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to feel after a traumatic event so don’t try to dictate what your child should be thinking or feeling.
Encourage your child to openly share their feelings. Let them know that whatever feelings they are experiencing are normal. Even unpleasant feelings will pass if your child opens up about them. While many teens may be reluctant to talk about their feelings with a parent, encourage them to confide in another trusted adult such as a family friend, relative, teacher, or religious figure. It’s important to talk—even if it’s not with you.
Allow them to grieve any losses. Give your child time to heal and to mourn any losses they may have experienced as a result of the disaster or traumatic event. That could be the loss of a friend, relative, pet, home, or simply the way their life used to be.
Discourage your child from obsessively reliving the traumatic event. Continually dwelling on or replaying footage of the event can overwhelm your child’s nervous system. Encourage activities that keep your child’s mind occupied so they’re not solely focusing on the traumatic event. You could read to your child, play games together, or simply watch an uplifting movie.
De-stress as a family. Even young children can use simple breathing exercises to relieve stress and feel more at ease in the world, while older kids may be able to master other relaxation techniques.
Tip 1: Rebuild trust and safety
Trauma can alter the way a child or teen sees the world, making it suddenly seem a much more dangerous and frightening place. Your child may find it more difficult to trust both their environment and other people. You can help by rebuilding your child’s sense of safety and security.
Make your child feel safe again. Hugging and reassuring can help make a child of any age feel secure. While teens may try to tough it out and avoid being held, your physical affection is still important in making them feel safe again.
Encourage your child to pursue activities they enjoy. Try to make sure your child has space and time for rest, play, and fun.
Maintain routines. Establishing a predictable structure and schedule to your child’s life can help to make the world seem more stable again. Try to maintain regular times for meals, homework, and family activities.
Speak of the future and make plans. This can help counteract the common feeling among traumatized children that the future is scary, bleak, and unpredictable.
Keep your promises. You can help to rebuild your child’s trust by being trustworthy. Be consistent and follow through on what you say you’re going to do.
If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t be afraid to admit it. Don’t jeopardize your child’s trust in you by making something up.
Remember that children often personalize situations. They may worry about their own safety even if the traumatic event occurred far away. Reassure your child and help place the situation in context.
Tip 2: Minimize media exposure
Children who’ve experienced a traumatic event can often find relentless media coverage to be further traumatizing. Excessive exposure to images of a crisis or disturbing event—such as repeatedly viewing video clips on social media or news sites—can even create traumatic stress in children or teens who were not directly affected by the event.
Limit your child’s media exposure to the traumatic event. Don’t let your child watch the news or check social media just before bed, and make use of parental controls on the TV, computer, and phone to prevent your child from repeatedly viewing disturbing footage.
As much as you can, watch news reports of the traumatic event with your child. You can reassure your child as you’re watching and help place information in context.
Avoid exposing your child to graphic images and videos. It’s often less traumatizing for a child or teen to read the newspaper rather than watch television coverage or view video clips of the event.
Tip 3: Engage your child
You can’t will your child to recover from a traumatic experience, but you can play a major role in the healing process by simply spending time together and talking face to face—free from TV, phones, video games, and other distractions. Do your best to create an environment where your kids feel safe to communicate what they’re feeling and to ask questions.
Provide your child with ongoing opportunities to talk about what they went through or what they’re seeing in the media. Encourage them to ask questions and express their concerns but don’t force them to talk.
Communicate with your child in an age-appropriate way. Younger children, for example, will respond to reassuring hugs and simple phrases such as “It’s over now” or “It’s all going to be okay.” Older children, though, will draw more comfort from hearing facts and information about what happened.
Acknowledge and validate your child’s concerns. The traumatic event may bring up unrelated fears and issues in your child. Comfort for your child comes from feeling understood and accepted by you, so acknowledge their fears even if they don’t seem relevant to you.
Reassure your child. The event was not their fault, you love them, and it’s okay for them to feel upset, angry, or scared.
Don’t pressure your child into talking. It can be very difficult for some kids to talk about a traumatic experience. A young child may find it easier to draw a picture illustrating their feelings rather than talk about them. You can then talk with your child about what they’ve drawn.
Be honest. While you should tailor the information you share according to your child’s age and personality, honesty is important. Don’t say nothing’s wrong if something is wrong.
Do “normal” activities with your child that have nothing to do with the traumatic event.
Encourage your child to seek out friends and pursue games, sports, and hobbies that they enjoyed before the incident. Go on family outings to the park, enjoy a games night, or watch a movie together.
Tip 4: Encourage physical activity
Physical activity can burn off adrenaline, release mood-enhancing endorphins, and help your child or teen sleep better at night.
Find a sport that your child enjoys. Activities such as basketball, soccer, running, martial arts, or swimming that require moving both the arms and legs can help rouse your child’s nervous system from that “stuck” feeling that often follows a traumatic experience.
Offer to participate in sports, games, or physical activities with your child. If they seem resistant to get off the couch, play some of their favorite music and dance together. Once a child gets moving, they’ll start to feel more energetic.
Encourage your child to go outside to play with friends or a pet and blow off steam.
Schedule a family outing to a hiking trail, lake, or beach. Spending time in nature can ease stress and boost a child’s overall mood.
Take younger children to a playground, activity center, or arrange play dates.
Tip 5: Feed your child a healthy diet
The food your child eats can have a profound impact on their mood and ability to cope with traumatic stress. Processed and convenience food, refined carbohydrates, and sugary drinks and snacks can create mood swings and worsen symptoms of traumatic stress. Conversely, eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, high-quality protein, and healthy fats can help your child or teen better cope with the ups and downs that follow a disturbing experience.
Focus on overall diet rather than specific foods. Kids should be eating whole, minimally processed food—food that is as close to its natural form as possible.
Limit fried food, sweet desserts, sugary snacks and cereals, and refined flour. These can all negatively affect a child’s mood.
Cook more meals at home. Restaurant and takeout meals have more added sugar and unhealthy fat so cooking at home can have a huge impact on your kids’ health.
Make mealtimes about more than just food. Gathering the family around a table for a meal is an ideal opportunity to talk and listen to your child without the distraction of TV, phones, or computers.
When to seek treatment for your child’s trauma
Usually, your child’s feelings of anxiety, numbness, confusion, guilt, and despair following a crisis, disaster, or other traumatic event will start to fade within a relatively short time. However, if the traumatic stress reaction is so intense that it interferes with your child’s ability to function at school or home—or if the symptoms don’t begin to fade or even become worse over time—they may need help from a mental health professional.
When traumatic stress symptoms don’t ease up and your child’s nervous system remains “stuck,” unable to move on from the event for a prolonged period of time, they may be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Warning signs include:
Six weeks have passed, and your child is not feeling any better
Your child is having trouble functioning at school
Your child is experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks
The symptoms of traumatic stress manifest as physical complaints such as headaches, stomach pains, or sleep disturbances
Your child is having an increasingly difficult time relating to friends and family
Your child or teen is experiencing suicidal thoughts
Your child is avoiding more and more things that remind them of the traumatic event
in traumatized kids and teens
Take any suicidal talk or behavior seriously. It’s not just a warning sign that your child or teen is thinking about suicide—it’s a cry for help. Please read Suicide Prevention or call a suicide helpline:
In the U.S., call National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
In the UK, call Samaritans at 08457 90 90 90.
In Australia, call Lifeline at 13 11 14.
In other countries, visit IASP to find a helpline near you.
Written by: Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D.
When a Parent Dies: Grief and Grieving Quotes
By Jane Vock
We don’t really know what grief and grieving feels like until we, well, feel it. I thought I knew and then my Dad died. And once we experience a significant loss like that of a parent, we never forget what it felt like.
It can be really hard to describe grieving. It embodies all parts of ourselves: the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. When we are in the throes of grief, it can be difficult to do basic daily tasks. Isn’t this why our freezers can be full of casseroles as our network of supporters recognize this difficulty?
Because grief and grieving is so difficult to explain, people are often drawn to the world of analogies and metaphors to describe how they are feeling.
Whether you know the difference between an analogy and a metaphor is irrelevant – this isn’t an English lesson! It can be consoling to know that others have felt how you have felt (or are feeling),
and to know that others understand the depth of
your feelings. And just as important is knowing that life indeed goes on. There is life after loss.
Grief: metaphors and analogies
“Grief makes one hour ten.”
“Grief is…standing in a room full of people and feeling completely alone in the world.”
“Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”
“Grief is a most peculiar thing; we’re so helpless in the face of it. It’s like a window that will simply open of its own accord. The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver. But it opens a little less each time, and a little less; and one day we wonder what has become of it.”
“There is an ocean of silence between us… and I am drowning in it.”
“Sometimes, only one person is missing, and the whole world seems depopulated.”
-Alphonse de Lamartine
“Grief creates its own weather. At times, it’s an avalanche that buries us, or a thunderstorm that buffets us around. It’s a cold rain that drips off trees and down our backs long after the storm is gone. It’s a fog that hides the world and makes every sound seem distant.”
Renewal: life after loss
“Grief is a funny thing because you don’t have to carry it with you for the rest of your life. After a bit you set it down by the roadside and walk on and leave it resting there.”
“The better we grieve, the better we live”
“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”
“Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.”
“Grief never ends…but it changes. It’s a passage, not a place to stay. Grief is not a sign of weakness, nor a lack of faith…It is the price of love.”
My favorite thinker and writer about grieving matters is Stephen Jenkinson. “Grief”, he states, “is not a feeling it is a capacity. It is not something that disables you, we are not on the receiving end of grief we are on the practicing end of grief.”
Coping with Grief and Loss
There is no right or wrong way to grieve, but there are healthy ways to deal with the grieving process. These tips can help.
What is grief?
Grief is a natural response to loss. It’s the emotional suffering you feel when something or someone you love is taken away. Often, the pain of loss can feel overwhelming. You may experience all kinds of difficult and unexpected emotions, from shock or anger to disbelief, guilt, and profound sadness. The pain of grief can also disrupt your physical health, making it difficult to sleep, eat, or even think straight. These are normal reactions to loss—and the more significant the loss, the more intense your grief will be.
Coping with the loss of someone or something you love is one of life’s biggest challenges. You may associate grieving with the death of a loved one—which is often the cause of the most intense type of grief—but any loss can cause grief, including:
Loss of financial stability
Loss of a cherished dream
A loved one’s serious illness
Loss of a friendship
Selling the family home
Even subtle losses in life can trigger a sense of grief. For example, you might grieve after moving away from home, graduating from college, or changing jobs. Whatever your loss, it’s personal to you, so don’t feel ashamed about how you feel, or believe that it’s somehow only appropriate to grieve for certain things. If the person, animal, relationship, or situation was significant to you, it’s normal to grieve the loss you’re experiencing. Whatever the cause of your grief, though, there are healthy ways to cope with the pain that, in time, can ease your sadness and help you come to terms with your loss, find new meaning, and eventually move on with your life.
The grieving process
Grieving is a highly individual experience; there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. How you grieve depends on many factors, including your personality and coping style, your life experience, your faith, and how significant the loss was to you.
Inevitably, the grieving process takes time. Healing happens gradually; it can’t be forced or hurried—and there is no “normal” timetable for grieving. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months. For others, the grieving process is measured in years. Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold.
Myths and facts about grief and grieving
Myth: The pain will go away faster if you ignore it
Fact: Trying to ignore your pain or keep it from surfacing will only make it worse in the long run. For real healing, it is necessary to face your grief and actively deal with it.
Myth: It’s important to “be strong” in the face of loss.
Fact: Feeling sad, frightened, or lonely is a normal reaction to loss. Crying doesn’t mean you are weak. You don’t need to “protect” your family or friends by putting on a brave front. Showing your true feelings can help them and you.
Myth: If you don’t cry, it means you aren’t sorry about the loss.
Fact: Crying is a normal response to sadness, but it’s not the only one. Those who don’t cry may feel the pain just as deeply as others. They may simply have other ways of showing it.
Myth: Grieving should last about a year.
Fact: There is no specific time frame for grieving. How long it takes differs from person to person.
Myth: Moving on with your life means forgetting about your loss.
Fact: Moving on means you’ve accepted your loss—but that’s not the same as forgetting. You can move on with your life and keep the memory of someone or something you lost as an important part of you. In fact, as we move through life, these memories can become more and more integral to defining the people we are.
How to deal with the grieving process
While grieving a loss is an inevitable part of life, there are ways to help cope with the pain, come to terms with your grief, and eventually, find a way to pick up the pieces and move on with your life.
Acknowledge your pain.
Accept that grief can trigger many different and unexpected emotions.
Understand that your grieving process will be unique to you.
Seek out face-to-face support from people who care about you.
Support yourself emotionally by taking care of yourself physically.
Recognize the difference between grief and depression.
The stages of grief
In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced what became known as the “five stages of grief.” These stages of grief were based on her studies of the feelings of patients facing terminal illness, but many people have generalized them to other types of negative life changes and losses, such as the death of a loved one or a break-up.
The five stages of grief
Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.”
Anger: “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”
Bargaining: “Make this not happen, and in return I will ____.”
Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.”
Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what happened.”
If you are experiencing any of these emotions following a loss, it may help to know that your reaction is natural and that you’ll heal in time. However, not everyone who grieves goes through all of these stages—and that’s okay. Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to go through each stage in order to heal. In fact, some people resolve their grief without going through any of these stages. And if you do go through these stages of grief, you probably won’t experience them in a neat, sequential order, so don’t worry about what you “should” be feeling or which stage you’re supposed to be in.
Kübler-Ross herself never intended for these stages to be a rigid framework that applies to everyone who mourns. In her last book before her death in 2004, she said of the five stages of grief: “They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grieving is as individual as our lives.”
Grief can be a roller coaster
Instead of a series of stages, we might also think of the grieving process as a roller coaster, full of ups and downs, highs and lows. Like many roller coasters, the ride tends to be rougher in the beginning, the lows may be deeper and longer. The difficult periods should become less intense and shorter as time goes by, but it takes time to work through a loss. Even years after a loss, especially at special events such as a family wedding or the birth of a child, we may still experience a strong sense of grief.
Source: Hospice Foundation of America
Symptoms of grief
While loss affects people in different ways, many of us experience the following symptoms when we’re grieving. Just remember that almost anything that you experience in the early stages of grief is normal—including feeling like you’re going crazy, feeling like you’re in a bad dream, or questioning your religious or spiritual beliefs.
Emotional symptoms of grief
Shock and disbelief. Right after a loss, it can be hard to accept what happened. You may feel numb, have trouble believing that the loss really happened, or even deny the truth. If someone you love has died, you may keep expecting them to show up, even though you know they’re gone.
Sadness. Profound sadness is probably the most universally experienced symptom of grief. You may have feelings of emptiness, despair, yearning, or deep loneliness. You may also cry a lot or feel emotionally unstable.
Guilt. You may regret or feel guilty about things you did or didn’t say or do. You may also feel guilty about certain feelings (e.g. feeling relieved when the person died after a long, difficult illness). After a death, you may even feel guilty for not doing something to prevent the death, even if there was nothing more you could have done.
Anger. Even if the loss was nobody’s fault, you may feel angry and resentful. If you lost a loved one, you may be angry with yourself, God, the doctors, or even the person who died for abandoning you. You may feel the need to blame someone for the injustice that was done to you.
Fear. A significant loss can trigger a host of worries and fears. You may feel anxious, helpless, or insecure. You may even have panic attacks. The death of a loved one can trigger fears about your own mortality, of facing life without that person, or the responsibilities you now face alone.
Physical symptoms of grief
We often think of grief as a strictly emotional process, but grief often involves physical problems, including:
Weight loss or weight gain
Aches and pains
Seek support for grief and loss
The pain of grief can often cause you to want to withdraw from others and retreat into your shell. But having the face-to-face support of other people is vital to healing from loss. Even if you’re not comfortable talking about your feelings under normal circumstances, it’s important to express them when you’re grieving. While sharing your loss can make the burden of grief easier to carry, that doesn’t mean that every time you interact with friends and family, you need to talk about your loss. Comfort can also come from just being around others who care about you. The key is not to isolate yourself.
Turn to friends and family members. Now is the time to lean on the people who care about you, even if you take pride in being strong and self-sufficient. Rather than avoiding them, draw friends and loved ones close, spend time together face to face, and accept the assistance that’s offered. Often, people want to help but don’t know how, so tell them what you need—whether it’s a shoulder to cry on, help with funeral arrangements, or just someone to hang out with. If you don’t feel you have anyone you can regularly connect with in person, it’s never too late to build new friendships.
Accept that many people feel awkward when trying to comfort someone who’s grieving. Grief can be a confusing, sometimes frightening emotion for many people, especially if they haven’t experienced a similar loss themselves. They may feel unsure about how to comfort you and end up saying or doing the wrong things. But don’t use that as an excuse to retreat into your shell and avoid social contact. If a friend or loved one reaches out to you, it’s because they care.
Draw comfort from your faith. If you follow a religious tradition, embrace the comfort its mourning rituals can provide. Spiritual activities that are meaningful to you—such as praying, meditating, or going to church—can offer solace. If you’re questioning your faith in the wake of the loss, talk to a clergy member or others in your religious community.
Join a support group. Grief can feel very lonely, even when you have loved ones around. Sharing your sorrow with others who have experienced similar losses can help. To find a bereavement support group in your area, contact local hospitals, hospices, funeral homes, and counseling centers, or see the Resources section below.
Talk to a therapist or grief counselor. If your grief feels like too much to bear, find a mental health professional with experience in grief counseling. An experienced therapist can help you work through intense emotions and overcome obstacles to your grieving.
Using social media for grief support
Memorial pages on Facebook and other social media sites have become popular ways to inform a wide audience of a loved one’s passing and to reach out for support. As well as allowing you to impart practical information, such as funeral plans, these pages allow friends and loved ones to post their own tributes or condolences. Reading such messages can often provide comfort for those grieving the loss.
Of course, posting sensitive content on social media has its risks. Memorial pages are often open to anyone with a Facebook account. This may encourage people who hardly knew the deceased to post well-meaning but inappropriate comments or advice. Worse, memorial pages can also attract Internet trolls. There have been many well-publicized cases of strangers posting cruel or abusive messages on memorial pages.
To gain some protection, you can opt to create a closed group on Facebook rather than a public page, which means people have to be approved by a group member before they can access the memorial. It’s also important to remember that while social media can be a useful tool for reaching out to others, it can’t replace the face-to-face support you need at this time.
Take care of yourself as you grieve
When you’re grieving, it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself. The stress of a major loss can quickly deplete your energy and emotional reserves. Looking after your physical and emotional needs will help you get through this difficult time.
Face your feelings. You can try to suppress your grief, but you can’t avoid it forever. In order to heal, you have to acknowledge the pain. Trying to avoid feelings of sadness and loss only prolongs the grieving process. Unresolved grief can also lead to complications such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and health problems.
Express your feelings in a tangible or creative way. Write about your loss in a journal. If you’ve lost a loved one, write a letter saying the things you never got to say; make a scrapbook or photo album celebrating the person’s life; or get involved in a cause or organization that was important to your loved one.
Try to maintain your hobbies and interests. There’s comfort in routine and getting back to the activities that bring you joy and connect you closer to others can help you come to terms with your loss and aid the grieving process.
Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel, and don’t tell yourself how to feel either. Your grief is your own, and no one else can tell you when it’s time to “move on” or “get over it.” Let yourself feel whatever you feel without embarrassment or judgment. It’s okay to be angry, to yell at the heavens, to cry or not to cry. It’s also okay to laugh, to find moments of joy, and to let go when you’re ready.
Plan ahead for grief “triggers.” Anniversaries, holidays, and milestones can reawaken memories and feelings. Be prepared for an emotional wallop, and know that it’s completely normal. If you’re sharing a holiday or lifecycle event with other relatives, talk to them ahead of time about their expectations and agree on strategies to honor the person you loved.
Look after your physical health. The mind and body are connected. When you feel healthy physically, you’ll be better able to cope emotionally. Combat stress and fatigue by getting enough sleep, eating right, and exercising. Don’t use alcohol or drugs to numb the pain of grief or lift your mood artificially.
For help facing up to and managing distressing emotions like grief…
When grief doesn’t go away
As time passes following a significant loss, such as the death of a loved one, it’s normal for feelings of sadness, numbness, or anger to gradually ease. These and other difficult emotions become less intense as you begin to accept the loss and start to move forward with your life. However, if you aren’t feeling better over time, or your grief is getting worse, it may be a sign that your grief has developed into a more serious problem, such as complicated grief or major depression.
The sadness of losing someone you love never goes away completely, but it shouldn’t remain center stage. If the pain of the loss is so constant and severe that it keeps you from resuming your life, you may be suffering from a condition known as complicated grief.
Complicated grief is like being stuck in an intense state of mourning. You may have trouble accepting the death long after it has occurred or be so preoccupied with the person who died that it disrupts your daily routine and undermines your other relationships.
Symptoms of complicated grief include:
Intense longing and yearning for your deceased loved one
Intrusive thoughts or images of your loved one
Denial of the death or sense of disbelief
Imagining that your loved one is alive
Searching for your deceased loved one in familiar places
Avoiding things that remind you of your loved one
Extreme anger or bitterness over your loss
Feeling that life is empty or meaningless
If your loved one’s death was sudden, violent, or otherwise extremely stressful or disturbing, complicated grief can manifest as psychological trauma or PTSD. If your loss has left you feeling helpless and struggling with upsetting emotions, memories, and anxiety that won’t go away, you may have been traumatized. But with the right guidance, you can make healing changes and move on with your life.
The difference between grief and depression
Distinguishing between grief and clinical depression isn’t always easy as they share many symptoms, but there are ways to tell the difference. Remember, grief can be a roller coaster. It involves a wide variety of emotions and a mix of good and bad days. Even when you’re in the middle of the grieving process, you will still have moments of pleasure or happiness. With depression, on the other hand, the feelings of emptiness and despair are constant.
Other symptoms that suggest depression, not just grief, include:
Intense, pervasive sense of guilt
Thoughts of suicide or a preoccupation with dying
Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
Slow speech and body movements
Inability to function at home, work, and/or school
Seeing or hearing things that aren’t there
Can antidepressants help grief?
As a general rule, normal grief does not warrant the use of antidepressants. While medication may relieve some of the symptoms of grief, it cannot treat the cause, which is the loss itself. Furthermore, by numbing the pain that must be worked through eventually, antidepressants delay the mourning process. Instead, there are other steps you can take to deal with depression and regain your sense of joy in life.
When to seek professional help for grief
If you’re experiencing symptoms of complicated grief or clinical depression, talk to a mental health professional right away. Left untreated, complicated grief and depression can lead to significant emotional damage, life-threatening health problems, and even suicide. But treatment can help you get better.
Contact a grief counselor or professional therapist if you:
Feel like life isn’t worth living
Wish you had died with your loved one
Blame yourself for the loss or for failing to prevent it
Feel numb and disconnected from others for more than a few weeks
Are having difficulty trusting others since your loss
Are unable to perform your normal daily activities
Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D.
Helping Someone with Depression
Your support and encouragement can play an important role in your loved one’s recovery.
Here’s how to make a difference.
How can I help someone with depression?
Depression is a serious but treatable disorder that affects millions of people, from young to old and from all walks of life. It gets in the way of everyday life, causing tremendous pain, hurting not just those suffering from it but also impacting everyone around them.
If someone you love is depressed, you may be experiencing any number of difficult emotions, including helplessness, frustration, anger, fear, guilt, and sadness. These feelings are all normal. It’s not easy dealing with a friend or family member’s depression. And if you neglect your own health, it can become overwhelming.
That said, your companionship and support can be crucial to your loved one’s recovery. You can help them to cope with depression symptoms, overcome negative thoughts, and regain their energy, optimism, and enjoyment of life. Start by learning all you can about depression and how to best talk about it with your friend or family member. But as you reach out, don’t forget to look after your own emotional health—you’ll need it to provide the full support your loved one needs.
Understanding depression in a friend or family member
Depression is a serious condition. Don’t underestimate the seriousness of depression. Depression drains a person’s energy, optimism, and motivation. Your depressed loved one can’t just “snap out of it” by sheer force of will.
The symptoms of depression aren’t personal. Depression makes it difficult for a person to connect on a deep emotional level with anyone, even the people they love the most. It’s also common for depressed people to say hurtful things and lash out in anger. Remember that this is the depression talking, not your loved one, so try not to take it personally.
Hiding the problem won’t make it go away. It doesn’t help anyone involved if you try making excuses, covering up the problem, or lying for a friend or family member who is depressed. In fact, this may keep the depressed person from seeking treatment.
Your loved one isn’t lazy or unmotivated. When you’re suffering from depression, just thinking about doing the things that may help you to feel better can seem exhausting or impossible to put into action. Have patience as you encourage your loved one to take the first small steps to recovery.
You can’t “fix” someone else’s depression. As much as you may want to, you can’t rescue someone from depression nor fix the problem for them. You’re not to blame for your loved one’s depression or responsible for their happiness (or lack thereof). While you can offer love and support, ultimately recovery is in the hands of the depressed person.
Recognizing depression symptoms in a loved one
Family and friends are often the first line of defense in the fight against depression. That’s why it’s important to understand the signs and symptoms of depression. You may notice the problem in a depressed loved one before they do, and your influence and concern can motivate them to seek help.
Be concerned if your loved one…
Doesn’t seem to care about anything anymore. Has lost interest in work, sex, hobbies, and other pleasurable activities. Has withdrawn from friends, family, and other social activities.
Expresses a bleak or negative outlook on life. Is uncharacteristically sad, irritable, short-tempered, critical, or moody; talks about feeling “helpless” or “hopeless.”
Frequently complains of aches and pains such as headaches, stomach problems, and back pain. Or complains of feeling tired and drained all the time.
Sleeps less than usual or oversleeps. Has become indecisive, forgetful, disorganized, and “out of it.”
Eats more or less than usual, and has recently gained or lost weight.
Drinks more or abuses drugs, including prescription sleeping pills and painkillers.
How to talk to someone about depression
Sometimes it is hard to know what to say when speaking to someone about depression. You might fear that if you bring up your worries the person will get angry, feel insulted, or ignore your concerns. You may be unsure what questions to ask or how to be supportive.
If you don’t know where to start, the following suggestions may help. But remember that being a compassionate listener is much more important than giving advice. You don’t have to try to “fix” your friend or family member; you just have to be a good listener. Often, the simple act of talking face to face can be an enormous help to someone suffering from depression. Encourage the depressed person to talk about their feelings, and be willing to listen without judgment.
Don’t expect a single conversation to be the end of it. Depressed people tend to withdraw from others and isolate themselves. You may need to express your concern and willingness to listen over and over again. Be gentle, yet persistent.
Ways to start the conversation:
“I have been feeling concerned about you lately.”
“Recently, I have noticed some differences in you and wondered how you are doing.”
“I wanted to check in with you because you have seemed pretty down lately.”
Questions you can ask:
“When did you begin feeling like this?”
“Did something happen that made you start feeling this way?”
“How can I best support you right now?”
“Have you thought about getting help?”
Remember, being supportive involves offering encouragement and hope. Very often, this is a matter of talking to the person in language that they will understand and can respond to while in a depressed state of mind.
Tips for Talking about Depression
What you CAN say that helps:
“You’re not alone. I’m here for you during this tough time.”
“It may be hard to believe right now, but the way you’re feeling will change.”
“Please tell me what I can do now to help you.”
“Even if I’m not able to understand exactly how you feel, I care about you and want to help.”
“You’re important to me. Your life is important to me.”
“When you want to give up, tell yourself you will hold on for just one more day, hour, or minute—whatever you can manage.”
What you should AVOID saying:
“This is all in your head”
“Everyone goes through tough times.”
“Try to look on the bright side.”
“Why do you want to die when you have so much to live for?”
“I can’t do anything about your situation.”
“Just snap out of it.”
“You should be feeling better by now.”
The risk of suicide is real
What to do in a crisis situation
If you believe your loved one is at an immediate risk for suicide, do NOT leave them alone.
In the U.S., dial 911 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
In other countries, call your country’s emergency services number or visit IASP to find a suicide prevention helpline.
It may be hard to believe that the person you know and love would ever consider something as drastic as suicide, but a depressed person may not see any other way out. Depression clouds judgment and distorts thinking, causing a normally rational person to believe that death is the only way to end the pain they’re feeling.
Since suicide is a very real danger when someone is depressed, it’s important to know the warning signs:
Talking about suicide, dying, or harming oneself; a preoccupation with death
Expressing feelings of hopelessness or self-hate
Acting in dangerous or self-destructive ways
Getting affairs in order and saying goodbye
Seeking out pills, weapons, or other lethal objects
A sudden sense of calm after depression
If you think a friend or family member might be considering suicide, don’t wait, talk to them about your concerns. Many people feel uncomfortable bringing up the topic but it is one of the best things you can do for someone who is thinking about suicide. Talking openly about suicidal thoughts and feelings can save a person’s life, so speak up if you’re concerned and seek professional help immediately!
Encouraging the person to get help
While you can’t control someone else’s recovery from depression, you can start by encouraging the depressed person to seek help. Getting a depressed person into treatment can be difficult. Depression saps energy and motivation, so even the act of making an appointment or finding a doctor can seem daunting to your loved one. Depression also involves negative ways of thinking. The depressed person may believe that the situation is hopeless and treatment pointless.
Because of these obstacles, getting your loved one to admit to the problem—and helping them see that it can be solved—is an essential step in depression recovery.
If your friend or family member resists getting help:
Suggest a general check-up with a physician. Your loved one may be less anxious about seeing a family doctor than a mental health professional. A regular doctor’s visit is actually a great option, since the doctor can rule out medical causes of depression. If the doctor diagnoses depression, they can refer your loved one to a psychiatrist or psychologist. Sometimes, this “professional” opinion makes all the difference.
Offer to help the depressed person find a doctor or therapist and go with them on the first visit. Finding the right treatment provider can be difficult, and is often a trial-and-error process. For a depressed person already low on energy, it is a huge help to have assistance making calls and looking into the options.
Encourage your loved one to make a thorough list of symptoms and ailments to discuss with the doctor. You can even bring up things that you have noticed as an outside observer, such as, “You seem to feel much worse in the mornings,” or “You always get stomach pains before work.”
Supporting your loved one’s treatment
One of the most important things you can do to help a friend or relative with depression is to give your unconditional love and support throughout the treatment process. This involves being compassionate and patient, which is not always easy when dealing with the negativity, hostility, and moodiness that go hand in hand with depression.
Provide whatever assistance the person needs (and is willing to accept). Help your loved one make and keep appointments, research treatment options, and stay on schedule with any treatment prescribed.
Have realistic expectations. It can be frustrating to watch a depressed friend or family member struggle, especially if progress is slow or stalled. Having patience is important. Even with optimal treatment, recovery from depression doesn’t happen overnight.
Lead by example. Encourage the person to lead a healthier, mood-boosting lifestyle by doing it yourself: maintain a positive outlook, eat better, avoid alcohol and drugs, exercise, and lean on others for support.
Encourage activity. Invite your loved one to join you in uplifting activities, like going to a funny movie or having dinner at a favorite restaurant. Exercise is especially helpful, so try to get your depressed loved one moving. Going on walks together is one of the easiest options. Be gently and lovingly persistent—don’t get discouraged or stop asking.
Pitch in when possible. Seemingly small tasks can be very hard for someone with depression to manage. Offer to help out with household responsibilities or chores, but only do what you can without getting burned out yourself!
Taking care of yourself
There’s a natural impulse to want to fix the problems of people we care about, but you can’t control someone else’s depression. You can, however, control how well you take care of yourself. It’s just as important for you to stay healthy as it is for the depressed person to get treatment, so make your own well-being a priority.
Remember the advice of airline flight attendants: put on your own oxygen mask before you assist anyone else. In other words, make sure your own health and happiness are solid before you try to help someone who is depressed. You won’t do your friend or family member any good if you collapse under the pressure of trying to help. When your own needs are taken care of, you’ll have the energy you need to lend a helping hand.
Speak up for yourself. You may be hesitant to speak out when the depressed person in your life upsets you or lets you down. However, honest communication will actually help the relationship in the long run. If you’re suffering in silence and letting resentment build, your loved one will pick up on these negative emotions and feel even worse. Gently talk about how you’re feeling before pent-up emotions make it too hard to communicate with sensitivity.
Set boundaries. Of course you want to help, but you can only do so much. Your own health will suffer if you let your life be controlled by your loved one’s depression. You can’t be a caretaker round the clock without paying a psychological price. To avoid burnout and resentment, set clear limits on what you are willing and able to do. You are not your loved one’s therapist, so don’t take on that responsibility.
Stay on track with your own life. While some changes in your daily routine may be unavoidable while caring for your friend or relative, do your best to keep appointments and plans with friends. If your depressed loved one is unable to go on an outing or trip you had planned, ask a friend to join you instead.
Seek support. You are NOT betraying your depressed relative or friend by turning to others for support. Joining a support group, talking to a counselor or clergyman, or confiding in a trusted friend will help you get through this tough time. You don’t need to go into detail about your loved one’s depression or betray confidences; instead focus on your emotions and what you are feeling. Make sure you can be totally honest with the person you turn to—choose someone who will listen without interruption and without judging you.
Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D.