When Tragedy Strikes: Six Ways to Cope With Grief
It was a typical July evening, but it would change one woman’s life forever. Her story illustrates six ways we often deal with grief when tragedy strikes.
The call came at 7:58 p.m.
Cherokee’s first instinct was to rush to her car and drive. Without conscious thought, she headed into the mountains that her daughter, Taylor, had always loved. The flashing lights of police and other emergency personnel only confirmed what she’d suspected in her heart. As she pushed past the officers who attempted to hold her back, she clung to hope. But as she held her daughter’s lifeless body, the birth pains of her anguish began. “Every bone in my body ached in that moment,” she shares.
Grief, an inevitable part of living, loving and losing, hits us in different ways. Looking back, Cherokee realizes the first moment she began to think of her grief as a baby. “About a month after Taylor’s death I was rocking back and forth, cradling something in my arms as though I was holding an infant.” It was only a towel in reality, but it triggered precious memories of when she had held her daughter that way. Only this time, the nurturing instinct had been born out of loss.
1. Embrace the pain.
When we lose someone that we’ve cared about deeply, our first reaction can be numbness. Sometimes the shock helps get us through the enormity of it all, but eventually it wears off and we begin to feel again—anger, sadness, frustration, loneliness, awkwardness, exhaustion. All of these emotions are normal.
For Cherokee, it was like pushing an IV stand around while cradling her grief. Some days the drip of the IV was opened wide, and she allowed the memories to flow in and provide her with emotional sustenance. Other days it was too much, and she shut off the flow of her grief.
While there can be stages to grief, each person’s journey is unique. Cherokee recalls how, in the early days following the accident, denial helped her cope. Imagining that Taylor was just off at college was how she survived. Yet her depression became so deep, so dark, that she even contemplated suicide.
Anger came unexpectedly; anger toward God, anger with Taylor for not wearing her seatbelt and for racing her car when she’d known better. Why had this happened? Emotionally bouncing back and forth, she struggled to find ways to cope, to keep from being swallowed up by her grief.
2. Take care of yourself.
As with a newborn, Cherokee found that in the beginning her grief was needy. It was draining, physically and emotionally. “I’d sleep during the day, and then be up at night crying.” It’s easy to neglect even our basic needs (food, sleep, exercise) when grieving. We can struggle to focus at work, be overwhelmed with painful thoughts and wonder why we’re even there.
Yet, as difficult as it may be, trying to maintain a normal routine and diligently maintaining our health in the face of tragedy helps to move us further along in the grief process than retreating from everyday life.
Grief, an inevitable part of living, loving and losing, hits us in different ways.3. Don’t retreat.
Over time, Cherokee’s grief matured. She found herself able to crawl—in other words, she began taking cautious steps to leave the house and start living life again. She set encouraging reminders on her phone, such as, “Get up—you still have children who need you.”
She joined an online bereavement group. She journaled daily, took long walks and prayed more often than she had ever prayed before. Praying to God, even as she struggled with why, gave her strength to withstand the difficult times. The support of friends and family was also essential.
4. Learn from it, then use it.
Cherokee’s turning point toward acceptance started with a work obligation to attend a talk given by a young man who had survived a suicide attempt. She’d tried to get out of it, but ended up attending. Something the speaker shared struck a chord. She realized that in helping others with their loss, she could find meaning in her own.
Whether simply listening to and encouraging someone in grief or creating an awareness video on the consequences of not wearing a seatbelt, Cherokee started looking for ways to help others. “I try to live my life in the service of others. It’s one way for Taylor to live through me.”
5. Expect setbacks and plan ahead.
There are still grief triggers: music, smells, certain situations, etc. Cherokee offers up a quick prayer for help during these times, takes a deep breath and tells herself: “I can do this.” Then she braces for the next wave.
When dealing with loss, there will always be times when the painful feelings will return or get worse, so it’s essential to develop personal strategies to get through those times.
6. Know when to ask for help.
“There is no ‘letting go,’ but you find ways to go on living,” Cherokee says. Thankfully, she has found a way to do just that. Sometimes, however, people get stuck. If, as time passes, your grief is not diminishing or is getting worse, and you seem unable to function in your daily life, then you may be suffering from complicated grief. You become so preoccupied with your loss that life feels empty or meaningless. If this is the case, it’s time to seek professional help.
Cherokee’s grief is no longer a newborn. Born out of pain, embraced by necessity, cherished with remembrance, it can now sit up on its own and move around. Someday her “baby” will walk and as it gets older it will move away from her arms and seek independence. It will visit on occasion, and Cherokee will welcome those visits, knowing her “grief baby” doesn’t need to be carried around anymore. It has grown up.
Are you dealing with grief? If so, the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, has trained pastors throughout the world who are willing to listen and help. To contact a pastor in your area, visit our list of Congregations.