Helping farm families cope with loss
Experiencing loss isn't unique to the agricultural community. However, farmers and their families do experience unique types of loss that can be extremely stressful and have a profound effect on their physical and mental well-being.
But even though losses are unavoidable in farming, there are things you can do to prepare yourself for these moments in life. Keep reading to learn about the different types of loss and grief and discover strategies that will help you cope with these inevitable challenges.
Types of loss and grief experienced by farming families
The types of loss faced by farming families can come in many shapes and forms. These include:
- Loss of property, such as crops, livestock, buildings, equipment and other assets
- Loss of life, whether through farming accidents, suicide or the general aging of the greater farming population, in addition to loss of livestock (this can be especially challenging for the children of farming and ranching families)
- Loss of relationships, either professional and personal (both of which can be heavily influenced by a farmer's career and lifestyle)
- Loss of a sense of normalcy, security and/or purpose, which can occur after events such as disfigurement in a farming accident, financial hardship and even retirement
- Loss of legacy, which farmers may perceive if they are unable to continue farming for some reason, or if there isn't a next generation to take over the farming operations
Just as there are different types of loss, there are also different types of grief that a person can experience in response to a loss.
- Traumatic grief generally comes after abrupt or unexpected loss involving life and death, in which a person has little time to prepare mentally or emotionally.
- Prolonged grief is grief that lasts for at least 12 months and impairs a person's ability to function in their normal activities and duties.
- Complex or complicated grief is persistent and actually gets worse over time (this can be due to many reasons, such as compounded or multiple losses).
- Anticipatory grief is the worry or fear that loss is imminent (e.g., "We are not going to be able to keep the farm going"), essentially causing one to grieve before the loss actually happens.
- Disenfranchised grief. Farmers often feel this when a real loss has happened but is not recognized, understood or taken seriously by others (this is especially common among friends, neighbors and loved ones outside the farming community).
- Frozen grief is the feeling of not knowing whether any effort to avoid or mitigate a loss will be successful.
Stages of grief
In addition to being aware of the types of loss and grief you may face in the farming lifestyle, another thing that can help you cope is understanding that grief comes in different stages.
The most well-known model of grief features five distinct stages, including:
- Denial ("This can't be happening")
- Anger (often directed at other people, a higher power or even one's self)
- Bargaining (the attempt to recoup or recover a loss by "making deals", such as by pledging to work harder or praying to a higher power)
- Depression (typically accompanied by things such as changes in sleep and appetite, feelings of guilt, hopelessness and sadness, decreased energy and motivation and increased alcohol or substance use)
- Acceptance (the ability to accept that a loss has happened and establish new goals and habits in order to begin moving forward in life)
It's important to realize that there's no particular "order" or "right way" to move through the stages of grief, and you might move through these stages many times over. It's also important to remember that so much of how we move through grief depends on individual factors, including our support system, our cultural and religious background and our unique beliefs and perspectives.
In other words: everyone experiences grief, but not everyone experiences grief in the same way. Keep this in mind—especially when you and your family members are facing any loss or major transition on the farm.
Do's and don’ts: ideas for farmers coping with loss
If you or a loved one is grieving a recent loss, remember that grief is truly a universal aspect of the human experience. You are not alone! Here are some do's and don'ts that can help you cope:
- DO share your feelings openly, whether that's with a trusted loved one or a mental health professional
- DO communicate regularly with your team and outside resources to help you brainstorm new ideas, learn from past mistakes and prepare for future challenges
- DO take time for yourself to practice any form of nurturing self-care
- DON'T isolate, blame or shame yourself or others
- DON'T be afraid of change—it is necessary and inevitable in farming and in life
Has your physical or mental health been impacted by a recent farming loss? Our team at SIU Medicine can help.
For individualized care that addresses the physical and mental health challenges you and your loved ones face as farmers, connect with the Farm Family Resource Initiative via call or text at 1-833-FARM-SOS (833-327-6767) or email FarmFamilyResourceHelpline@mhsil.com. For more wellness strategies specifically related to farm life, watch the Harvest a Healthier You webinar at siumed.edu/farm/events-and-webinars.
Karen Leavitt Stallman
Ag Resource Specialist