How to Deal with Grief and Loss
Grief is the anguish we feel when we experience the death of a loved one, or another kind of significant loss like going through a divorce or losing a job. Though while we are grieving we may experience difficult emotions and even physical symptoms, it’s important to understand that the grieving process is natural. There are many ways to deal with grief and loss, both individually and as part of a community, that help us grieve in a healthy way and ultimately accept our loss.
What Does Grief Feel Like?
While each of us may feel the emotional effects of grief differently, there are some common ways we process grief. One of the most widely recognized ways of understanding the grieving process is the five stages of grief:
- Denial: Shock, disbelief, and denial are common feelings after a loss, especially after a sudden or unexpected loss. It’s our mind’s way of protecting us from the enormity of the loss.
- Anger: Anger can be a way that we begin to process negative emotions, like if we feel lost, scared, or guilty. We can get angry at ourselves, at others, or even at the person who has passed.
- Bargaining: It can be common to deal with the guilt, regret, or helplessness of grief by looking for ways to regain control. We may try to make deals or promises.
- Depression: Sadness is one of the most widely experienced emotions after a loss. We may feel a deep sadness after the initial loss, and at significant anniversaries or occasions that remind us of the loss.
- Acceptance: The final stage of grief, acceptance does not necessarily mean happiness—instead, it means we are no longer fighting the reality of the loss and we understand our life has changed.
While it can be helpful to understand the five stages, healing isn’t linear: each one of us will feel each stage with a different level of intensity, on a different time frame, or in cycles. These stages also don’t have distinct starting and stopping points, so we may feel many of these emotions at once.
As we go through the stages of grief, it’s important to know how to cope with our feelings and experiences in a healthy way.
Cultural Ways of Dealing with Grief and Loss
Many cultures and communities have ways of supporting people who are grieving and helping them find a sense of closure after losing a loved one.
A period of mourning is the time after the loss during which we hold rituals, services, gatherings, or celebrations. Depending on our communities and cultural practices, these rituals can be small and informal or large and elaborate. Some ceremonies may involve spiritual or religious practices because for some people, the belief that their loved one’s soul has passed into the afterlife can be comforting. However we mourn, these rituals and gatherings can be a place to grieve our loss openly with others, mark a transitional period, and help us find peace after our loss.
Bereavement is the period of time following the loss during which we mourn. Schools and jobs often give bereavement periods to people who have lost a loved one, to allow time for mourning rituals and services.
How to Deal with Loss in the Short Term
Grief can impact us physically as well as emotionally. It can disrupt our usual schedules and routines, as well as our sleep schedules and our appetites. Sadness can cause fatigue, no matter how much we sleep. If we’re overwhelmed by loss, we may have difficulty concentrating, which can affect our work. The stress of grief can also increase physical pain like back aches, headaches, joint pain, and chest pain.
Many of these physical effects happen when we feel emotionally depleted. Practicing self-care in the wake of a loss can help us lessen the physical symptoms and make the grieving process a little more manageable. Here are some ways to take care of yourself as you grieve:
- Stay hydrated
- Avoid using alcohol and drugs
- Get a healthy amount of sleep
- Eat regularly
- Exercise gently to reduce stress
How to Deal with Grief in the Long Term
Depending on the depth and breadth of its impact on your well-being and daily life, grief can persist for months or even years. Not only is it important to take care of yourself immediately after a loss, it’s important to know that you are deserving of care and compassion regardless of how long you’ve been grieving.
Sometimes we may get frustrated with ourselves for feeling a certain way during the grieving process. Extend yourself the same love, compassion, and patience as you would show to anyone else in your life who was experiencing a loss.
Express Yourself Authentically
We may feel like we “should” grieve a certain way. For example, there are many people who will tell us we should “stay strong” after a loss. These “shoulds” may not match how you feel, and that’s okay. Express your emotions authentically and share how you’re feeling with people you trust. You can cry, or not—however you choose to express your grief is legitimate and should be honest to your experience.
Healing is Not Linear
Healing after a loss can take time. As we experience the stages of grief, our emotions can fluctuate—especially when we are reminded of painful losses through memories, secondary losses, or anniversaries. You may experience sadness one day and anger the next. You may never experience some steps of grief. That is completely normal.
Define Acceptance for Yourself
Acceptance doesn’t have to look or feel a certain way. Nor does acceptance mean feeling content or happy before you are ready to or forgetting the people, places, things, or experiences that you are grieving. Acceptance means understanding what cannot be changed, and doing the best we can to adapt to the new reality. Ways to work toward acceptance include:
- Being honest about your feelings
- Staying in the present
- Accepting the positive and the negative of your new reality
- Reflecting on good memories with your loved one
- Being open to new experiences and new relationships
It’s important to have a support network that you can count on while you grieve, whether that’s other people in your family or community who are also grieving and can share in your feelings, people outside the loss, a structured support group, or a licensed mental health professional who specializes in grief.
If you start to feel like your feelings of grief are not subsiding or getting worse, or if you begin to believe life is pointless, it’s important to seek professional help. Text “START” to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)