Grief is a complex emotional response to something or someone you love being taken away. The pain of the loss can often feel overwhelming, coming in intense waves, and managing grief can be a real challenge. You may experience all kinds of painful and unexpected emotions — shock and disbelief, sadness, guilt, anger, and fear are all emotions associated with grieving. The grieving process can also impact your physical health, and it can be challenging to eat, sleep, or focus. These reactions are all normal, and a more significant loss will often lead to more overwhelming grief. While we most typically think of the death of a loved one when talking about grief, there are many other losses that can cause you to grieve, including:
- A divorce or breakup
- Losing a job
- Moving to another place
- Graduating from high school/college
- Diagnosis of major illness (for yourself or someone else)
- Death of a pet
- Loss of a goal or dream
Whatever it is that you’ve lost, you don’t need to feel ashamed about your emotional response or the magnitude of the loss. No loss is too small to trigger grief. If the person, animal, relationship, or situation was important to you, it’s normal to grieve for the thing you’ve lost. Whatever the loss, there are healthy ways to cope with the pain and sadness. In time, this can make it easier to come to terms with your loss and adjust to the “new normal” following that loss.
The grieving process
Grieving is an incredibly personal experience. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. What your own grieving process looks like will depend on lots of things. This includes your past life experiences, usual coping strategies and challenges, and religious or spiritual beliefs. It also includes the significance of the loss. Regardless of the way in which you grieve, it can take time to adjust to the loss. Some people begin to feel better in weeks or months; others may take years. There is no “normal” schedule for healing. Whether it takes weeks or years to recover from a loss, it is important to be patient with your own grieving process, no matter its length.
In addition to the emotions that accompany the grieving process, you may also notice physical signs. These may include exhaustion, nausea, weight loss or gain, aching joints, difficulty sleeping, or even physical illness. The loss of something or someone you love is like cutting off a leg on a three-legged stool. While you are healing, you may not be able to do the things you used to do and you may feel unstable. This is all perfectly normal and a sign that your body is responding to the loss, requiring extra care. Grief is an unavoidable part of being human. That said, there are ways to manage grief, come to terms with the loss, and eventually to grow from the experience. The remainder of this post will address two aspects of managing grief: seeking support and implementing restorative practices.
Managing grief by seeking support
While you’re grieving, you may find yourself wanting to isolate from others. Some alone time can help you have the space to process your feelings. Having the support of others, however, can help with repairing that metaphorical stool after it has broken. Even if talking about your feelings is generally uncomfortable for you, it’s especially important to share them with people you trust while you’re grieving. That doesn’t mean you need to talk about your grief every time you interact with your loved ones. Still, some sharing can help ease the experience of grief. Even without talking, just being around others who make you feel safe can be comforting. Here are a few recommendations for seeking support following a loss:
Rely on an existing network of friends and family. Even if you are known for your strength and self-reliance, it is perfectly okay to ask for help from people who care about you. While it can feel tempting to avoid these people, it can be helpful to spend time together with them. This time can include sharing how you’re feeling and accepting the help that they might offer. Sometimes people want to help, but they’re not sure what to do. In these situations, you can share what you need. This could be a shoulder to cry on, or help with logistics such as funeral planning, unpacking, or job searching, etc. If you feel that you don’t have many people to reach out to, this may be a good time to make new connections.
Join a support group. One of the ways you can find additional aid is through a support group. Sharing your feelings and experiences with others who have gone through similar losses can help with the loneliness that often accompanies grief. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, many online groups are becoming available, which makes it much easier to connect with others. A great list of reputable online groups can be found here (https://dying.lovetoknow.com/Online_Grief_Support_Group). Additionally, you can find groups through local hospitals, hospices, or funeral homes.
Find comfort in religious or spiritual beliefs. If you adhere to a religious or spiritual tradition, you may find comfort in the rituals that tradition provides. Praying, meditating, attending worship services, or talking with a religious leader can all be sources of relief.
Managing grief by implementing restorative practices
Restorative practices (sometimes called “self-care”) are things you can do to ensure that you are healthy and safe while you grieve and can help in processing the loss. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you identify your own restorative practices:
Take care of your physical health. Because the mind and body are connected, your physical wellbeing will be impacted by your emotional wellbeing, and vice versa. As you take care of your body, it will be easier to handle emotions following a loss. Ensure that you’re eating and sleeping well, and exercising regularly (even if it’s just going for a walk around the block). Avoid using alcohol or other drugs to numb your pain or to lift your mood.
Try to maintain hobbies and interests. As with religious ritual, having a routine that consists of things you enjoy can help to alleviate the pain of grief. It can also create opportunities to connect with others.
Express your feelings through creative outlets. This can include activities such as journaling, writing letters to the loved one or thing you lost, making a photo album, and creating art or music that expresses your emotions. A wonderful resource for helping to identify these creative outlets is the Grief Recovery Handbook (https://www.harpercollins.com/products/the-grief-recovery-handbook-20th-anniversary-expanded-edition-john-w-jamesrussell-friedman). This handbook provides many recommendations for understanding and managing grief. You might also find meaning in joining a cause related to your loss as a way of supporting others.
Be aware of grief triggers. Anniversaries and holidays, locations, or particular mementos can activate feelings and memories related to the loss. Sometimes these reminders can reopen the wound created by the loss, which is normal. If you know that a triggering date or other reminder is coming up, it can be helpful to make sure your support network is aware of this so that they can help support you.
Talk to a therapist. In some cases, the grief you feel can be overwhelming to the point that it is difficult to function for a long period of time. If you find yourself in this situation, an experienced therapist can help you. Therapy can help you to understand grief, process your emotions, and overcome obstacles to healing. Many of the therapists at Rottenberg Therapy have training in grief counseling and are able to help you through whatever loss you may be facing.
Grief is one of the most challenging experiences that a person can go through. Even though it is painful and messy, the people around you can provide support as you try to understand grief and navigate your own unique way of coping. As your feelings emerge, processing them in a nonjudgmental way through taking care of yourself and finding meaningful activities will help you to become stronger and to find joy despite the loss.