This week is for those of us currently in the process of grieving. I thought it might be helpful to share some practical advice on this difficult topic. The links in this article will also point you to some excellent resource material.
First, I want to emphasize that there’s no right or wrong way to go about grieving. The term “stages of grief” might make you think that, sooner or later, you’ll be finished with one stage and ready to move to the next.
But it usually doesn’t happen that way. Most of us jump back and forth between stages, or even experience them simultaneously. Don’t be concerned if this is happening to you. It’s normal.
It’s also normal to feel several things all at the same time: sadness, anger, fear, loneliness, and so on.
What we want to watch out for, though, are signs that our feelings are on a steady, downhill slide. This might mean that we’re not only feeling sad about our loss; we may also be drifting into depression or despair.
This article will provide some helpful tips to prevent that from happening.
What is Grief?
Grief is our emotional response to loss. We most often equate it with losing a loved one through death, but we grieve many other types of losses:
- Divorce or breakup of an important relationship
- Loss of an important friendship
- Loss of a job or important life role (e.g. “breadwinner”)
- Loss of financial stability
- Loss of home or belongings (e.g. a move or a burglary)
- End of a career in retirement
- Loss of cherished ideas or dreams
- Loss of health (for yourself or someone close to you)
- Loss of safety through natural or man-made disaster
Maybe you are a senior in high school or college, and you’ve noticed a sadness creeping over you as you approach graduation. You’re thinking, “What’s wrong with me?!! I should be HAPPY right now!” And you’re partly right: there is a lot to be excited about entering a new phase of life. But you’re also leaving another phase behind. It’s natural to grieve over that.
Don’t be ashamed to grieve any kind of personal loss. But at the same time, I’m sure we all recognize the importance of taking healthy steps to ease our sadness and find a positive way forward.
The Difference Between Sudden & Predictable Loss
As the Counseling & Mental Health Center at University of Texas Austin points out, we process sudden vs. predictable losses differently.
Sudden loss includes events like accidents, natural disasters, crime, or suicide. Since we don’t see these coming, there’s no way to prepare for them.
It’s important to understand that sudden losses often trigger feelings of anxiety: problems sleeping, nightmares, intrusive and fearful thoughts, and withdrawal.
Predictable loss includes losing loved ones to terminal illness, divorce, or quitting a job. Since we can see them coming, we can better prepare for these losses.
But we may also have to endure grief during the preparation phase as well as after the loss itself. We may try to imagine what life will be like after the loss and try to emotionally prepare for it. This “anticipatory grief” can make us feel depressed and anxious.
Dealing with either sudden or predictable loss may require the help of a mental health professional. You will find guidance and resources at the end of this post.
Stages of Grief
The grieving process is as individualized as people are. The way you and I grieve can be vastly different, depending things like personality, coping styles, life history, faith or belief systems, and how significant the loss is to us.
In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced a model of grief that is still used today. She described five stages of grief, later expanded to seven:
- Denial. “This can’t be happening!”
- Sorrow. “This hurts so much!”
- Anger & Bargaining. “This is so unfair!” “Make it go away!”
- Depression & Loneliness. “I don’t know how I will ever feel happy again.”
- The Upward Turn. “Maybe I will be happy again…someday.”
- Reconstruction. “What steps can I take to be happy again?”
- Acceptance. “I can accept what happened and be at peace with it. I will find a way to move on.”
Let me re-emphasize that we don’t run through these stages like an obstacle course. They are more like a cycle of thoughts and feelings. This is why grief can be such a dizzying, disorienting process. We spin swiftly through several different feelings, turning this way and that, working through several stages at once.
Our goal is to eventually exit our loop of pain and enter the final stages of reconstruction and acceptance.
Feel free to pin and share the following infographic on the seven stages of grief:
As we work through the stages, it’s normal to have setbacks. We may momentarily drop back into sadness or anger, but time and healing will enable us to find our way back out again.
Some Myths about Grief
Myth #1: “Everyone grieves the same way.”
Fact: Contrary to popular belief, no one goes through the grieving process the same way. And some even skip one or several stages of grief! Don’t worry about what stage you’re in, or what you think you “should be feeling.” Instead, focus on getting the help you need to process what you’re feeling. (I’ll give you some specific guidance on that below.)
Myth #2: “If I’m not done grieving by a certain time, something’s wrong with me.”
Fact: There is no clinical evidence that grief takes a specific amount of time. Instead, the timing of grief varies between people and between situations.
Myth #3: “If I ignore it, it will go away.”
Fact: Emotional pain can be temporarily eased or masked, but it does not go away. If not dealt with, it will fester and eventually re-surface. For the fastest healing, try dealing with it as directly as you can.
Myth #4: “Feeling sad means I’m weak.”
Fact: Feeling sad, confused, angry, scared, or lonely over a loss doesn’t mean you’re weak. It means you’re human. Instead of fighting these feelings, accept them as stages in the healing process.
Myth #5: “I haven’t cried. I must be grieving wrong.”
Fact: Crying is one way to respond to loss. But some people feel the deep pain of loss in ways other than crying.
Myth #6: “If I feel happy or move on with my life, it means I’ve forgotten about my loved one.”
Fact: Feeling at peace and finding new meaning in life is the normal end goal of the grieving process. Moving on doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten your loss, only that you’ve accepted it.
Let me tell you a personal story to illustrate this.
When I learned my father was dying, I immediately flew to his home with one of my sisters and two of our children. But we were not the only ones to make this pilgrimage. Many of Dad’s close friends and family came to be with him on his last day. Several traveled well over a hundred miles just to spend a few minutes with him.
We each took turns at his bedside, sharing our love and saying our goodbyes.
But what we did the rest of the time may shock some of you.
We sat on Dad’s porch and told stories from Dad’s life. We told Dad’s favorite jokes and laughed – the good, deep, belly-rocking kind – until our sides ached.
We hadn’t forgotten why we were there. I think we just all felt the same way: that if Dad could have planned his final exit, he would have wanted to go out in the middle of a party with people he loved. So, we gave him his wish.
When a loved one dies, it’s not dishonoring them to feel happy. They are not left behind; we carry them with us in our hearts. Their memory should bring a smile to our face: I’m so grateful to have been part of that life.
Some Tips for Dealing with Grief
Understand the Signs.
Grief has both physical and emotional symptoms. This is because grief is a severe form of stress and therefore activates the body’s stress response.
Physically, you may:
- Feel numb at first, then tense and on edge
- Have trouble sleeping
- Feel extra tired
- Feel sick to your stomach and have a hard time eating
- Have more aches and pains than usual
- Get sick more often due to weakened immunity
Emotionally, you may feel:
- Shock and disbelief, especially at first
- Profound sorrow
- Anger at God or even at the lost loved one
- Empty and lonely
- Regret about things you did or didn’t say or do. You may feel guilty at feeling some relief that a loved one’s pain is over. You may also feel guilty at not being able to stop the loss from happening.
- Fear and anxiety about the loss and how this will change your life.
This entire spectrum of feeling is normal. Be patient with yourself as you work through any or all of above, knowing that most feelings will resolve with time. We will talk about what to do if they don’t resolve at the end of this post.
The pain of grief can make us want to collapse inward, creeping off to nurse the pain in solitude.
Well-meaning extroverts will often advise us to keep social connections going at full steam and maybe even use this time to build new relationships.
As an introvert myself, I don’t fully agree with this. Some people need space and solitude to process their grief.
But we introverts should be wary of drifting from solitude into social isolation. If you find yourself avoiding friends and family and turning down all opportunities for human interaction, you may be entering this dangerous territory.
Social connection is helpful on many levels. It helps us share the burden of grief with those who care about us most. Not that we will or even should talk about our loss at every social interaction; but sharing memories and mutual affection for a lost loved one will still be healing. Social connections are also others’ way of supporting us during crisis. Finally, social connections with the people in our inner circle may provide a family and cultural context for our grief. The rituals that each society and/or family create for grief can help us work through the loss in a more personal and meaninful way.
Seeing someone grieving can make some people uncomfortable or even downright scared, especially if they’ve never felt it themselves. Try not to take this awkwardness personally. Some friends and family, because they are unsure of what to say or do, will undoubtedly say or do the wrong thing. This can be hard to take on top of loss. But try to remember the concern behind their clumsiness. They are reaching out because they care.
Take Care of Yourself.
Take care of your body. The brain and body are connected. So, not taking care of one will make the other suffer. Exercise. Get fresh air. Rest. Don’t subsist on calorie-rich, nutrient-poor food. Rather, make sure you are getting plenty of nutrients needed for healthy mental function.
Don’t depend on alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs to dull your grief. These ultimately work against helping you solve the underlying emotional turmoil.
Take care of your mind. Read books. Watch interesting programs. Listen to music. Stay involved in tasks and hobbies that interest you. You may also find benefit in journaling about your loss.
Take care of your heart. Unresolved grief, like any form of severe stress, will lead to complications. These can include mood disorders like depression and anxiety, substance abuse, illness, relationship conflict, and isolation. Face your feelings rather than burying them. Keep loved ones in the loop of your life and let them help you. You may also wish to join a grief support group, and/or talk to a mental health professional.
Take care of your soul. I wrote at length last week about drawing comfort from your faith tradition. Prayer and attending spiritual services brings peace to many.
When Grief Returns
Grief over a past loss can sometimes hit us again, even years later. This can happen on an anniversary, holiday, birthday, or any other special event tied to the loss.
Grief came also come flooding back with other reminders of the loss: a favorite song, the aroma of a favorite meal, the sight of a place, person, or thing tied to the loss.
The Mayo Clinic advises us to think of this returning grief, not as a setback, but as a reflection of the meaning behind the loss.
They suggest the following:
Accept the revisiting emotions. You may go through a mini-version of the grieving process. This is normal, and will usually resolve itself.
Plan a distraction. If you know an anniversary is coming up soon, plan to spend that day with loved ones. Use the time to reminisce in a joyful, loving way about the loss. You may even choose to infuse new meaning into the day with a new tradition – planting a tree, volunteering or donating to a lost loved one’s favorite charity, and so on.
If you don’t gradually feel better over time, or if your feelings of anger, guilt, or sadness stay the same or intensify over time, you may be suffering from complicated grief or major depression.
Complicated grief is “like being stuck in an intense state of mourning.” Even after several months, you remain so pre-occupied with your loss that you have trouble getting back to a normal routine. You can learn more about complicated grief at the Mayo clinic website.
Grief and major depression share many symptoms. But you may be experiencing a depressive episode if you:
- Are experiencing brain fog, having a hard time concentrating
- Feel exhausted or like you are moving in slow motion
- Feel intense guilt about the loss
- Feel hopeless or worthless over the loss
- Are preoccupied with death, and perhaps are considering it as a way out of your grief.
If you are having any or all of these feelings, please seek professional counseling.
Helping Others With Grief
The Counseling & Mental Health Center at the University of Texas Austin offers the following tips:
- Be a good listener. Don’t avoid talking about the loss.
- Allow the other person to express their feelings. Let them feel angry and sad. This is a normal part of grief.
- Don’t minimize the grief. Acknowledge their pain.
- Be a loving presence. Healing can happen when you show up. Don’t avoid someone who is hurting. Call them and visit them. Be available.
- Ask and reminisce about the loss. Ask the griever to share their memories.
- Share your own feelings and loss. Some will take comfort in shared feelings of grief.
I also wanted to share this poem from the UT Austin page (feel free to pin, download, and share):
Finding a Mental Health Professional:
Tips on finding the right therapist from:
Find a therapist in the United States:
- Marriage & Family Therapists (a locator tool from the American Association for Marriage & Family Therapy)
- Psychologists (a locator tool from the American Psychological Association)
Grief Support Groups:
Here’s a comprehensive list of support groups by VeryWellHealth.org
Find a GriefShare group meeting (worldwide) at Griefshare.org
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.