How to Cope with Grief
A certain amount of pain and loss is accepted as an integral part of life. But sometimes unexpected events overwhelm our natural grief response, making the situation especially difficult to cope with.
We often associate grief with death, but the truth is, there are any number of situations we grieve over. A tough divorce or custody battle, losing our jobs––especially if they’re long term positions, even ending a friendship can cause us to grieve.
Regardless of what causes the grief, it can feel difficult and overwhelming to bounce back into a regular rhythm. And if this happens, it can affect not only our day-to-day life but our future as well.
Before we go on, we want to highlight that this article is by no means a comprehensive or specialized guide for grief. Grief can be extensive and we always recommend seeking appropriate professional guidance whenever necessary. By no means should the advice written here attempt to replace therapy or advice from a licensed mental health professional.
Aftermath of grief
Grief, as anything shaped by different life experiences and situations, is different for each of us. It can even change each time we experience it within our lifetime. However, for all the variations, there are some common grief responses.
- Denial or numbness
- Anxiety and panic
- Irritability and moodiness
- A feeling of fatigue and depression
- Social withdrawal
- Sleeping troubles and nightmares
- Difficulty in maintaining a daily routine
- Trouble in concentrating and performing regular tasks
- Loss of focus and short-term memory
We may feel some of these, even experience more than one at the same time while we grieve, and learning to accept these responses is part of healing.
How to cope with grief
Permission to feel the pain
Many of us try to deal with loss and pain by suppressing those feelings. We tell ourselves to buck up and be strong in the face of adversity. But this can often have the opposite effect.
When we suppress our pain it doesn’t get erased but remains unprocessed in the back of our minds. Our brain still has to deal with it, and keeping it suppressed takes a lot of willpower and exertion. It diverts our attention and strains our concentration because our brain is now diverted between whatever we’re trying to focus on while simultaneously keeping specific thoughts and emotions away. If we stay in this high energy state for too long, it can lead to breakdowns and burnout.
Even though it’s difficult, we need to let ourselves be open to the various emotions as we encounter them. This allows us to process our emotions, acting as a catalyst to start the recovery process. Being open to these emotions requires a fair amount of self-awareness. For example, if we begin to feel as if we’re going to cry or experience a surge of anger, if we realize this is grief, we can ask our supervisor for a break so we can let the emotion run through our body instead of pushing it away.
Outside of work, it’s important to establish a safe, supportive environment. Perhaps visiting friends or family, even over video technology can provide the level of support to help us work through the harder pieces of our grief. If temporarily moving in with someone we love and trust is a possibility, that can also help alleviate some of the pressure living alone may produce.
When it feels that our mind can settle, learning mindful meditation can provide a grounded relief to our emotions. By giving our mind a way to focus while also relaxing, it can rest, which is vital in both physical and emotional repair.
When we experience grief, there is a certain amount of stress that goes with it. Our concentration is impacted, it’s difficult to focus, and even our ability to recall simple things can take an extraordinary amount of effort. If we try to push through these responses, our stress levels can spike, causing our brain to release cortisol and adrenaline.
We should expect our routines to be disrupted and forgive ourselves for being fatigued or forgetful. Asking for others to help us while we process our emotions can be helpful to keep our stress levels low. We may need to be cognizant of how much we can handle and be willing to say no to taxing social events. In fact, self-care should be prioritized, as even something as simple as taking the time to soak in a hot bath multiple times a week can be healing. This is the time to be gentle with ourselves, remembering that self-care is not selfish.
Guilt and grief often go hand-in-hand. We may feel guilty over mistakes we made before we lost our job or an unresolved fight we got into before a death. But often, we feel guilt when we start healing, feeling that we don’t deserve to be happy or that we haven’t grieved long enough. And if we don’t process these guilty emotions when we feel them, they can hinder our recovery.
In their book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, Sheryl Sandberg, and Adam Grant talk about a technique used generally in cognitive behavioral therapy to deal with guilt in grief. It works like this. We write down the harm we believe we have inflicted or are going to inflict on others. Perhaps this is the fight we had, the mistake we made, or the more general feeling of hurting someone through our healing. We then systematically approach our belief from an objective point of view.
The second part is easier said than done. It requires us to step away from our own emotions and view our thoughts from an outside point of view. Maybe we imagine reading our struggle as if it’s coming from someone else. Assuming this third-person perspective helps us see the logical flow of things much clearer.
It also helps to imagine ourselves advising a friend. When we feel guilt, we tend to criticize ourselves more than others, so if we imagine hearing these thoughts from someone we love, we are more likely to be kinder, gentler, and far more understanding. We can then apply what we learned, helping us move past the grief into deeper stages of healing and recovery. Talk (or write) it out.
When it comes to grief, being able to express our emotions throughout the various stages is important. Whether it’s talking to someone we trust, engaging in traditional therapy, or writing in a journal, getting our emotions out of our mind is an important part of the healing process.
It’s not unusual to overthink during times of grief. Depending on the circumstances, we can replay the what if’s, mistakes we made, or ruminate about lost possibility over and over. But when we do that, we strengthen the neural pathways for those thoughts, creating a sort of feedback loop. It makes these thoughts difficult to move past, leading to prolonged sadness and potentially leading to more serious long-term symptoms, such as anxiety or depression.
Articulating these thoughts helps slow them down and forces us to give them a logical structure in order to express them meaningfully. Speaking to a friend or family member can help, as can utilizing a therapist. However, talking alone may not help, and often, therapists will recommend journaling in addition to the talk-therapy sessions.
Journaling is an additional resource as it creates a record of our thoughts and emotional states. We can look back on what we wrote, using the pages as either a reminder of our progress or to help us work through reoccurring issues.
Writing also processes differently in our brains. We write slower than we talk, so it forces our minds to slow down. This can give our thoughts more structure than talking alone can, helping us work through any problems or struggles we may be having difficulty processing.
Grief is a multi-layered process. We can move from denial to anger, guilt to depression. These stages aren’t linear, and we can move through them in any order and multiple times. While it can feel overwhelming, grief is something we all endure at various times in our lives. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, but by being open to the emotions and asking for help when we need it, we can emerge from the process changed but healed.