Grief is a natural part of life and something we all experience. But the process can feel anything but neutral when you’re in the thick of it. These tips can help when dealing with grief and loss, whether it’s yours or someone else’s.
What is grief?
Grief is your personal experience after a significant loss. It’s a process, not a singular event, and it can impact you in multiple realms: emotional, behavioral, physical, social, cognitive, and spiritual.
The experience of grief is a natural response, and you’ll likely have to adjust your life after losing someone or something important to you. Some aspects of this loss or change can be extremely unpleasant, sad, painful. You might also feel disassociated, numb, or checked out.
Loss comes in many forms. People deal with grief over setbacks in life, such as the end of a friendship, job, or romantic relationship—as well as the diagnosis of an illness or death of a loved one. All disappointments and losses take time to understand and integrate into your life.
For most of us, the most profound and intense grief we’ll ever experience is the death of a person we love.
People in every culture around the world experience grief. It’s a natural response to the disruption of a loss. Again, grief can feel anything but okay as you’re going through it.
What grief looks like
You’ve probably heard of the 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. While this is a helpful framework, even the models’ creator Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross cautions that not everyone will experience all of the stages.
Beyond that, the grief journey isn’t neat and tidy, as the model may suggest. The actual experience of dealing with grief is often full of ups and downs that don’t necessarily feel like a steady progression.
It’s common to feel a sense of disbelief immediately after a death. You might feel numb and stay busy or distracted with tasks. Or you might feel acute sorrow and sadness. Both are typical ways to deal with grief.
Living with loss may feel like an emotional rollercoaster. You might find yourself laughing at a fond memory one minute and sobbing with anger and loss the next. These are typical responses, too.
If you had a difficult, painful, or unresolved relationship with the deceased, you might feel relief, anger, or like you’ve lost an opportunity for reconciliation. All of this is normal.
You might feel a sense of gratitude and count your blessings, holding dear ones closer after a death, or you may feel spiritually unmoored and angry at the universe. These responses are also common.
Allowing your mind and body time to acclimate to the full impact of an irreplaceable loss is a wise response. Taking care of your physical and mental health when living with grief looks different from person to person— and from one moment to the next. Pay attention to your unique ways of mourning and signs of distress so you can identify appropriate supports.
How to deal with grief
Once more: processing loss can feel messy or out of control, and it can look different for each person and from one day to the next. But what can you do to deal with the intensity of the experience? Here are 7 tips that’ll help you discover how to grieve in the most supportive way possible.
1. Basic self-care
Take care of yourself in the basic ways: Eat regularly and hydrate yourself. Rest. Be as consistent as possible in maintaining fundamental health routines. Dealing with grief can have a significant impact on your emotions and can be a shock to the body, too.
Taking care of your body is especially important while you’re grieving. Your body is doing hard work to process the loss you’ve experienced. It’s okay if you feel way more exhausted than usual. Make sure you’re getting plenty of rest.
2. Be gentle
Let go of the timeline, allow the feelings to ebb and flow naturally. You can’t force a sprained ankle to heal faster than it needs to. The same applies to emotional injury. Practice self-compassion as you find your way through the grief journey.
Make room for the big ups and downs, and permit yourself to be as messy or not okay as you need to be. For better or worse, the process isn’t yours to control. See how much you can allow the grief just to unfold as it will while being especially gentle with yourself.
3. Be informed
Basic grief education will help you understand what to expect in your grief journey. Being informed can help you prepare for the physical and cognitive symptoms such as poor concentration or fatigue.
Anticipating needs can help you ask for the right support. The more you understand the processes of grieving, the less mysterious and frightening they are.
4. Express yourself
Do this in the ways that suit you best. You may want to cry on someone’s shoulder, or you may prefer to journal while alone, sing your heart out in the car, scream out loud, pray, or talk in a support group. Experiment with all the avenues available and use them to practice expressing yourself.
5. Stay connected
Spending time around and communicating with others is vital for a griever. It can be comforting to share stories and memories, especially ones that bring you joy.
It’s imperative to seek connection when you’re coping with grief. It might feel like you want to be alone or like you don’t want to burden people or be a “downer.” But isolation can actually make the grieving process harder by increasing your risk of depression, anxiety, and substance use issues.
6. Seek outside help
Dealing with grief is a unique and complicated experience, so it can help to have a therapist, counselor, or some other outside support as you process the loss.
A professional can also provide helpful advice if you’re wondering how to handle complex emotional tasks such as talking to children about death or caregiving and working while grieving.
7. Acknowledge and remember
Most cultures in the world have ceremonies and gatherings where family and community meet to acknowledge the loss and share memories and support. It’s important to recognize and honor the loss you have experienced.
Keeping a memento like a special photo, jewelry, or garment from a loved one is another way to keep thoughts of a dear one close after they are deceased. Some families make an altar or develop symbolic ways to acknowledge a lost loved one.
How to help someone grieve
But what if it’s not you who’s grieving, but a close friend or loved one? It can be challenging to know how to assist someone as they move through this process. These 6 tips can help you show up for someone who’s mourning in the most supportive way possible.
1. Be present and accepting
Many people wish they had comforting words to reduce a person’s sadness—but death is not fixable. Simply staying present with a griever and accepting their pace and process is a supportive action.
Allow the griever to know that you are happy to listen without judgment or an agenda. Let them know they can talk and process without worrying about your reactions or opinions.
Try to stay as interested and curious as you can about their experience. Before offering unsolicited advice, ask if it would be okay to share your thoughts with them.
3. Be respectful but proactive
A griever may be too overwhelmed to ask for help or articulate their needs. Identify small, practical ways you can help, such as doing household tasks, contacting family, sending meals, or buying groceries.
4. Validate their experience
Make it all about them. Understand that everyone grieves differently and that the griever you are supporting may not feel things or express them the way you do.
Don’t say any of the well-intentioned things folks often say to a grieving person, like that you know how they feel or what they’re experiencing. Don’t express judgment about their loss or the way they’re coping with it.
5. Stay connected
Grievers get an outpouring of support in the first few months after a loss, but it’s essential to let them know you are still thinking of them long-term. Let them know that you understand there’s no set timeline for grief and want to be supportive no matter how long it has been or where they are in their grief process.
6. Be supportive of remembering
This could include participating in cultural or spiritual rituals that honor the loss or reaching out to acknowledge that you’re thinking of the griever on special occasions like holidays, birthdays, or the anniversary of a death.
What does COVID-19 grief look like?
Dealing with grief and depression during COVID is even more difficult than in non-pandemic times. Why?
- People can’t gather together for funerals or wakes.
- The unexpected nature of coronavirus deaths.
- We can’t be at a loved one’s bedside during illness and passing.
- COVID-19 is having an unequal impact, where marginalized communities are suffering a more significant loss.
- Some families are coping with multiple losses in a short span of time.
- People are experiencing anger and frustration about how the pandemic is being handled.
- Many are dealing with grief that’s paired with a concurrent stressor, such as economic and political worries.
These and other factors have complicated coronavirus losses, putting grievers at an increased risk of experiencing complicated grief.
Complicated grief refers to cases where grief after a loss is unusually persistent, disruptive, and intense.
This can be grief expressed in maladaptive thoughts, overwhelming emotions, or dysfunctional behaviors for a period longer than 6 months. A consultation with a healthcare or mental health professional can assist in diagnosis and support for complicated grief.
- Grief and loss are a natural but challenging part of life.
- There’s a wide range of mind-body experiences when you’re dealing with grief.
- Learning how to grieve is an ongoing process rather than a singular event.
- Grief can impact mind-body health, and you should seek support for complicated grief.
- The American Psychological Association. (2020). Grief: Coping with the loss of your loved one. https://www.apa.org/topics/grief
- Gregory (2020). The Five Stages of Grief: An Examination of the Kubler-Ross Model. www.psycom.net/depression.central.grief.html
- Stanford University. (N.D.) Grieving at Stanford. https://grieving.stanford.edu/