How To Cope With Grief

Many wonder how to talk to someone who is going through a loss, how best to be supportive, and how to properly offer condolences. But when grief hits you, it isn’t only painful, it’s extremely difficult to navigate through a range of new emotions.

Lifehacker spoke with Emily Adams, an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist with the Center for Mindful Psychotherapy in San Francisco, who often works with people who are grieving.

In an email, Adams wrote that it’s important to remember that grief isn’t just something that happens in conjunction with a death: We experience it when a relationship ends, when we lose a job, or even when a dream fades, “such as a life that didn’t happen or won’t happen”.

“I have seen immense grief come up as clients acknowledge that which was lacking in their childhood or that which may never happen in their future,” she says.

Whatever it is you’re mourning, here’s some advice for how to survive it.

The Process Isn’t Linear

It’s a well-known trope that grief has five stages: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. So, it might be confusing to find that you’re angry one day, accepting another, and then backsliding into bargaining again. But Adams writes that this is normal:

In my experience people who are grieving bounce around from one stage to the next and not always in any particular order. It is common that the grief process begins with denial and anger, but these experiences will come up much later in the grief process as well. Sometimes depression and acceptance show up first and anger is much later to rise.

In her opinion, the grieving process begins when we acknowledge an impending loss, or one that has just happened. It’s not quite the same as acceptance, but admitting you’ve lost something is the start of really letting it go.

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Help

You may not want to discuss your grief with everyone or make it public at all, though we don’t always have a choice in that regard. Adams says that we have a cultural expectation of claiming to be OK “very quickly after a loss”. A common anxiety she encounters from patients is a fear that everyone can tell how much they’re hurting. That shouldn’t be something you’re scared of:

The expectation can be that one should act as though everything’s fine, so when things are not fine, it can be quite difficult to communicate and to reach out for help. There can be a lot of anxiety around realising how difficult it is to navigate this process alone but not being sure how to ask for support, where to find support, or even what kind of support you need.

It’s not an easy expectation to shake off, but adding fear of what people think on top of your other emotions is too much.

Acting Out And Acting In

When asked about unhealthy behaviours following a loss, Adams shared her philosophy on how to tell whether or not someone is heading down a dangerous path in their grief:

In general, something to ask yourself or a loved one who is grieving may be, “Am I / are they acting out or acting in?” What do I mean by this? “Acting out” can look like pushing people away, reckless behaviour, increased aggression, increase in substance use, et cetera. “Acting in” can be harder to spot but may look like reluctance to nourish oneself (physically, emotionally, spiritually), withdrawing, isolating, disinterest, harmful self talk (such as self blame), and / or physical self harm.

But she stresses that if you note someone acting this way, you should meet them with “compassion, care and curiosity” instead of judgement or criticism. That goes for yourself as well. You deserve your own compassion when you’re suffering. As Adams says, “The purpose of these habits are to sooth intense overwhelming emotions so adding shame or judgement can worsen [them].”

Some Resources

Therapy is an important resource for times of loss, but there is also a great deal of reading out there when it comes to dealing with grief. Adams claimed to be a fan of When Things Falls Apart by Pema Chodron, and Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant.

There are many stories on the topic, for when you’re ready to immerse yourself in books about grief, many of which you can find in this thread started by author Jessica Valenti.

But Adams said an important resource we often don’t consider is just being out in the world:

I always recommend lots of time in nature! The life-death-life lifecycle is most present and most accepted in nature, so nature can be a wonderful place to feel held and understood in one’s grief. It can be a wonderful place to normalise death. Gardening can be very therapeutic in processing grief because one gets to experience how death feeds into new life, again, really normalising the life-death-life cycle, and bringing that acceptance of loss into daily life.

She also said it’s important to remember that grief is a ritual. We get through it by participating in it. Yell on a mountain top, write a letter in the forest and bury it, cry in the sea. Let yourself express your loss so you don’t just have it sitting there inside you, unchanging. That’s what grief does — it changes, but it doesn’t “go away,” according to Adams.

She says, “It becomes easier to recognise, easier to know what you need in the moment, and less overwhelming.”

Your grief isn’t you. It’s just a part of your life.


Comments

    I recently lost my grandmother after a long and drawn out journey. Her death was not a surprise but my reaction really was. I liken it to needing to go pee after a long movie – if you try and force it all out at once it's just going to hurt more. It needs to slowly release itself over time. It took a good week to feel "normal" again. It's a weird thing.

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