How to Cope with Grief & Loss
Updated: Jul 14, 2021
In my previous posts on grief, titled “The Diversity of Grief,” I discuss the diversity of feeling experiences people go through when in grief, what it means to “ride the waves of grief,” and the unique experiences of losing an animal companion. In “The Signs of Deep Grief,” I explain what deep grief is and outline some of the signs and symptoms you may feel if you are deeply grieving. In this post, I offer suggestions on how to process and cope with the loss of a loved one in your life, whether that is through death or a significant relationship ending or similar such losses. Loss is inevitable for each and every one of us, so it’s important that we know ways we can process our feelings and begin to heal our broken hearts.
Feeling/Expressing — Perhaps, above all else, the most critical thing we can do to support our grieving process is to feel. For many, this is the hardest part. Our feelings of sadness, emptiness, longing, and loss can be so intense and painful that we don’t want to feel them. But it’s the most natural thing when we lose someone or something we love, to experience feelings that long to be expressed. For many, anger, depression, and crying (perhaps loudly or quietly or in waves) are common ways that feelings of grief and loss are expressed. It’s also okay if we don’t feel tears that wish to be expressed, but if we do, it’s important to give them time and a safe space to flow. Whatever the feelings are, being patient and giving yourself open time and space to be in the feelings can be a profound, cathartic, and extremely healing experience.
Journaling — Writing down your feelings and thoughts that arise about your loved one and your loss of them can be extraordinarily therapeutic. Whether you write about the happy memories you shared together, regrets or anger you have, or simply how much you miss them and ache for their presence, our psyches and souls often feel spoken to when we write down our thoughts and feelings.
Walking/Being in Nature — Many of us are aware of the healing power of nature. Just being or walking amongst trees, rocks, soil, water, and all the creatures of the Earth provides a safe, peaceful, and reliable container in which to have your feelings. Even for those of you who feel most safe and comfortable grieving under the covers in your bed, I encourage you to go out regularly in nature and let her powerful healing qualities restore you. If you have a chance to be near the ocean, it can be especially healing in times of loss. The eternal ebb and flow of the waves and the rhythmic sound of the moving water soothes our minds, calms our frayed nerves, and speaks to the natural cycle of life and death for us all.
Creating — Whether or not you consider yourself artistically inclined, creating in any form can be a wonderful way to take the difficult feelings you have and channel them into a new form. Some people make paintings or take photographs to express the feelings they have inside. Others write poetry. Some may choreograph a dance or simply follow their body’s natural movements in the moment to express their deepest feelings. If you are an artist or long to be, grief and loss might be just the impetus to create a project that comes from your personal loss but speaks to others on a much larger level. It can be cathartic to turn your grief into art, and it can give you a sense of purpose when life feels otherwise empty and without a clear path ahead.
Serving Others — Sometimes the only thing that soothes a broken heart is giving back to others who are also struggling. That could look like volunteering at a food kitchen, visiting with seniors at a senior center, dedicating time to a social or political cause, feeding and petting animals at an animal sanctuary, or countless other acts of kindness. The essential thing to remember is that you feel good while you’re doing it, or feel even in a tiny way temporarily relieved from the intensity of your grief. This could also include continuing your work in a healing profession if you are a psychotherapist, massage therapist, acupuncturist, or other type of healer. Stay conscious of how much time you need to process your loss before returning to your work with others, as it’s vital that your work is “clean” of your own complicated feelings and that you are able to be present and focused on another. However, when the time is right, focusing your mind, energy, and presence on another can be an important and healing diversion from your inner life.
Talking — Much of grief happens silently inside of us. That may be because we simply feel private about our feelings, or that we don’t feel particularly verbal about our inner experiences, or we feel that no one really understands us, or perhaps because we don’t feel we have anyone close to us who cares. Although I firmly believe in each person following what is best for them, I do strongly suggest that we at least sometimes talk with someone we trust about our feelings of grief and loss. Sometimes a significant other or relative is the best choice; sometimes it’s a good friend; sometimes it’s a grief support group with others who are intimately familiar with your particular kind of loss. However, depending on how intense and disturbing those feelings are or how alone you feel, it may be best to talk with a trusted therapist who can really hold the feelings and follow where they need to go. It is not necessary to “go it alone” when we grieve.
Remembering — When one of my loved ones passed, there was a period of time when the only thing that would stop my tears from flowing and temporarily pause the intense feelings of loss was to look at photographs and watch videos of my beloved. Doing so felt a little bit like being with them again and brought calm upon me like nothing else could. Sometimes we need to do things to actively remember our lost loved ones in the moment, such as recalling in our mind’s eye special moments we shared together that made us laugh or smile, or when we exchanged love. Photographs, videos, reading old letters, or old journal entries might conjure up these happy memories.
Staying Busy vs. Taking Down Time — I’ve found in my own life as well as in my work with grieving clients that there is a fine balance between staying busy and taking down time to feel when it comes to grieving a loss. Some of us tend towards never stopping to feel, and simply staying on course with our responsibilities, commitments, and engagements. Of course, this may be because we are a single parent or have financial pressure that requires us to keep working, or we have other responsibilities that can’t be dropped. However, if the feelings of grief and loss are intense, I think it’s important to give some amount of time to just be in the feelings and not have to do anything else. Feelings of grief typically want to be expressed, whether alone or with another, and if they are continually pushed away and never get space, they tend to cause problems down the road emotionally, psychologically, or physically. On the other hand, for those who have more privilege around time off and support, we may get pulled too far down for too long and may need the opposite advice—to return to some of our daily routine, activities, and responsibilities. This can be a fine line. Some moments we may need to drop down and give space and time to simply feel, while in other moments we may need to intentionally leave that space and return to our normal life. Again, get the help of a therapist to see what’s best for you, and always follow your inner feedback with as much awareness as you can.
Connecting — Many find it powerful, profound, and/or comforting to connect with a loved one after they have passed away. If your beliefs allow for it, consider connecting with your loved one in various ways through meditation, visualization, energy work, talking with them, or even through an intuitive who specializes in communicating with people or animals in other realms. You could also ask your loved one to visit you in your nighttime dreams, enjoying the reunion together. You can simply talk to them, either out loud or in your mind, tell them how you feel, ask them how they are doing, thank them for all they gave you, get their advice, and continue your relationship with them in this new way. You can also close your eyes, get centered, and visualize them with you or feel their energy or spirit around you. Some people automatically and unconsciously believe that your relationship with a loved one who has passed away is now over. Again, if your beliefs allow for it, consider that although your relationship in its earthly form has changed, you may wish to continue the relationship in this new form. It’s amazing how, for many, these relationships live on and grow and change in new and profoundly healing ways.