Losing someone or something that we love or care about is one of the biggest challenges that we face as humans. The painful feelings associated with grief and loss can leave us wondering how we are supposed to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and the process is rarely linear. However, there are a few healthy steps that you can take to help yourself cope with and adapt to your loss.
What is grief?
Grief is a natural and normal response to loss that we’ll all experience at some stage in our lives. It describes the painful emotions that we feel when we lose someone or something that we care deeply about – for example, a friend or relative, a job or career we love, a sudden loss of mobility or a romantic relationship. These feelings can be overwhelming at times and you might initially wonder how they’ll ever pass.
The range of emotions experienced by someone who is grieving can vary, and it’s important to remember that there’s no right or wrong way to feel. Some people report feelings of shock, sadness, anger, and guilt. Others might find themselves going through a period of denial, where they are unable to fully accept what has happened. Your loss is personal to you, so remember that no matter what you’re feeling, your emotions are perfectly valid.
For several decades, psychologists have attempted to explain the grieving process by using a five-stage model. This describes the stages of grief as: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. The model isn’t perfect – in that it cannot set out exactly how the grieving process will be for everyone. But it may provide you with some comfort, by helping you to make sense of some of your emotions, and to see the light at the end of the tunnel. You can read more about the five stages of grief, here.
How can grieving affect daily life?
The painful emotions associated with grief can take a toll on your mental health. You might find little pleasure in the things that you would normally enjoy – like reading, watching TV, or socialising. Some people also say that they experience grief in waves, meaning that they can go through a roller-coaster of emotions daily. This can be mentally taxing, so if you are grieving, you might feel more tired than usual.
Grief can also impact your physical health if you are finding it difficult to sleep, eat, and exercise as you normally would. Some people also engage more than usual in destructive habits such as drinking or smoking, in order to try and cope with the pain they’re feeling.
What can I do to help myself cope with grief and loss?
In the same way that there’s no right or wrong way to feel when you experience a loss, there’s also no “right” way to deal with grief. However, there are a few healthy coping mechanisms you could try that might help.
Acknowledge how you feel
Grief can be devastating, and it’s not uncommon for people to try and suppress or ignore feelings associated with it to try and cope. While this may offer some temporary relief, negative feelings that are never acknowledged or worked through can bubble up to the surface later on. This can prolong the grieving process, making it harder for you to move forward.
Heavy drinking, anxiety, and depression are some of the issues that can arise as a result of unresolved grief – so it’s important to try and acknowledge your feelings, as difficult as this might be.
Some people find it easier to write them down on paper. You could start by writing or saying, “Today, I feel [sadness]. My feelings are valid, and I have every right to feel [sad].” It’s generally much easier to stop running from your feelings once you can identify and validate them. It’s often shame, embarrassment and/or a feeling that we should just get on with things that prevent us from doing this.
For help putting your thoughts and feelings down on paper, it might be helpful to have a look at our article The power of journaling as a life habit.
Find a healthy outlet for your emotions
Once you’ve acknowledged your feelings, it can be helpful to find a way to express them in a tangible or creative way. This is where a journal can come in handy as some people find it beneficial to put their feelings down on paper.
This could be in the form of a letter to the person close to you who has died, or perhaps a poem. If writing isn’t your thing, then you could try making a scrapbook, a photo album, or even doing some painting, to help harness positive memories of who or what you have lost.
Exercise can also be a great way to release feelings of frustration and anger. It triggers the release of endorphins (happy hormones), and these along with the exertion can help you to feel calmer and more relaxed afterwards.
Be patient and give yourself time
Grief is something that cannot be rushed and the amount of time that it takes someone to move through the process can vary. If you find yourself grieving for more or less time than other people, this is okay.
Time is one of the biggest healers when it comes to grief, so it’s important to be kind to yourself and allow yourself as much time as you need to work through it fully.
Try to carry on with activities that you enjoy
Although difficult, many people find that re-engaging with activities that they enjoy and maintaining a sense of routine, can act as a distraction and help to ease the grief. At first, you might not feel like doing anything at all – which is completely normal.
If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, then you might also feel guilty at the thought of enjoying yourself without them. This too is normal. However, it’s important to remember that life does carry on, you do deserve to be happy again, and that your loved one would want you to be doing things that bring you joy too.
When you first start trying to enjoy the activities that you used to, or to return to your normal daily routine, you might feel as though you are just going through the motions. This is okay, and it’s important not to rush yourself to feel anything other than what you feel at the time. Just the fact that you are out there giving it a go, can offer you some hope that one day you might enjoy life again.
When you’ve lost someone or something you love, you might find yourself going back over the past and thinking about what you should have said to someone who is no longer here, or what you could have done differently to keep a job you’ve been made redundant from.
As you process the pain of your loss, try to forgive yourself for the things that you feel you should have done. This will become easier as you move through the pain that you’re feeling and come to terms with your loss.
If you’re finding it hard to focus on the here and now, because you’re still focusing on what could have been, then consider practising mindfulness. In a nutshell, to stay mindful means to focus solely on the present moment; by concentrating on smells, tastes, sights, textures, and noises in your immediate surroundings.
We’ve written an introductory guide to mindfulness with tips on how to get started.
Reach out to others
Time alone to process your feelings can be helpful, but it can also be helpful to reach out to others and talk about how you’re feeling. For example, you might find it beneficial to celebrate and remember the life of a loved one who has passed away by talking to others. If the other person knew them as well, perhaps swap positive memories with one another.
There’s no shame in struggling to cope on your own. Reaching out to a friend or family member to ask for support can help you to take a step forward in the grieving process.
If you’ve lost someone, find healthy ways to stay connected with them
Although an important part of the grieving process is about one day being able to move on with your life, this doesn’t mean that you’ll forget the person who has died. People who have loved and lost someone often say that the pain becomes less intense over time, but that the memories of the person stay with them forever.
Sometimes, the fear of forgetting someone or of memories fading can prolong the grieving process as people fear losing the memories they shared. For this reason, it can be helpful to find healthy ways to stay connected to your loved one.
This could involve creating a memory box full of their photos and other sentiments that remind you of them, or writing down meaningful memories while they’re fresh in your mind.
Don’t let anyone else tell you how you should be feeling
While it can be a good thing to reach out to friends and family members when you’re dealing with grief, never let anyone else tell you what you should think or how you should feel about your loss.
We all grieve differently and having someone tell you that you should be feeling X when you’re feeling Y, can make you feel as though your emotions aren’t valid. It’s then easy to end up stuck in a battle with yourself over what you’re actually feeling and what you’re being told you should feel. Grieving itself is difficult enough, without having the added burden of feeling like you’re doing it wrong.
Look after yourself
Even if you don’t feel like it, try to make a conscious effort to sleep and wake at reasonable times, eat healthy balanced meals, and exercise when you can.
Grief can make you feel as though doing these things is pointless. But neglecting your health can intensify grief and make it much harder for you to move through the healing process.
Join a support group
Joining a support group can give you a chance to talk to others who are going through similar experiences to you. Sharing tips and advice, or simply listening to others, can help you to feel less alone and reassure you that your experiences are normal.
Bereavement.co.uk is an online service that provides a community for people experiencing bereavement. It includes a Facebook group, a support forum, and a live chat room. Each of these services helps people connect with others who are dealing with similar emotions, in order for them to support each other.
You can also use this helpful NHS search tool to find bereavement support services near you.
Other resources that might help…
- If you’d like to speak to someone non-judgemental and impartial about how you are feeling, you could try contacting Cruse Bereavement Care on 0808 808 1677 or [email protected].
- Sleep can have a significant impact on how we feel both mentally and physically. For tips and advice on how to improve your sleeping patterns, visit the sleep and fatigue section of our site.
- The NHS have a number of mental wellbeing audio guides that are designed to boost your mood.
- If you’re experiencing feelings of hopelessness and/or desperation, then volunteers at Samaritans and Silver Line are available to offer a listening ear and some kind words 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Contact Samaritans on 116 123 or Silver Line on 0800 470 8090.
What to do if your grief doesn’t get better
There’s no set grieving period and some people will grieve for longer than others. However, if you find that you’re unable to accept your loss, you’re constantly blaming yourself, or you’re finding it difficult to carry on with everyday activities for a prolonged period, then you might need access to professional help.
If you’re feeling this way, it’s worth phoning up your local GP practice and finding out what help could be available to you.