Living Through Loss: Coping with Grief in Healthy Ways
The holiday season is wonderful—especially as it brings family and friends together. It’s also a time for self-reflection as the darker days and earlier nights give us a chance to retreat from the hustle and go within.
Yet if you have recently lost a loved one, a beloved pet, an important relationship, a job, a home, or even a dream, this time of year can be one of the most difficult. Coping with grief is challenging any time, but the holidays add another layer of anguish that must be peeled back, as memories of years past surface.
Grief is a natural, normal, and expected response to death or a deep loss. No one is immune. Eventually, we all must face loss of one kind or another, and it’s never easy. While most of us have heard that there are multiple stages of grief, everyone experiences loss differently, and there is no set order or timetable. Common emotions can include:
- Denial or disbelief
- Shock and confusion
- Sadness or yearning
- Despair or depression
- Guilt or shame
- Physical exhaustion
We can’t prepare for the intensity or duration of these emotions, and we’re often surprised by them. Yet, they are also part of loss and intricate to the healing process as we come to terms with coping with grief.
While most of us expect to cry and feel sad, many also experience less-suspected symptoms, like stomach pain and nausea, loss of appetite, confusion, sleep disturbances, loss of energy, or even illness. It’s also common to feel numb or distracted. You may also fixate on what you have lost. Your thoughts can also be affected by your relationship with whom or what you have lost. And you may mentally replay thoughts, emotions, and regrets—especially when the loss was sudden or unexpected.
Coping with Grief: 9 Healthy Ways
Learning to live through loss is vital to mental and physical health. The first and most vital step is giving yourself permission to grieve. Participating in the rituals of grief can be helpful as you mourn. 1
It’s natural to want to escape, ignore, or attempt to dull the pain, yet it’s healthier to:
Allow yourself to mourn. Expressing your grief and sharing it with others who want to support you can help lessen the intensity of your loss.
Connect with others. It’s not unusual to feel like going within or to avoid others during this painful time. Yet the support of others is crucial to healing. Surround yourself with caring friends and relatives. Support groups can also be a very helpful tool for coping with grief since members are often going through similar struggles. You don’t need to go it alone—this is a time to truly connect.
Connect with what’s most important. Finding meaning in your own life can help you adapt to your loss. Spending lots of time outside in nature is one of the best ways to connect with the natural cycle of life and death, which can help you accept and transform your grief. When my sweet big dog died suddenly and unexpectedly last month, I found taking my other dogs to his favorite outdoor places helped me connect with him and all the fun we had together, which helped me better cope with the loss.
Express rather than repress. You have so many intense feelings and sharing them with others can help you work through this process. Or, if you’re not ready to talk or just don’t know what to say, you can take a walk, swim, or even push yourself in the gym. Or, you can choose to express the emotions creatively by writing, painting, or another creative outlet. Be flexible with yourself and how you express your emotions, but most importantly, let them out.
Be patient. Practice patience with yourself and others. It can take months or even years, especially for a major loss, to accept the loss and the changes it brings. Again, there is no set timetable. While the pain does lessen with time, you may still feel a stabbing pain of loss even years later.
Nourish yourself. Many people who are trying to cope with grief find it challenging to prepare and consume healthy foods, 2, 3 yet nourishing the body with colorful vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats is vital for healthy brain functioning and may help you better deal with the sadness and other painful emotions you’re experiencing.
Get enough sleep. Disrupted sleep is common; you may find yourself getting too much or not nearly enough. Do your best to get adequate sleep and maintain your sleep schedule and rituals.
Move your body. Physical exercise has been shown to help relieve sadness and help with coping with grief. 4 If it’s difficult to maintain your exercise routine right now, consider enlisting a friend to help keep you motivated and accountable to ensure you don’t skip your workouts.
Seek help. If your grief is becoming too much to bear, please don’t go it alone. There are professional resources available to help you work through the process of grief. It’s a sign of strength to seek and receive help. Here are a few resources:
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1.800.273.8255
The only thing about coping with grief that’s predictable is that it inevitably follows loss. It is otherwise unpredictable. It can vary from person to person, and even for the same individual, it can be different from loss to loss.
It doesn’t always follow the same timeline or pace and is unique to you. Even years later, you may find yourself caught unaware by a moment of intense loss. My father passed away more than 20 years ago, and I still find myself tearing up during moments when I wish he was here.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Forget about what you “should” do or how you “should” feel; be kind and compassionate to yourself.
Support for Those Coping with Grief
For those who are bearing witness to someone who is coping with grief, here are some ways you can help:
Share their sorrow. You may want to distract your friend or loved one from their grief—to give them something else to focus on. However, it’s even better, more caring, and kinder to allow them–even encourage them–to share their memories, talk about their feelings, or even just hold them through their tears if they feel comfortable.
Listen. No loss is the same. Instead of sharing what may have helped you (unless specifically asked), be willing to take the time to just listen or share their space.
Be there for them. People who are going through loss may need someone to listen to them, or they may need help with their kids, getting nourishing foods, or perhaps running errands. Offer your time to help them through this difficult transition. But don’t say, “Call me if you need anything.” Rather, if you see a need, ask if you can help fill that particular need.
Be patient. It can take months or even years to recover from a major loss. Allow others coping with grief to do so on their own timetable instead of trying to rush them through as much of our Western society does.
Encourage them. If your loved one is experiencing too much pain to cope, encourage them to seek professional help and remind them that it is a sign of strength–not weakness–to reach out.
Most importantly, don’t judge. There are different types of grief and how each person reacts is highly individual.
It’s never easy to lose someone or something you cherish. Through the years, I’ve lost adored grandparents, my father (who was also my mentor, best friend, and biggest cheerleader), daily companions (my beloved pets), dear friends, jobs I loved (being laid off sucks), and even dreams. Every time was different—in terms of timetables, emotions, and what helped the most—yet every time I relied on the connections I had to others and with nature to help me through. Through bad times as well as good, I often remind myself, “This too shall pass.”