Loss, and the grief that often follows it, are normal parts of life. Even so, the symptoms of grief can be varied and intense for many people. While this can make grief extra challenging to get through, there are things we can do—for ourselves and for each other—to help ease the experience. As painful and long-lasting as grief can be, it helps to remember that it’s also part of a healing process, which in the long term helps us recover and move forward with our lives. Here are some tips for understanding and dealing with the grieving process.
Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. These are the five stages of grief, formulated by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the late 60s. The Kübler-Ross model, as it became known, emerged from Kübler-Ross’s attempt to describe some of the common emotional stages she observed in terminally ill patients as they approached the end of their lives. Kübler-Ross and others later expanded the model’s scope to include other sources of grief, such as the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the end of a close relationship—even the disappointment that follows an election defeat. And though the model has been criticized for a lack of hard evidence, it has nonetheless struck a chord with the public for the way it portrays grieving as a process with a manageable emotional arc.
The five stages of grief, however, do not accurately describe the mourning process for everyone. Since grief is a very personal matter, it plays out differently for each person and situation. So despite the five stages appearing to follow each other in neat order, grievers will often discover that the experience is anything but neat and orderly. Some will go through all the stages, but in a different order, and others will experience certain stages but not others. The important thing to remember is that grief that follows its own course is by no means abnormal or unhealthy.
Looking at grief as a process, as well as a healthy reaction to the shock and pain of loss, might provide some hope for those struggling with it. No matter how long or difficult the road may appear, recovery is certainly possible. For those experiencing grief, the tips and practices below may provide some comfort.
The loss of someone close to you, or some other dramatic life change, can be devastating. In the wake of such an event, a person may experience a rollercoaster of intense emotions. Along with profound sadness, feelings like anger, guilt, shock and disbelief can come in waves, often when least expected. Even more confusingly, these feelings may be mixed with moments of happiness or hope. Coping with all this can be physically and mentally exhausting, overwhelming the mourner and making everyday tasks unexpectedly difficult.
In the aftermath of a loss, it’s important to remember that while the mourning process is rarely predictable or easy, it is the mind’s own way of processing what has happened. And the flood of emotions that follows is a normal part of the process. No matter how painful or intense, your feelings are your own, and you have every right to feel them. Acknowledging this is a crucial step to eventually accepting loss, as it allows you to mourn in a way that’s healthy and to eventually adapt to the loss that you’ve experienced.
Talking about your grief with those around you can also be really beneficial. It gives you the opportunity to explore the way you’re feeling, which helps you understand those feelings better. You may find that others have similar experiences, too. Sharing those stories may help you to realize that you’re not alone in your feelings. This can be really beneficial to a bereaved person, who may very well be feeling isolated because of their emotions. Those other people might also be able to offer advice or resources that could be useful, or simply help you with practical matters that might feel overwhelming at the moment. Often, though, there’s a lot of value in simply communicating. It helps you get things off your chest, and it also signals to others—who might not otherwise know—that you’re not yet feeling like yourself and may need more time to recover.
Contrary to a certain saying, time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds. Time can help dull the intensity of a loss, but grief is often long-lasting and can even be cyclical, rushing back at unexpected times and with surprising intensity. Mourners may feel renewed pain on significant dates, such as birthdays and anniversaries, and even seasons can trigger unwanted feelings and memories. When coping with grief, it’s good to remember that these resurgences are entirely natural.
Although there is no timeline for overcoming grief, the passage of time, when combined with positive influences, does tend to be beneficial. As the American Psychological Association states on its website,
“most people can recover from loss on their own through the passage of time if they have social support and healthy habits.”
Though time helps, many mourners will still need to do other things to heal fully. In other words, the process of grief is unique to each person and requires patience.
It’s become quite common for people to seek professional help when confronted with loss and trauma. Grief counselling, a type of psychotherapy, specializes in exactly that need. Grief counsellors can be located in many hospitals, hospices and funeral homes, as well as through provincial health authorities and various organizations. There is, however, some debate over how effective grief counselling is. Ruth Davis Konigsberg, the author of The Truth about Grief, writes about research suggesting that even though grief counselling doesn’t hurt, it also doesn’t help most people get over grief any more than the passage of time. However, Konigsberg does point out that grief counselling shows “a benefit when […] targeted at people displaying marked difficulties adapting to loss.” In other words, when a person feels “stuck” in grief and doesn’t seem to be recovering, it may be a good idea to seek the help of a licensed professional. Alberta Health Services’ Grief Support Program offers counselling services for individuals, families and groups.
Grief has a way of making day-to-day life more difficult than usual. For many mourners, routine decisions, chores and errands become difficult to process, much less carry out. Unfortunately, that means looking after oneself also becomes a challenge. Some people may lose their appetites and stop eating regularly, and some may be tempted to self-medicate with alcohol or other drugs. For those reasons, looking after one’s health becomes especially important when dealing with grief. Physical and mental health are tied to one another in many ways, and grief can weaken the body, making it vulnerable to sickness. One 2014 study at the University of Birmingham in the UK found that elderly people experiencing grief became more susceptible to infectious disease. Research has also linked grief to other ailments, such as increases in blood pressure and physical pain. Fortunately, by focusing on healthy eating and getting enough sleep and exercise, bereaved people can improve their well-being, both physically and mentally. As difficult as it may seem, doing the little things health-wise can provide the early steps to an overall recovery.
Starting a new hobby, pastime or ritual, or continuing an old one, can also do wonders for the healing process. Just having something enjoyable to focus on can provide a welcome break from the emotional grind of grief. A hobby that involves making or studying things generally requires concentration, providing an opportunity to shut out the world and its problems for a portion of the day. Regular activities also have the value of providing the stabilizing influence and comfort of a routine that one can look forward to. While solo activities are fine, and may well be preferred, activities that involve others have the added benefit of bringing a grieving person into closer contact with others. This can provide the social support that some mourners might benefit from and can also widen a person’s social circles.
Just as it helps to talk to others about your loss, so too can it be very therapeutic to offer your ear to someone who is also going through grief. This may be difficult to think about early on in your own recovery. But when you’re ready to do so, turning your loss and your process for dealing with it into a shareable experience can be great for your own healing. Helping others typically feels good, and using your experience to comfort others can help give some meaning to your own grief. So, how does one best help? Often, just being there to listen and spend time with a bereaved friend will be enough. You could also offer to take care of some chores and errands that might be a little overwhelming, especially if your friend’s loss is fresh.
For many people, the goal may be to get to a point where the memory of a loved one can be positive and happy, rather than painful. As we’ve seen though, grief can be unpredictable. It may always be there in some form, or it may come back from time to time. Though it’s difficult to know what lies ahead, mourners may still benefit by trying to remember and honour their loved ones, even if those memories are occasionally tinged with pain. Besides memorializing them, such gestures can help grievers frame their loss in a way that feels positive and respectful.
A common and easy way to remember a loved one is to keep a few mementos to display. Framing photos of happy times, for example, can help you celebrate the life of a loved one rather than remembering the details of their passing. The City of Edmonton’s Benchmark Program makes it possible for people to memorialize their loved ones by creating a new bench or adding a small plaque to an existing bench. Many other municipalities have similar programs. There are any number of ways to memorialize a loved one, and it might be something you want to discuss with family or friends. Whatever you settle on, such gestures can help keep a person alive in memory, celebrating all the ways that they touched the lives of those around them.