Grief is a highly individual process, as unique as the people experiencing it. Everything from our personal histories and culture to personality traits and temperament affects how we experience and cope with a major loss in our life.
That said, based on my own work as a therapist, it seems to me there are some common themes in the stories of people who manage to grieve well.
What follows are 6 suggestions to help you think about and navigate your own grieving process in a compassionate, constructive, and healthy way.
1. Don’t Put Time-limits On Your Grief.
A common question I’m asked from people mourning a significant loss is:
Is it supposed to take this long?
Most of us understand that grief is normal and inevitable after a major loss. But the duration of grief is not as well understood. Many people think that it should last for a year but no more. Some people think it may last for a while but should feel much easier after the first couple of weeks.
Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any way to know how long your grief “should” last. It’s important to acknowledge this inherent uncertainty instead of fighting against it by putting artificial deadlines on your grief, which often backfire.
Grief does lessen with time, but how quickly and to what extent is difficult to predict.
If you experience a major loss, you will always feel some sadness and grief when reminded of that loss. And while that can be hard to accept, it makes sense if you think about it: If someone or something was a major part of your life, it’s not realistic to think that just because you’ve gone through a grieving process you will no longer feel sadness or regret when you’re reminded of it.
Grief is about learning to accept and manage our sadness around loss, not to eliminate it.
2. Resist Comparing Your Grief to Other People’s.
In the age of Instagram and Dr. Google, it’s all-to-easy to compare our grief and the grieving process to that of other people.
This impulse to compare and contrast our grief with others is natural. We’re social creatures and we crave the knowledge that what we’re experiencing isn’t completely foreign or outside the norm. This means it’s not surprising when we find ourselves wishing we could get on with life as quickly as our sister-in-law did. Or wondering why our co-worker was able to so quickly bounce back after being laid off and start applying for new jobs.
But the act of comparing our grief to that of others and then judging it accordingly usually isn’t helpful.
For one thing, everyone’s life and circumstances and the nature of their loss is unique. This means even if the superficial details look similar, comparing griefs is always an apples to oranges comparison. Sure, you and your co-worker both got laid off. But maybe your co-worker had lass of his identity wrapped up in his work, which would mean his experience of loss would be far less than yours. Or maybe, unbeknownst to you, he had been itching to switch careers anyway, so this loss was actually an opportunity for him.
The second reason to avoid too much comparison when it comes to grief is that it’s usually invalidating. Baked into most comparisons is a subtle evaluation that our grief should look and feel more like someone else’s. The implication is that there’s something wrong with our grief.
Consequently, in addition to feeling bad about your loss, you’re feeling bad about feeling bad. This second layer of painful emotion will only make processing your grief harder and longer, so it’s best to avoid the comparisons and remind yourself that even though it seems like a simple comparison, it’s never that simple.
Grief is complex. And complexity doesn’t lend itself well to superficial comparisons.
3. Spend Time Grieving Intentionally.
This one sounds strange, but it’s based on a key idea in the mechanics of emotion: What we resist, persists.
When our mind see us fighting with or running away from something (including an emotion like sadness, for example), it learns to see that thing as a threat. This means the next time something triggers your sadness, your mind is going to go on high alert, increasing your anxiety and overall level of emotionality.
Trying to avoid difficult emotions only makes them stronger in the long-run.
But if you flip this idea on its head, it leads to a counterintuitive but powerful solution: By deliberately approaching difficult emotions like sadness, we can train our brain to become more comfortable with them.
And while the pain of sadness will always be there, it’s a lot easier to work through and bear when it’s not also overburdened with fear, shame, frustration, and all sorts of other difficult feelings that come from training our minds to think of sadness as dangerous.
Practically speaking, one of the best things you can do is make time to grieve and be sad on purpose. Carve out some time on a regular basis to approach your grief and sadness intentionally and willingly. So, you might make out 10 minutes each evening and write in your journal about the sadness you’re feeling or about the memories that are most painful for you.
When you approach your grief willingly, it signals to your own mind that what you’re experiencing is painful but not bad or dangerous.
This is probably the most powerful but underutilized technique for managing grief I know of. Every single time I’ve recommended it and a client has followed through with it consistently, they’ve reported surprisingly positive results.
Like a good friend who listens compassionately, grieving intentionally validates your pain and suffering.
4. Seek Out The Right Kind of Social Support.
The idea that you should seek out social support during grief is one of the most common pieces of advice out there for processing grief. It’s also one of the most misunderstood.
The key mistake people make is that they assume social support means talking to other people specifically about your grief or loss:
Joining a support group.
Long, emotionally draining conversations with loved ones.
Seeing a professional counselor or therapist.
And while deliberately talking about and sharing your grief can be helpful for some people at certain stages, that’s not the only way to get social support while you’re grieving.
Just because you’re grieving, doesn’t mean you have to talk about your grief all the time!
It’s perfectly okay to want to spend time with people and actually not talk about your grief, your loss, your feelings, etc. In fact, this is a great place to start if you’re not sure how to start the grieving process or if you feel like it’s not going well: just start spending little bits of time with people you enjoy doing activities you enjoy:
Go to the driving range with a buddy and talk about sports.
Meet a girlfriend for coffee and talk about politics.
Get back into that book club you used to enjoy.
Simply being connected is what’s important during grief.
If you’re not feeling up for it, don’t put pressure on yourself to feel like you have to “process” your grief all the time. Just because you don’t feel like “talking about your feelings” doesn’t mean you’re avoiding them.
Unfortunately, many people experiencing grief feel a kind of social pressure or expectation to talk about their grief with friends and family. If you feel like this pressure is leading you to avoid people or activities you would normally enjoy, simply send them an email or text and let them know that you’d love to hang out and need a break from talking about your loss and grief.
Your grief process is your own. Which means how and when you choose to talk about it is up to you.
5. There’s More to Grief Than Sadness.
A common pattern I see among people who struggle with grief is that they believe it’s somehow wrong or unnatural to feel anything other than sorrow and sadness. But these rigid demands and expectations for their emotional lives often end up magnifying their suffering.
By limiting our grief exclusively to sadness, we end up invalidating the emotionally complex nature of grief.
Remember, grief is a response to significant loss. And while sadness is often a large or even dominant part of our emotional reaction to loss, it’s almost never the only one.
It’s okay to feel happy and even joyful at time during the grieving process.
It’s okay to feel angry and disappointed, even if you feel those toward a person you’ve lost.
It’s okay to feel afraid or anxious about your future as a result of your loss.
In short, it’s okay to feel anything when you’re grieving. And while many of the emotions we feel are difficult or even painful, it’s important to acknowledge and validate all of them as legitimate and natural.
In fact, in my experience, a common factor among people who transition exceptionally well through grief is that they’re remarkably open and accepting of all their emotions and reactions during grief. They take it as it comes, without judgment or expectation.
Healthy grief means embracing the full range of emotions it contains with compassion and understanding.
6. Take Your Self-care Seriously.
An under appreciated part of healthy grieving is taking care of yourself, especially your body.
When loss and grief strike, your life is understandably thrown into disarray and disorder. From legal and logistical issues to social and emotional changes, grief can be chaotic.
Unfortunately, amid the chaos and confusion of grief, many people let go of healthy habits and routines they normally engage in. Ironically, this makes it harder to navigate your grief well.
Changes to physical health habits are especially harmful:
Diet and nutrition
It’s easy to slip into unhelpful eating habits during times of grief. The content and quantity of how much we eat can have a profound effect on our emotional and physical wellbeing. Both overeating and undereating can actually make it harder to navigate the many challenges of grief and the grieving process.
Exercise and physical activity
It’s natural to experience low levels of energy and motivation during grief. Which, of course, can make getting regular exercise challenging. But the reverse is true too — one of the best ways to gain energy, restore motivation and enthusiasm, and better regulate painful emotions is by staying physically active and exercising regularly. Even committing to a short daily walk can make all the difference.
For many people going through the grieving process, bedtime and sleep can be an especially difficult time. While visitors, activities, and to-dos keep the mind occupied to some extent during the day, at bedtime many people experience a flood of painful memories, thoughts, and emotions. Consequently, they end up avoiding bedtime and disrupting their sleep routines and schedules. But poor sleep makes just about everything in life harder, including managing the many challenges of grief.
It’s natural during times of grief to have our focus dominated by thoughts of the person or things we’ve lost. But try your best not to let your attention and energies be totally dominated by it. If you’re going to grieve well, you need a solid foundation of self-care, especially diet, exercise, and sleep.
You can’t grieve well if you don’t take care of yourself.
All You Need to Know
Grief is a process that largely unfolds on its own. Rather than trying to force it into something specific or run away from it, try to approach it with acceptance and gentleness:
Don’t put time-limits on your grief.
Don’t compare your grief to other people’s.
Spend time grieving intentionally.
Seek out the right social support.
There’s more to grief than sadness.
Take your self-care seriously.
This article originally appeared in Mind Cafe and was written by Nick Wignell.