A whirlwind of pain and emotions may make you feel stuck when loss happens. Creating memorials and sharing positive memories may help you manage your grief.
Loss is a part of life. You can feel grief anytime you lose something important to you. Sources of grief can be:
- job loss
- financial hardships
- the breakdown of relationships
It’s okay to not want to focus on managing grief right away. Grieving is an individual process; there’s no right or wrong way to go about it.
You can come back from grief. Symbolism, memorials, and journaling are just some ways to start the process.
Grief may be considered an emotional state, but it can affect your physical well-being, too.
According to a review in 2019 investigating the overlap of brain circuitry in emotional and physical pain, experts found evidence that the intensity of these two experiences is very similar to the body.
For example, telling someone to “just get over” a broken heart might be like telling someone to “just get over” a broken leg.
At first, the immediate grief response can be similar to feeling sick. You may experience:
- loss of energy
- body aches
- stomach upset
- poor sleep
As grief goes on, research shows it can impact your body in specific ways, including:
heart attack or cardiovascular disorder depressed immune response chronic sleep disturbance
- increased stress hormones
- appetite changes
- cognitive impairment and memory decline
persistent, negative thoughts and suicidality
Grief can also contribute to the development of other mental health challenges, such as:
Can grief be fatal?
In some cases, grief can cause a condition known as “broken heart syndrome,” clinically recognized as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy.
While its exact causes are not well understood, broken heart syndrome is thought to result from a stress hormone surge that causes spasms in the heart’s blood vessels.
Broken heart syndrome is a serious heart condition. It isn’t always fatal but can be if not treated promptly.
“The biggest part of navigating grief is finding your own unique support tools and practices that work well with your life,” says Simone Koger, a licensed marriage and family therapist and grief counselor from Spanaway, Washington.
She explains loss involves a one-on-one connection which is why managing grief can mean something different for everyone.
Koger suggests honoring your loss through symbolism. “Finding things that remind you of the person (or pet) you have lost to be reminders of the importance they have in your life,” she says.
Keepsakes and pictures of positive moments can help you recall feelings of joy. If your loss didn’t involve death, reminders of positive outcomes could be helpful.
If you lost a job, for example, a picture on the refrigerator of your dream job may inspire you to go back to school or may motivate you to follow your passion.
Another way of honoring a loss is to create a memorial. Memorials can help alleviate your fears that a loved one might be forgotten by you or others, for example.
Jacquelyn Tenaglia, a licensed mental health counselor from Boston, suggests planting a tree as a living memorial.
Other people have found benefits to physical reminders, like tattoos. Literature from grief researcher Dr. Deborah Davidson notes tattoos, as a form of art, can help articulate the depth of a love that you may not be able to put into words.
“Talk about special memories of them with others,” suggests Tenaglia.
Talking about the good times can be a way to revisit positive memories and temporarily interrupt the slew of negative emotions you may feel after a loss.
Sharing can also help you find support from your friends and family. It can be a reminder that you’re not alone. Often, grief is something multiple people are experiencing at once, even though each process is individual.
“Pain shared is pain halved,” says Dr. Gary Brown, a psychotherapist from Los Angeles. “This is one of the keys to moving through grief. Keeping it in will likely prolong your suffering. If you can’t talk about it, you can’t process it. Reach out to family and friends who you know are supportive.”
Keeping short-term goals
It can be natural to fall into the habit of isolation and withdrawal when you’re experiencing grief.
Brown states, “It is easy to get caught up in withdrawing from life. When you are ready, make a to-do list every day. Having short-term goals can help you feel not so overwhelmed.”
Small goals can help you focus. Instead of looking at everything you have to do in the day or what the future holds, having a list can help you celebrate small accomplishments like eating breakfast.
Before you know it, your list may get you through the entire day without feeling like the weight of the world is on your shoulders.
Being kind to yourself
It’s natural to experience grief. There’s no wrong way to express emotions of loss.
When people around you can’t relate to your experience, they may inadvertently make you feel guilty, embarrassed, or ashamed for feeling the way you do.
According to Brown, it can be important to know what you’re feeling is natural.
“Accept that whatever thoughts and feelings you are having (with the exception of self-harm or harm to others) simply means that you are a normal person, having normal but understandably upsetting reactions, to the loss of a loved one,” he states.
One way to be kind to yourself is through self-care. Eating right, focusing on healthy sleep habits, and remaining active can help your body and mind when healing from grief.
While staying active can help you work through grief, Koger cautions against not allowing yourself time to grieve.
“Make sure to take breaks; some people try to work, literally, through grief, which is a type of avoidance,” she says. “Hold space for your grief.”
Expressing your emotions to someone else isn’t always easy—or possible— if those feelings are overwhelming to say out loud.
Journaling offers a way to explore your grief without fear of judgment. How you journal is as individual as your grieving process.
You might only write down one-word emotions, for example. Some people find descriptive imagery helpful.
Tenaglia recommends writing a letter to that person if grief is due to losing a loved one.
Sometimes, the regret of not having said something can weigh heavily on your mind when you lose someone close to you.
Writing a letter to them is an opportunity to say those things you wish you had said—positive or negative.
Grief can be about finding closure for negative emotions, as well.
Letting yourself cry
“Tears release oxytocin and endorphins, which relieve physical and psychological pain and helps calm your body,” explains Tenaglia.
A 2017 review into the human phenomenon of weeping found not only did it serve as a self-soothe mechanism through endorphin release, but it also communicated the need for support to those around us.
Weeping also had mood-stabilizing properties related to emotional release.
There’s no wrong amount of time to grieve. Grief that isn’t improving or is impairing your life significantly, even though time has passed, may be what’s known as prolonged grief disorder.
Prolonged grief disorder is a clinical diagnosis recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR).
It’s a condition that often requires professional guidance to overcome.
You may also benefit from speaking with a mental health professional if you feel grief coincides with depression, anxiety, or PTSD symptoms.
Grief is a natural experience in life, the emotional result of losing something you held dear.
Everyone’s grieving process is unique. But over time, grief can negatively impact everything in the body, from your mental health to your immune and cardiovascular systems.
Self-care, honoring your loss, and expressing your emotions through journaling or support networks can all help the process of healing from grief.
If grief hasn’t improved over time, or you’re experiencing significant functional challenges, speaking with a mental health professional may help.