Coping with grief after loss can be one of life’s greatest challenges. We all experience loss — whether it’s a death of someone we love, the end of a relationship, decline in health, or a job transition. Loss disrupts the continuity we feel in our lives. And that may throw our emotional balance into turmoil. Sadness, disbelief, anger, and fear can all be part of how we grieve. Or we may even feel detached and numb.
We often describe the grieving process as linear, where we move through these emotions in an orderly, sequential fashion that ends in acceptance. But the truth is healing after loss can seem like a rollercoaster that looks different for everyone.
So what can we do to navigate the grieving process?
Healing After Loss
Grief is a natural response to loss. Although we typically associate grief with the death of a loved one, it can occur during any life transition. Changes in our life — whether old, new, small, or major — deserve to be grieved. Give yourself permission to feel the emotions that come along with change.
Ignoring grief won’t make it go away — when our feelings remain unexpressed, we’re unable to move on from loss. If we don’t allow ourselves space to grieve, our emotional wounds won’t heal properly, like attempting to walk on a broken leg that has not yet set. During this process, it’s more important than ever to take care of your mental and physical health.
- Acknowledge Grief – Grief that isn’t recognized continually calls for our attention and undermines our ability to be present in our lives. At its worst, grief that’s not tended to can reappear in problems such as anxiety, depression, or addiction (Weller, 2015). Acknowledging grief allows you to honor your loss. It says you and your loss matter.
- Give Yourself Time – There’s no timetable for grieving. Depending on the loss, the process may take months or several years for you to fully metabolize what’s happened. The grieving process is also recursive: grief can wax and wane and emotions we thought we already worked through can reemerge. But the more in touch we are to those emotions, the better we’re able to understand what’s occurred and integrate the experience into our lives.
- Practice Self-Compassion – Loss that’s complicated by regret or guilt can slowly chip away at our sense of self, leaving us feeling shame for past events that we can’t change. Practicing self-compassion helps us forgive ourselves for situations we couldn’t control and feel whole again. We should be kind to ourselves as we’re healing.
- Connect with Others – Being seen, heard, and accepted by others going through a similar struggle promotes self-acceptance. Especially during times of loss, connecting with others through groups focused on recovery from grief can help you feel not so alone. “Bonding and belonging” through social connection also fosters resilience (Graham, 2013).
- Understand Loss May Change You – The loss of someone you love leaves a permanent imprint on our lives – holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries will never be the same. As much as we may like for things to return to the way they were, we are not meant to go back. We may come out of grief and loss deeply changed, and that’s ok.
Grief Versus Depression
When grieving, the range of emotions we experience may disrupt our ability to eat, sleep, and self-care. This is completely normal. However, when your feelings of grief do not gradually ease over time, or even become worse and are preventing you from resuming life, this may indicate they’ve transitioned into depression. Accumulated losses and concurrent stressors can increase the risk of grief becoming clinical depression (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Signs of depression include:
- Lack of interest or pleasure in almost all activities that previously brought you joy
- Feelings of excessive guilt unrelated to your loss
- Fatigue and loss of energy every or nearly every day, and persistent sleep disruption
- Diminished ability to think or concentrate and indecisiveness
- Slowed speech or movements that are noticeable by others
- Significant weight loss or gain when not dieting and changes in appetite
- Recurrent thoughts of death or suicidal ideation
Unlike grief, depression is pervasive and interferes with every aspect of life — at home, work, or school. It also involves a more fundamental shift in how we feel about ourselves. Emotional pain that was once focused on loss shifts to feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness. In depression, we may believe we’re fundamentally broken, rather than wounded.
If you’re displaying any of these signs, please reach out for help from your health care provider and know you’re not alone. The National Suicide Prevention Line is also available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 if you or someone you love is having thoughts of suicide.
To Grieve, Is to Be Human
Even though the pain of grief may be difficult and at times feel overwhelming, the grieving process is an essential part of being human. Grief is interwoven with the fabric of human life and the communal, family, and personal loss we all share. We experience grief because we’re capable of feeling love. In knowing loss, we must remember “it is the broken heart, the part that knows sorrow, that is capable of genuine love” (Weller, 2015, p. 9). Grief becomes challenging when the conditions to manage it in a healthy way are lacking. Through our ability to acknowledge and work through loss, we can connect with our own capacity to heal those parts of ourselves that have been damaged.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Ferszt G. & Leveillee M. (2006). How do you distinguish between grief and depression? Nursing. 36(9):60-61.
Graham, L. (2013). Bouncing back: rewiring your brain for maximum resilience and well-being. New World Library.
Penn, A. (2018). Rethinking our relationship with sadness. Delivered at Psych Congress, Orlando, FL.
Smith, M., Robinson, L., & Segal, J. (2019). Coping with grief and loss. Available at https://www.helpguide.org/articles/grief/coping-with-grief-and-loss.htm
Weller, F. (2015). The wild edge of sorrow: rituals and renewal and the sacred work of grief. Berkley, CA: North Atlantic Books.