“We don’t seem to know how to grieve, said Christina G. Hibbert, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in grief and loss.
In fact, that’s the number one question Hibbert gets: “How do I grieve?”
Many people use unhealthy ways to cope, such as ignoring their feelings, isolating themselves, setting a time limit or pretending their way through the grieving process, she said.
But when you’re in it, in the thick of the pain, confusion and chaos, it’s hard to pick anything healthy. Instead you pick whatever you know, whatever is nearby or whatever is easiest.
Navigating grief takes work. And it may mean doing things you’re unfamiliar or uncomfortable with, such as actually feeling your feelings. But it’s worth it.
Hibbert understands the complexities and pain of grief firsthand. In her memoir, This Is How We Grow, she writes about the four years following the passing of her closest sister and brother-in-law and inheriting her two nephews.
We may not naturally know the best ways to handle grief or we may resist following them. Like most things in life, we can practice, and we can learn.
Below, Hibbert shared her insight into helpful, healthy ways to navigate grief.
Hibbert stressed the importance of families working through their grief together. As she put it, “Families who feel together heal together.” For instance, families may talk through your grief, listen to each other and cry together.
Helping a loved one through their grief means being there for them, she said. “Let them talk, cry, tell their story over and over to you. Say, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and ‘I’m here for you.’”
Acknowledge your feelings.
Avoid ignoring, escaping, pretending or burying your feelings, she said. Instead, FEEL them: Freely Experience Emotion with Love.
“It’s OK to express that sadness, or anger, or fear, or pain, or whatever you’re feeling.”
Give yourself permission to sit with your feelings. “Do so lovingly, never judging what you feel. It only takes a couple of minutes to let your feelings be heard, and once they are, they usually quiet down for a while.”
(She talks more about feeling overwhelming feelings in this video.)
Give yourself time to grieve.
Don’t put a time limit around your grief, which is a process. “Your relationship with the deceased is unique and personal. It takes as long as it takes to grieve the loss,” Hibbert said.
Engage in healthy activities.
In response to her clients wanting to know how to grieve, Hibbert created this anagram: TEARS. “It stands for Talking, Exercise, Artistic expression, Recording emotions and experiences, and Sobbing.”
In other words, you can talk about your grief; physically release difficult emotions with exercise; express grief through dancing, painting, making collages or making music (these are especially helpful outlets for kids); write about your thoughts and feelings; or cry.
Many people think weeping is for the weak. It’s not. Consider the words of Washington Irving, which Hibbert quotes in a piece on grief: “There is sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness—but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of over-whelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”
Practice deep breathing.
While processing her own grief, Hibbert found deep breathing to be helpful. “Practicing breathing from the diaphragm in a calming pattern helps slow the anxiety and tension that can often hit us in grief.”
According to Hibbert, counseling can give people an unbiased perspective and teach them healthy coping skills. She especially recommended counseling when grief has severely affected a person’s daily life.
Seek therapy if you’re experiencing an intense depression, feel suicidal or don’t know how to cope, she said.
Therapy also is an excellent option for families. It helped Hibbert and her family cope with their tragic loss. “We must find ways to bridge the grief gaps in our relationships, and seek outside help as needed, to keep our families strong.”
Dealing with grief is a process that takes time. Give yourself the space to feel your feelings, practice self-care and seek support, from loved ones and a professional, if needed.