Feeling overwhelmingly sad may be a natural reaction to loss. But what do you do when the emotion stops you in your tracks?
Loss is a unique experience. Not everyone goes through mourning and grief in the same way, and there’s no such thing as “grieving correctly.”
In fact, grief can take many different forms, from feelings of numbness to unstoppable tears. Some people go through five stages of loss, but other people have different experiences. Every reaction is unique and valid.
There’s no deadline for grieving. How long it takes you to process a loss depends on many factors. One of them could be the resources you have at hand. For example, your coping skills.
Grief usually refers to deep emotional sorrow resulting from a loss. However, it’s not always the loss of a loved one.
Losing a home or job, experiencing a natural disaster, or even witnessing someone you love go through a difficult time may cause you to grieve. For some people, the end of a romantic relationship may also lead to grieving.
Despite what some people may believe, grief and depression are not the same.
Depression is a formal mental health diagnosis with specific and identifiable criteria or symptoms.
In some cases, an unresolved grieving process could lead to symptoms of depression. But this is not always the case and depends on many factors.
Both grief and depression can involve feelings of sadness and hopelessness, but with grief, these are typically connected to a specific event or loss.
Symptoms of depression may also last longer and often require the support of a mental health professional to manage them, which is not usually the case with grieving.
Coping skills are those thoughts and actions you use to respond to events that may cause you distress. You have probably learned this along the way and from influence and experience.
These skills are conscious strategies you put in place to manage emotions such as anger, anxiety, fear, or sadness. They don’t necessarily resolve the situation, but you may find they help you manage how you feel.
For example, after a fight with your partner, you could practice meditation for 10 minutes or have a glass of wine.
Coping skills can be simple tactics you use in the moment as you feel your emotions rise. They can also be long-term strategies you focus on when you’re going through extended difficult periods, like when you’re grieving.
But not all coping skills help you relieve distress. Some may actually delay the process and some of them may put you or someone else’s safety in jeopardy.
Avoidant vs. active coping skills
When you experience grief, you may find yourself working with active or avoidant coping skills. It may depend on the situation or on how you’re used to managing distressing events.
Active coping means you try to directly address the source of your emotional pain with thoughts or actions that change the event itself or the way you look at it.
Avoidant coping skills are more about using strategies that take your mind or heart off the event.
For example, an active coping skill may be asking someone to help you solve a problem, while an avoidant coping skill could be alcohol use.
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The goal of coping skills is often to reduce or endure the negative emotions and thoughts that may come with grief or about actively solving problems.
Also known as “looking at the bright side,” positive reframing may feel challenging at first, particularly when grieving.
Reframing can be cognitive — focused on your thoughts, or emotional — focused on how you feel.
It’s natural to feel there are no positives in your loss. But with positive reframing, you’re not disregarding the importance of your loss. You’re focusing on appreciating those aspects that may still connect you with the person or event you lost.
For example, you may focus on good memories and lessons learned, or you could work on a tribute. These actions may reframe your grieving emotions and bring you temporary relief.
Laughter during a time of loss may feel impossible, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t moments here and there where you can find humor.
It may depend on your situation, and it doesn’t have to always work, but actively pursuing humor can help you cope with grief.
You could focus on funny memories with your loved one, for example. You could also watch your favorite comedy or check funny pictures from the past.
The goal is not to dismiss or disregard the importance of your loss. It’s to help you hold on to more positive emotions — even if temporarily — that may bring you some relief to cope.
Feeling connected to a higher purpose, or having a sense of an afterlife, can be comforting.
If you’ve lost someone close to you, believing in a pain-free existence after death may ease the burden of grief.
If that’s not your case, you can connect with whatever resonates more with you, from closure rituals to prayer.
Acceptance is not about being OK with your loss. It’s natural if you feel you’ll never be. Instead, it’s more about focusing on what comes next and how you learn to live with the loss.
Focusing on readjusting to your new reality may elicit positive emotions, such as hope and gratitude.
Perhaps you’ve heard some people say it’s important to gain perspective. This usually means looking at a wider picture, contemplating more than the immediate aspects of a situation.
Perspective is relative and subjective. It may be about perception, too.
To cope with grief, try focusing on aspects that go beyond the loss. For example, what you learned from the loss itself or from the person or event you lost.
Not all grief is related to irreversible loss, such as the death of a loved one.
In some cases, you may be able to take control of your situation and solve problems to improve your outcome.
If you’ve ended a long-term relationship, now may be the time for self-introspection. You could also focus on specific tasks, such as moving to a new place, reorganizing your drawers, or separating joint accounts.
Positive coping skills can feel like self-care, but they are different. Both are important when you’re grieving, though.
In a sense, self-care is a coping skill. It helps you manage your emotions and get proactive about your distress.
Self-care can include:
- starting psychotherapy
- practicing relaxation techniques
- asking for support
- going to the doctor for a check-up
- reconnecting with family and friends
- starting a new hobby
- pursuing your academic or professional goals
Coping skills aren’t the same as defense mechanisms, either.
Defense mechanisms are primarily subconscious reactions to protect your psychological well-being during extreme stress.
Coping skills are more deliberate. They aim to solve and overcome situations or reduce distress.
You can often choose which coping strategy works best for a stressful event, but you’re often not aware of your subconscious defense mechanisms.
For instance, reaction formation is a common defense mechanism during distressing times. It involves behaving in an opposite way to how they feel.
In this case, you could behave optimistically despite feeling sad after a breakup. This is your mind protecting you from the pain.
A coping skill would be going out with friends or family and asking for their support because you accept you’re feeling down.
Developing coping skills can take time. If you’re dealing with grief right now, you can put your coping skills to work by:
- activing seeking and accepting support from others
- acknowledging you are in the grieving process
- focusing on solving immediate problems
- expressing your feelings out loud or in a journal
- learning to recognize emotional triggers
- getting involved in activities you usually enjoy
- being kind and patient to yourself about your process
- getting plenty of rest
- setting goals, even if they’re small and immediate
If you feel you’re having a particularly difficult time grieving, know that this is natural and common. If it’s getting in the way of you completing important tasks or taking care of yourself and others, you may want to consider reaching out for help.
On some occasions, unresolved grief may lead to complicated grief or depression. Discussing how you feel with a trained professional could help you begin your path to healing.
Grief is a universal experience and there’s no right or wrong way to go about it. Even if it feels difficult at the moment, grieving may become less intense with time.
Developing coping skills for grief and other difficult moments may help you manage your emotions and step into a healing path.
In some cases, especially if you feel you’re having a difficult time overcoming challenges, a mental health professional may help.
If you decide to take this step, these resources can help:
- American Psychiatric Association’s Find a Psychiatrist tool
- American Psychological Association’s Find a Psychologist tool
- Asian Mental Health Collective’s therapist directory
- Association of Black Psychologists’ Find a Psychologist tool
- Latinx Therapy’s therapist finder
- National Alliance on Mental Illness Helplines and Support Tools
- National Institute of Mental Health’s Helpline Directory
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
- Inclusive Therapists