Losing a loved one is an experience we will all face. Yet grief is a unique process that looks and feels different for everyone, making it difficult to navigate and understand.
While your personal wellness may (or may not) take a back seat during the grieving process, experts suggest that you try not to abandon your own needs completely. Try these seven ways to take care of yourself while going through grief.
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1. Feel Your Feelings and Take Time to Reflect
Grief is personal. While there are general stages of grief, we all experience loss differently, according to Milica Popovic, a trauma therapist at Compass Health Center in Chicago.
"Grief can't look a certain way because all of the losses we're experiencing are so different," she says. "Grief doesn't happen in any particular order, for any particular duration. You can bounce between stages of grief. It's just not linear."
No matter where you are in the process, give your emotions the time and attention they need, Popovic says. For some people, that might simply look like sitting and reflecting on their feelings. For others, it might involve writing in a journal.
Try writing about your emotions in paragraph form or creating various bulleted lists outlining your thoughts, Popovic says. You might even consider writing a letter to your lost loved one, she adds, as a way to process and cope with the emotions you're feeling.
"Be conscious of the actions you're taking and the intentions behind those actions."
If journaling isn't your thing, there are other creative outlets that might be soothing. Paint or draw the emotions you're feeling or images that help you be present with those feelings, Popovic says.
For people who could use a little more structure, Popovic recommends guided meditation to help you identify and understand your feelings. You can find guided meditations for grief online or in smartphone apps like Headspace or Calm.
No matter which method you choose for self-reflection, make it one that works for you, Popovic stresses. And you don't need to go from 0 to 100 in one day: If you decide to journal, spend just a few minutes on your first entry. Maybe by your fifth or sixth session, you'll sit for a half-hour — if that's what feels best for you.
2. Water Your SEEDS
SEEDS stands for sleep, eating, exercise, doctors' orders and self-care. And after a traumatic experience, many people feel less important than what's going on around them and abandon their SEEDS, Popovic explains.
"It's important to contribute to your SEEDS because they're our foundation," she says. "When any one of those things falls out of balance, we're so much more susceptible to react to what's happening in a more intense or amplified way."
That doesn't mean you have to start counting your calories or exercising each day (unless that feels like exactly what you need). "When you're grieving, I think the emphasis should be on self-care and doing the best you can," says Samantha Cassetty, RD, chief nutrition officer for OMG! Nutrition.
Making one, small contribution to your SEEDS each day can go a long way. Maybe that's taking a 10-minute walk every afternoon. Or, perhaps it's eating one serving of your favorite vegetable at dinnertime. Self-care may include an hour-long workout each day or perfectly portioned servings — or it may not.
Just like there's no right or wrong way to grieve, there's no right or wrong way to water your SEEDS, so to speak. Keep in mind your current exercise and eating habits may look completely different from just mere days or weeks prior — and that's totally OK. The intention of all of these healthy choices should be to help you through the grieving process, Popovic says, not to avoid experiencing your feelings.
Start by periodically checking in with yourself throughout the day. Literally ask yourself if you've eaten, slept or taken any medication as needed, Popovic says, and take small steps to give your SEEDS extra attention where you can. For some extra help, set up alarms or reminders on your phone when it's time for a self-check-in.
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3. Connect With Others
Leaning on your network may help you through your grieving process. In a February 2019 study in the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, university students with the highest grief scores reported the lowest scores on social support from family, friends and significant others.
But social support isn't an exact science. Spending time with friends and family may help some people process their emotions, while others may crave quiet time alone.
Don't force yourself to spend time with other people if it's not what you need, Popovic says. (After all, you can just as easily ignore your feelings in the company of others as you can by yourself.)
Ask yourself each day what you need that day. One morning, you may need quality time with friends, and the next you may want some solo time. "If you really feel that being alone in your room is what you need to do to accept and be present with everything that's going on, that's OK," Popovic says.
"What we don't want to do is avoid our feelings, which you can do by being alone and by being around other people. Be conscious of the actions you're taking and the intentions behind those actions," she says.
4. Consider Helping Others
"Helping others really helps ourselves," says Jeffrey Lichtman, PhD, a psychologist and faculty member at Touro College. For some, volunteering or offering other forms of assistance after the death of a loved one can be a form of self-care.
In fact, one older but often-cited study, published June 2008 in Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, found a link between helping others and a faster improvement in symptoms of depression in the six to 18 months after losing a spouse.
Setting aside a block of time for a charitable activity can be a positive distraction, not one that ignores your feelings but one that gives you a break from feeling overwhelmed with emotion, Popovic adds.
Ask yourself if you're prepared to commit time and energy to helping others, she says. Don't feel ashamed if the honest answer is no. If the answer is yes, start small. Taking realistic, accomplishable steps will help you keep volunteering from becoming an added stressor. Should you begin to feel overwhelmed, take a step back and be patient with yourself.
Bite-Sized Ways to Help Others
- Deliver groceries for an elderly neighbor
- Clean out your closet and donate old clothes
- Do a chore for a family member
- Send a kind email or text to a friend you appreciate
- Donate extra canned food in your pantry
- Offer to babysit (or petsit) for a friend
5. Don't Put Yourself on a Timeline
"Think of grieving not as a straight line, but a wiggly line that goes up and down," Lichtman says. "We go back and forth through [the stages of grief] until at some point, hopefully, we come to a level of acceptance and come to peace with that."
It can't be emphasized enough: Grief isn't linear. Although it's tempting to compare your experience to others' — much like with a fitness journey or a career path — always remember that grief is subject to your unique personality. Try to avoid comparing yourself to a sibling, for instance, who seems to be recovering from the death of a parent at a different pace.
To fight the desire to compare, consider setting some personal goals or milestones completely independent of other people, Popovic suggests. For example, how would you like to feel in a week, a month or a year? What small steps can you take each day to help you get there?
Keep in mind that bumps along the road are normal. While you want to be moving in a general direction of acceptance, sometimes taking a step or two back may be what you need.
6. Seek Professional Help if Needed
There's no shame in seeking professional help to guide you through your grief. In fact, nearly one-third of Americans have sought mental health counseling, according to a 2013 survey conducted by the University of Phoenix. About 1 in 5 American adults will experience a diagnosable mental health condition in a given year, according to Mental Health America.
Because grief is so individual, it's hard to pinpoint clear signs that it's time to seek professional help, Popovic says. Consider consulting a professional if you're struggling to take care of yourself and your SEEDS have become almost permanently out of balance, or if you're easily overwhelmed by your emotions, she says.
"Think of grieving not as a straight line, but a wiggly line that goes up and down. At some point, hopefully, we come to a level of acceptance and come to peace with that."
Be as honest with yourself as you can. If you need outside help, speak with a friend, family member or doctor you regularly see. Even general physicians will be able to guide you to helpful mental health resources.
7. Trust That Things Will Get Better
It can be hard to imagine, depending on how you're feeling, but the intensity of the emotions you're currently experiencing is likely to fade with time. In the meantime, work toward believing that to be true — although it may feel easier said than done.
"It has a lot to do with radical acceptance," Popovic says. "Accepting there are a lot of things in the situation that you have no control over, accepting your loss and emotions. That can allow you to create a bit of space between what you can't control and what you can."
Prioritizing the factors within your control — eating nutritious meals, getting gentle exercise, reaching out to a friend, volunteering or just sitting with your emotions — can help you reach the point where you trust that the grieving process will eventually come to an end.
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- Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services: "Prolonged Grief Disorder and Its Relationship With Perceived Social Support and Depression Among University Students"
- University of Phoenix: "University of Phoenix Survey Reveals 38 Percent of Individuals Who Seek Mental Health Counseling Experience Barriers"
- Mental Health America: "Finding Help: When To Get It And Where To Go"
- Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin: "Coping With Spousal Loss: Potential Buffering Effects of Self-Reported Helping Behavior"