Grief is a natural, normal response to experiencing loss, whether it's the death of a loved one, the disruptive force of the pandemic, an end to a relationship or a tricky transitional moment.
Here's what it's not: Grief is not a mental-health disorder that demands treatment or a fix, says La Keita Carter, PsyD, owner and CEO of the Institute for HEALing, LLC, in Owings Mills, Maryland, unless it's gone on for a prolonged time and causes disruptive symptoms (more on that later).
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Mourning is normal, but it can also be painful and challenging — along with heavy, intense emotions, cognitive and physical symptoms can occur, including trouble sleeping and a disrupted appetite, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
But as uncomfortable as processing grief may be, skipping it is ill-advised.
"Those who compartmentalize or shut down rather than feel their grief are simply ignoring the psychological impact of the loss," says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Joy from Fear: Create the Life of Your Dreams by Making Fear Your Friend.
The end result: Getting stuck, which can lead to problems (physical or mental) later on, Manly says. It's not that you need to "get over" grief, she says. But to process it, we must move through it.
For advice on making your way through this painful process, we turned to five therapists, who shared their coping strategies.
When Is Grief Something More?
Most people notice their grief eases over time, but a small number of people may eventually experience what's called prolonged grief disorder.
To be diagnosed, the loss needs to have occurred at least a year ago and you need to have experience at least three symptoms including intense emotional pain, difficulty pursuing interests or planning for the future and feeling life is meaningless every day for at least a month, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
1. Experience Your Feelings, and Embrace What Helps
"Rather than judging, denying or self-medicating my feelings, I allow myself to feel them deeply and release them," says Joyce Marter, LCPC, licensed psychotherapist and author of The Financial Mindset Fix: A Mental Fitness Program for an Abundant Life.
She notes it's common — and normal — to experience a wide range of feelings and rapidly shifting responses, from laughing to crying to numbness to anger. Here are two tactics Marter uses to experience, then release, feelings related to grief:
- Breathing exercises: Marter tries to breath in what she needs, such as peace or serenity. Her next step: "Breathing out any sadness, heaviness or yuck."
- Move around: "I also focus on the feelings I am experiencing in the body and allow them to be expressed through movement, walking or other forms of exercise," Marter says.
Your tactics may be different from Marter's — or even from what's been helpful for you previously.
"I've faced quite a lot of grief in my life, and my coping techniques have evolved over time," Manly says. So in moments of grief, Manly has tried to "[allow] my psyche to guide me into what I needed... What ultimately helped me feel better was giving myself permission to move through my grief in ways that felt healing for me."
Often, this has meant crying.
"As I believe tears can be very healing, I allowed myself to cry deeply and often," Manly says.
2. Take Time Off
For therapists, a break from work is particularly important. "Our tool is our brains — we don't get a scalpel, we don't get a hammer, we don't get other tools to help us do our jobs," Carter says. If that's not functioning at its sharpest, therapists can't ethically practice or serve their patients fully, she says.
Time away from work to grieve isn't only important for therapists. "Many people have professions that require similar caution and care," Manly says.
Think of these days off from the workplace not as lost income or stalled projects, but rather as an "an opportunity to be more fully aware of the precious nature of life and love," Manly says.
This in turn can make us more loving and present in our lives, she says: "Well-processed grief can allow us to show up more fully for ourselves, our loved ones and those we interface with in the greater world."
3. Embrace Memories and Rituals
Don't avoid memories of a person who's no longer alive, Shawna Newman, MD, psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
"Remembering people when they're gone brings them somehow closer to us," she says. "To reenact in your mind moments that gave both of you pleasure, happiness and tenderness reestablishes their place in your heart and mind."
This can be painful initially, Dr. Newman says, but "it can ultimately be a real source of comfort," she adds.
Kaplan continues to speak to her loved ones who have passed. "I am a big believer that love conquers death, so why can I still not include the passed person in my life?" she says.
There's a reason rituals around death (such as sitting shiva and going to wakes, funerals and memorials and so on) abound. Commemorating loved ones helps us engage with grief, Dr. Newman says.
And it can take on whatever form is most meaningful to you. "I found that creating a small altar for my mother — which included a vintage photo of her, a few candles and other small personal items — felt very healing," Manly says. She also frequently visits the cemetery where her mother is buried.
4. Practice Self-Care
One of Marter's coping strategies is "immediately focusing on self-care."
Other therapists mentioned self-care as well — for instance, Kaplan spends time with her animals "who provide unconditional love."
And Manly goes on walks, which she describes as a coping strategy she's used since her teen years. Walking is "a time to be with myself and my grieving process," she says. Manly also journals to "give my psyche the opportunity to process my feelings and thoughts."
Self-care, of course, can take many forms, and is deeply personal. For some, a bath is calming and restorative; for others, sitting in a pool of water is icky. Choose your mode of self-care according to your preferences.
5. Reach Out for Help
Grief is a time to lean on your support network, Marter says.
"I've found that I need to find my voice, speak up and be specific," Marter says. That's not always easy, though: "The tendency to want to curl up and isolate is normal."
But often, people want to help. Marter has found herself asking loved ones for hugs, to be present as she cries and for understanding shifts in her behavior.
"My spirituality is also a source of support, so often I will hand my grief over to my higher power and ask for support in managing my distress," Marter says. She also reaches out to her therapist for "tune-up sessions as needed."
Keep in mind that some of your loved ones who typically provide scaffolding in tough moments may not be present. "I also understand that a lot of people cannot tolerate when others feel sad and that makes them uncomfortable," Kaplan says, noting that she tries not to take this personally.
6. Don't Look for Closure
"Grief has no timeline," Marter says. Memories and sensory moments can bring it forward, sometimes unexpectedly. "For example, I may pass the floral section of the grocery store and the smell of lilies takes me to an image of me standing before my father's casket, which was covered with lilies," Marter says.
Instead of resisting these feelings or moments, honor them, Marter says. Grief is not an item on a to-do list that can be completed and checked off. Instead, it ebbs and flows, sometimes for decades, points out Marter, who lost her dad when she was in her 20s and her mom while in her 30s.
"I do not believe that we ever fully reach the state of closure after a deep loss," Manly says. Pursuing closure can make people feel they shouldn't grieve after certain amounts of time, she says. "When we have loved deeply, the grieving process can surely allow us to reach acceptance, but 'soft' feelings of grief can surely continue to arise," Manly says.
Make space for "bursts of loss," Manly says. And consider how grief may have changed you, deepening your perspective and how you relate to others.
Grief, Marter notes, "has carved deep wisdom into my being and gifted me with a greater appreciation of the preciousness of life and more compassionate awareness of loss."
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