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Coping with Grief

At some point in our lives, we will all lose someone that we love. When a family member, partner or close friend dies, it is normal and healthy to grieve and there are many different ways to do this. Acknowledging and expressing our grief generally makes this process easier and more helpful in strengthening our selves and our remaining relationships. In this article I will give a brief definition of grief, talk about different ways of grieving, explain the difference between grief and depression, and talk about some ways to cope with grief.

The term grief refers to the emotional and physical changes that occur in response to the loss of someone you love. Some of the emotional reactions that people often experience are denial or disbelief, sadness, anger, loneliness, despair and even depression. Certainly people miss their loved one's presence, often finding themselves looking for the person, expecting them to arrive, and thinking about both past times together as well as lost opportunities for future closeness. Physical responses to grief can include digestive problems, sore or tight muscles, fatigue, headaches, chest pain or pressure, and many others. Often times people complain of a feeling of heaviness in their bodies; interestingly, the word grief comes from the French word grève which means heavy burden.

There are as many different ways to grieve as there are people who experience loss, and the particular form your grieving takes may be based on any one of the following things: the way the person died, your relationship to the deceased, your personality and coping style, the available support you have from others, and the traditions of your family or culture.

The particular way that your loved one died can have a big effect on the ways that you find yourself grieving. If someone is sick for a long time for example, you may experience some anticipatory grief during their illness. This does not take away from the level of distress that you might feel when they die, but it may allow you to recover sooner. If someone dies suddenly and unexpectedly, you might be more likely to experience denial or shock as a first stage of grief. Having a loved one die by suicide can elicit many painful questions, such as: Is there anything that I could have done to prevent this? What will other people think/say? Shame, guilt, and blame can complicate the grieving process making it long and difficult to resolve. This can be particularly problematic for those whose religion or culture views suicide as shameful or immoral.

In addition to the particular way that your loved one died, your relationship to that person can affect the way you grieve. Losing a family member or partner can mean losing someone who had a daily presence in your life, which can lead to a different kind of adjustment process than losing someone who you saw less frequently. Additionally, the closeness and amount of conflict you experienced in the relationship can have a profound effect on your grieving, with conflictual relationships often intensifying and complicating grief reactions.

Another factor that affects the way you grieve is your own personality and coping style. If you are someone who is prone to depression and/or has lots of stress in your day to day life, you may find it more difficult to cope with a loss than someone who has less stress and tends to be resilient in managing day to day stressors. Additionally, if you have a history of serious trauma or past experience with losses of other people close to you, your grief reaction can be very complicated and can elicit lots of unresolved pain from your past.

It is nearly universally true that people who grieve with support from others seem to feel better sooner than those who grieve alone. Having other people around to listen and to take your loss and feelings about it as seriously as you do can help you to feel understood and loved at a time when you may be feeling sad, alone, and acutely aware of your loss. It is important to find people to support you who can appreciate the importance of your loss regardless of the type of relationship you had with the person who died. For example, in terms of grief, it doesn't matter whether you have lost your parent, friend or unborn baby; what matters is that you are grieving and need support. Your friends need to understand and respect this.

The way you grieve can also be determined to some degree by your religion or cultural background. Some religions and cultures dictate how long the outward mourning process will last, what you wear while mourning, ways to honor your loved one, and/or what kind of ceremony will mark your loved one's passing. While these rituals or traditions may determine the outward expression of grief, they cannot always determine your internal reaction or recovery time.

Given that there is no time-table for grieving and some people might feel more hopeful in a matter of weeks or months and others might take years, how can you tell the difference between a normal grieving process and depression? Many times someone grieving can experience some symptoms that are typical of depression as well. These can include crying, profound sadness, low mood and physical changes. As noted, these can last for long periods of time in some cases. One of the key issues in determining the difference between normal grieving and depression is the degree to which the feelings interfere with your day to day functioning. Nonetheless, it is frequently hard to tell the difference and you may need to consult a professional to help you with this distinction.

Grieving is always painful and always requires support from other people. This may mean involving a professional mental health counselor and it may mean leaning on friends and family for more support. Even if you are someone who does not typically like to talk about your feelings, it is very important that you do so when you are grieving to help you to feel less alone, understood, and accepted in your grief. Friends and family who knew your loved one can reminisce with you about times you shared. They can also offer you some physical comforts during your grieving process like meals, back rubs, or shoulders to cry on. Many people also find support in groups. There are lots of local support groups for people who are grieving and some of them are even specialized for people who have lost a parent, for example. If you are involved in a religious practice, you may also find support from your place of worship or religious community. What matters is not where you find support, but that you find it.

In addition to getting social support while grieving, there are some other ways you can cope. Some people find it helpful to express their feelings creatively through writing, art work, scrapbooking, planting a garden, building a memorial, etc.

Taking care of yourself physically is also important. Getting enough sleep, exercising, eating well, and avoiding substance use (that might numb your feelings and slow the grieving process) can make a big difference in how you feel and cope.

You may also want to plan ahead for ways to take care of yourself on holidays, birthdays, anniversaries or other special days that may elicit more grief for you. Planning something special for yourself on these days (something that includes social support) can make a big difference in how much the day destabilizes you emotionally.

Neither you nor anyone else can dictate how you grieve. Whether you find relief by watching dumb movies, crying, writing or getting angry at the person who died, it is okay. Telling yourself (or listening to someone else tell you) to "get over it" is likely to make you feel more upset rather than less so. The most important thing is to allow yourself time, space, and support to cope with your grief.

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