Coping with Grief & Loss

Coping with Grief & Loss

When do We Grieve?

Grief is the natural, healthy, human response we experience when we have lost something that is important to us. Losses can include:

  • Death of a family member, friend, or pet
  • Break-up of a relationship or divorce (yours or your parents)
  • Miscarriage, abortion, or the ability to have children
  • Injury or disability (yours or someone close to you)
  • Loss of a job or property
  • Children leaving home or retirement
  • Moving to a new place and/or changing jobs
  • Loss of a sense of safety after violence
  • Giving up a dream, wish, hope, or your perception of relationships or the world

Stages of Grief

Each person will go through the following stages at his/her own pace, in his/her own order, and in his/her own time. The order of the stages or the length of time spent in each stage can vary depending on the amount of unfinished business left over from previous losses and/or the type of loss experienced (e.g., natural death vs. suicide or murder, loss of a job through a lay off vs. retirement). Each stage if normal, healthy, and natural!

1. Shock / Denial / Numbness / Isolation

This stage is nature's way of protecting us from the overwhelming pain of the loss.
"This can't be happening!"
"I can't believe it!"
"I just feel so numb."

2. Anger / Resentment

You may feel anger toward your loved one, yourself, friends or family members, the murderer, society, or even toward God.
"Why did this have to happen to me?"
"Why did God let this happen"
"Why wasn't s/he wearing their seat belt?!"
"Why wasn't Dad there when she fell?!

3. Guilt / Bargaining

This stage involves the natural, human desire to feel we have control over events in our lives. It is natural to want to feel in control, but it is important to remember that these events are often things we have no control over.
"Why didn't I go with her?"
"If only I'd been there, I could have stopped him."
"God, if you'll only save his/her life, I will never argue with her again."

4. Sadness / Despair / Depression

As we begin to accept our loss, it is natural to feel deep emotions. This is a painful stage, but an important one. It allows us to come to terms with our loss, and it prepares us to move on with our lives.
"Without John in my life, why should I go on."
"My life will never be the same now."
"I don't feel like doing anything."

5. Acceptance / Hope

Eventually, with time, we accept our loss, and we accept the loss of control. We are able to move on with our lives without feeling intense pain, and our future becomes filled with hope again. It is important to remember that you will reach this stage; it is just a matter of time.
"I miss Kim so much, and I wish she were here to enjoy this with me."
"We had a lot of fun together, but I'm going to enjoy the rest of my life because I know that's what he would have wanted for me."
"Grandmother was such an important part of my life. I'm so glad I had time to get to know her."

Manifestations of Healthy Grieving

I. Feelings
  1. Sadness
  2. Anger
    1. from sense of frustration
    2. from feeling helpless
    3. anger can easily be turned inward
  3. Guilt and self-reproach
  4. Anxiety
    1. from dependency
    2. from heightened sense of own mortality
  5. Loneliness
  6. Fatigue
  7. Helplessness
  8. Shock
  9. Yearning
  10. Emancipation and/or relief
  11. Relief
  12. Numbness
II. Physical Sensations
  1. Hollowness in the stomach
  2. Tightness in the chest
  3. Tightness in the throat
  4. Oversensitivity to noise
  5. A sense of depersonalization - numbness
  6. Breathlessness, feeling short of breath
  7. Weakness in muscles
  8. Lack of energy
  9. Dry mouth
III. Common Thought Patterns
  1. Disbelief
  2. Confusion - disorganization
  3. Preoccupation
  4. Sense of presence (of the deceased)
IV. Common Behaviors
  1. Sleep disturbances
  2. Appetite disturbances
  3. Absent-minded behavior
  4. Social withdrawal
  5. Dreams of the deceased

Factors that inhibit Grieving

There are various factors that can inhibit (or hinder) grieving. All of the following examples may be inhibiting factors in the grieving process, but they do not preclude that the person will not grieve at some time. Hopefully, these inhibitions or blocks will be overcome and grieving will proceed unimpeded. Some of these include the following:


For example, people often tell others (or tell themselves) to "be strong," "don't cry," "be brave," or "put on the strong front for everyone else." Frequently, people who do this miss the opportunity to deal with their own grief.


Sometimes a person avoids participating in or attending funeral rituals or visiting the grave. This can be a sign that the death has not been accepted. An individual may go on for weeks, months, and sometimes years speaking of the deceased as though s/he has just died, thus shutting out the pain and process of grieving.


Shock and depression weigh heavily on bereaved persons, which can and does at times lead to abuse of alcohol or other drugs. This can shut out the pain temporarily, but eventually it must be faced.


Unfinished or unresolved grief from an earlier loss (not necessarily a loss through death) can awaken so much pain that the individual is reluctant to add to the painful experience by grieving the more current loss.


Individuals who fear losing control (e.g., "If I start crying, I'll never stop") can actually prolong their grieving process. They often close themselves off from their support systems by shutting out relatives and friends who would create an atmosphere that may induce tears or sadness.


An individual may have been very dependent upon the deceased (or the relationship was very important), which may lead him/her to avoid grieving in order to avoid the reality of the loss (e.g., "We were so much a part of each other. I am not complete without her/him, so s/he can't be dead."). This dependence or closeness is usually found in a relationships of many, many years.


Some individuals attempt to put grief aside and not deal with it at all by keeping very busy (e.g., "Oh, I keep busy," "There is so much to do, I just don't have time to grieve," "I keep going 'til I'm so tired I just drop"). Although it is important to stay active, this "running ragged syndrome" usually leads to physical illness or an emotional breakdown because the grief has not been dealt with approp

Understanding and Coping With The Grieving Process

There are no easy answers for how to cope with grief and loss. However, the following is a list of suggestions from those who have lived through and beyond the loss(es) they have experienced. Here are some of their thoughts:

1. Know you can survive. You may not think so, but you can.

2. Struggle with "why" it happened until you no longer need to know "why" or until you are satisfied with partial answers.

3. Know you may feel overwhelmed by the intensity of your feelings but all of your feelings are normal.

4. Anger, guilt, confusion, and forgetfulness are common responses. You are not crazy; you are in mourning.

5. It's okay to be angry. Be aware that you may feel anger at the person, at the world, at family members or friends, at God, at yourself. Don't push down the anger. Let it out! Hit a pillow, swim, exercise, hit a bunching bag, scream.

6. You may feel guilty for what you think you did or did not do. Remember that very often there was nothing you could have done to control what happened. Guilt is simply a natural part of the grieving process.

7. Don't be afraid to cry. Tears are healing.

8. Don't be afraid to talk to the person who has died. This a healthy way to work through "unfinished business."

9. Keep a journal. Write a letter(s) a letter to the person who has died. This another good way to work through "unfinished business."

10. Don't be surprised by fear. After a loss, you have many new behaviors you need to learn and many new situations you need to cope with.

11. Remember, it's okay to feel depressed. Sadness is a powerless feeling, but it's a VERY important part of the grieving process.

12. When individuals are depressed, it's not uncommon to have suicidal thoughts. However, it is very important you not act on those thoughts. If you have more than passing suicidal thoughts, please consult a professional counselor!

13. Wear out your questions, anger, guilt, or other feelings until you can let them go. Letting go doesn't mean forgetting.

14. Find a good listener with whom to share. Call someone if you need to talk.

15. Accept help and support when it's offered.

16. Don't be afraid to ask for help; our family and friends can't read our minds. It's okay to need comforting.

17. Steer clear of people who want to tell you what or how to feel.

18. Be aware of the pain of your family or friends if they were also impacted by the loss.

19. Doing something for someone else can give you some relief from the pain; call a friend and listen, talk to the lonely, do some volunteer work.

20. The willingness to laugh with others and at yourself is healing.

21. If you are grieving the loss of someone who committed suicide, remember, the choice was not yours. No one is the sole influence in another's life.

22. If your loss involved the suicide of a family member or friend, know that there are support groups that can be helpful, such as Compassionate Friends or Survivors of Suicide groups. If not, ask a profession to start one.

23. Give yourself permission to get professional help.

24. Call on your personal faith to help you through.

25. Remember to take one moment or one day at a time.

26. Give yourself time to heal. Be patient with yourself.

27. Expect setbacks. If emotions run like a tidal wave, you may only be experiencing a remnant of grief, an unfinished piece. Grief comes and goes.

28. Try to put off major decisions.

29. Set your own limits and learn to say no.

30. It is common to experience physical reactions to your grief, e.g., headaches, loss of appetite, inability to sleep.

31. REST, AND REST SOME MORE! Go to bed earlier. Try to eat balanced meals because good nutrition is important to the healing process. Be gentle with yourself; your body needs energy to repair.

32. Exercise is important. It provides a physical outlet for emotions.

33. Read. There are many helpful books available on the grieving process. Understanding grief makes it a little easier to handle.

34. When you are ready, plan things to look forward to (e.g., a trip, lunch with a special friend).

35. Holidays can be especially difficult. Schedule activities that you find particularly comforting during these time, and be careful not to overdo.

36. Knowing that you will never be the same again, but you can survive and even go beyond just surviving.

37. Remember you will get better; hold onto hope. Some days you just hang on, but the better days will be back. You will gradually develop a renewed sense of purpose.

What You Can "DO"

1. Feel the feelings Emotions are normal and healthy; everyone experiences them when grieving!
2. It's okay to feel afraid Emotions, especially when not expected, can be frightening. Talk to a friend, counselor, etc.

3. Get angry! Direct your anger in healthy ways. Yell, pound a pillow, run, play a sport. Don't let the anger build.

4. Cry It's okay to cry. It is even better to have someone to hold you while you cry.

5. Listen to yourself You will often know what you need. If you are uncertain, then listen to a trusted family member or friends (someone who has your best interest as their first priority) who will help you keep reality in focus.

6. Set limits Don't be afraid to say "no" to yourself or to others. Be gentle with yourself, and don't expect too much of yourself right now.

7. Stay active Continue to be active; part of taking care of yourself is going on.

8. Write a letter Write a letter to the loved one or yourself. In it, write down your feelings and say good-bye.

9. Laugh Life still goes on and there are things to be happy about.

10. Reflect Take some time to reflect on yourself and your loved one and the good times you had together.

11. Your faith If important to you, find comfort in your religion or spirituality. Talk with a minister, rabbi, clergyperson.

12. Read about grief So you will know that you are normal!

13. Ask for support Remember that it feels good to be able to give to someone you care about. Give someone a gift by letting them be there for you.


How to Survive Those "Special Days"

In our lives, there are many holidays or "special days" (e.g., wedding anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, graduations, the anniversary of someone's death). These can all be difficult days for someone who is grieving the loss of someone they cared about; however, there may be one or two "special days" that for you means "togetherness." It is during these times when you may be acutely aware of the void in your life. For many, the wish is to avoid these "special days." However, if it is a holiday shared by many in your society (e.g., Christmas, Hanukkah, New Years), you may be unable to escape the seasonal greetings or wishes. You may also see the perfect gift for your dead partner, child, relative, or friend, and you may suddenly realize that s/he will not be with you this year. Listed below are some ideas and suggestions that others have found helpful in coping with "special days." Choose those ideas that appeal to you.
1. Sit down with your family and decide what you want to do for the holiday season and what each family member can handle comfortably.

2. There is no right or wrong way to handle the day. Some may wish to follow traditions, while others may choose to make changes and do things differently.

3. Once you have made the decision on the role you and your family will play during the holiday, let friends and relatives know.

4. Don't take on too many responsibilities. Make it through each day a little at a time.

5. Do something for someone else (e.g., volunteer at a homeless shelter, visit a convalescent hospital, spend time with someone who is house-bound). Ask someone who is alone to share the day with your family. Provide help for a needy family.

6. Don't set your expectations too high. If you want things to be the same as they were before the death of someone you cared about, you will be disappointed.

7. Realize that it isn't going to be easy. Just do the best you can.

8. If you feel like crying, go ahead. It will not ruin the day for others, and it may provide them with the freedom to do the same.

9. Set limitations. Do the things that are very special and important to you.

10. "Special days" are emotionally, physically, and psychologically draining. You need your strength. Try to get enough rest.

11. Donate money or a gift in your loved one's name.

12. Projects such as cleaning the house can get out of proportion. If the chores are enjoyable, go ahead; but not to the point that it is tiring.

Suggested Readings

*** Becker, M. R. (1992). Last touch: Preparing for a parent's death. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
*** Bridges, W. (1980). Transitions: Making sense of life's changes. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.

*** Buscalia, L. (1982). The fall of Freddie the leaf. New York: Charles B. Slack, Inc. (for children)

*** Colgrove, M., Bloomfield, H. H., & McWilliams, P. (1976). How to survive the loss of a love. New York: Bantam Books.

*** Dunn, E. J., McIntosh, J. L., & Dunne-Maxim, J. (Eds.). (1987). Suicide and it's aftermath. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Faire Donnelly, K. (1988). Recovering from the loss of a sibling. New York. Dodd, Mead & Co., Inc.

Kubler-Ross, E. (1975). Death: The final stage of growth. Englewood Cliff, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Kubler-Ross, E. (1985). On children and death. New York: MacMillian Publishing Co.

Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York: Macmillian Publishing Co.

Kubler-Ross, E. (1974). Question and answers on death and dying. New York: Macmillian Publishing Co.

Neal, R. E. (1973). The art of dying. New York: Harper & Row.

Rofes, E. E. (1985). The kids book about death and dying. Boston, MA: Little Brown and Co. (for children)

*** Staudacher, C. (1987). Beyond grief: A guide for recovering from the death of a loved one. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Staudacher, C. (1991). Men and grief: A guide for men surviving the death of a loved one. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

*** Particularly recommended

Composed by Anne Reith, Ph.D.