A loss—especially the death of a loved one—can leave you feeling blindsided. One day, a person, job, pet, or relationship is a significant part of your life, and then the next, you find yourself having to rebuild your life, despite missing a crucial piece. That can elicit a variety of feelings, including anger, sadness, shock, or numbness: all of which are common (and completely normal) aspects of grief.
What is grief?
“Grief” is one of those words that we all know, but may find difficult to describe because as a society, we’ve been conditioned not to talk about death and other losses outside the confines of a funeral or memorial service. But in order to know how to grieve healthily, it’s important to understand the concept itself.
“Grief is a heavy and hard subject to address,” says Caroline Leaf, PhD, cognitive neuroscientist and author of Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess: 5 Simple, Scientifically Proven Steps to Reduce Anxiety, Stress, and Toxic Thinking. “It refers to a deep sorrow caused by a loss of something immensely important to you, which can cause a lot of emotional pain.”
And that loss isn’t restricted to the death of someone close to you; people also grieve the loss of a job, a pregnancy, a period of time in their life, freedoms, their dreams and goals, or the end of a marriage or other significant relationship.
What about the five stages of grief?
When dealing with grief, the Kübler-Ross Model—more commonly known as the five stages of grief—is often the only resource or guidance people have heard of (possibly because it is regularly referenced in movies, TV shows, and other forms of pop culture). Introduced in 1969 by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
While this model and insight has been extremely helpful to countless people, it’s also widely misunderstood. People tend to think of the five stages of grief as defined steps, or items on a checklist that, once completed, have been fully addressed, and allow you to move on. But this isn’t the case. According to Leaf, grief doesn’t necessarily follow a distinct, sequential, or linear five-stage pattern, as we’re often told it does, and as many people have come to assume.
Leaf has noticed that grief tends to cycle between denial, anger, guilt, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance (among other emotions). “We can experience one or more than one of these feelings at a time, which can make balancing our personal and professional life difficult,” she says.
Dealing with platitudes and mixed messaging on grief
Chances are, if you’ve experienced a loss, well-meaning people have offered you what appears to be advice on how to grieve. But in reality their tips are just common platitudes humans parrot when they don’t know what else to say. Some classics include: “Everyone grieves in their own way,” “There’s no one way to grieve,” and, “There’s no wrong way to grieve.”
The sentiment is well-intentioned, but more often than not, those empty phrases are said with the expectation that the person complete their grieving process in the socially acceptable timeframe of about a week—and that includes planning and holding some type of memorial or gathering, and promptly returning to work and life as your “normal,” pre-loss self.
While Flint says that the theme of these platitudes is true (there certainly are different ways to grieve, some of which are considered healthy and unhealthy), they’re more about the person saying them than they are the person dealing with grief.
Ultimately, Flint says that these statements fail because we only take half of the truth that it represents. “Yes, each person will grieve differently, and that is OK,” she explains. “And the other half is that in their grief, each person needs love and support to navigate this journey.”
What makes grieving ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’?
Here’s the other thing about those platitudes: The same people who told you that “there’s no right or wrong way to grieve” at a memorial service may end up having additional commentary or “advice” on your grieving process further down the line if they don’t think you are doing so in a “healthy” way. But how does that work, if there’s no right or wrong way to grieve?
According to Flint and Leaf, other examples of unhealthy coping strategies include attempting to “live on the edge” and engaging in risky and/or impulsive behaviors that are out of character for them, overeating or undereating, or experiencing long-lasting denial.
More generally speaking, unhealthy ways of dealing with grief often involve looking for a quick fix to immediately numb a person’s pain. “Usually, when someone is using an unhealthy coping mechanism, they’re trying to avoid the cycles and emotional pain that come with their grief,” Leaf explains. “In the moment, avoidance often seems so much easier than actually feeling the heaviness of grief. However, if not managed, this pain will keep coming back. The deeper we feel and acknowledge our pain as we go through the different cycles of grief, the closer we get to creating the space we need to heal.”
Leaf says the key to starting the process of healing is acknowledgement. “Healthy coping mechanisms involve recognizing the pain and finding ways to move forward,” she notes. “This does not mean trying to stuff the pain away.”
Along the same lines, while the whole appeal of unhealthy coping strategies is the “quick fix” myth, Julian Lagoy, MD, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health, says that, in fact, the opposite is true. “Healthy ways of grieving will help you overcome the grief faster, whereas unhealthy ways of grieving will make the grieving more difficult and longer lasting,” he explains.
5 Healthy Coping Strategies for Grief
1. Spend time with people who care for and understand you.
Surround yourself with people Flint refers to as “loving others”—those who care for you and want to be helpful—not the “voyeuristic others” who probably aren’t there to support you. (Note that your “loving others” don’t necessarily need to be your biological family.)
Then, when (or if) you’re ready, she recommends reaching out to grief support groups: carefully vetted online groups from reputable bereavement groups, pastoral/religious support, or a personal therapist (more on this in a bit). “Grieving people want to have a sacred space to talk about their beloved; a space where people aren’t rushing them to ‘move on’ or ‘just get better,'” Flint explains. “They need a sacred space where they can do the work of mourning (and it is work) with love, compassion, and acceptance.”
2. Get out of the house.
As tempting as it may be to stay at home (or in bed), Dr. Lagoy recommends getting up and going out. “This helps because getting outside and partaking in activities helps to keep our mind off the grief, while staying at home and in bed will make us focus more directly on the grief, which is detrimental,” he says.
3. Be patient with yourself through this healing process.
Do not compare your healing, processing journey, and timeline to someone else’s, Leaf advises. But beyond that, she also suggests trying to build more fun into your day—something she says will help bring some joy back into your life. “Allow yourself to be happy,” she says. “It may feel unnatural at first—like you are somehow betraying the loss—but this is not true: Your loved one will want you to find joy again. Your brain needs this. You need this!”
4. Consider seeing a therapist.
If your grief has become very difficult or all-consuming, Dr. Lagoy recommends seeing a therapist or a psychiatrist, as you may be experiencing something called abnormal grief. “Abnormal grief lasts more than six months, or if you are having suicidal thoughts and major depressive symptoms,” he says.
5. Think in cycles, not lines.
If you get to a point where you’re feeling good, only to find yourself feeling bad again, Leaf says that it’s not a sign that you’ve relapsed or gotten worse. “It’s how grief works, and it’s actually a sign of forward movement,” she explains. “Grief is a series of loops. You can circle back to where you were some time ago and still be moving forward.”