In my column last month, I discussed factors that impact on how we experience and deal with grief, and effects of grief on both our “inner” (emotions, beliefs, and thoughts) and “outer” (relationships and social functioning) worlds. This follow-up column reviews strategies recommended by researchers, authors, and others who have lived with significant losses. These strategies can be used by anyone who has lost a loved one, clients as well as counselors and other providers. Some of these strategies can be used for other losses such as those associated with separation, divorce, loss of a career, financial instability, loss of a pet, or loss of functioning due to disability.
1. Talk about your loss with family, friends or others.
This often leads to acceptance, understanding, and support from others. You can discuss details of the loss, things about the person you lost that you deem important or how you experience life without them. Repeating one’s story to multiple people is common, which can help reduce the emotional pain associated with the loss.
2. Listen to other peoples’ stories of loss.
When we lose a loved one, others often share their experiences about a loss, how it affected them, and how they deal with it. You may find comfort and learn ideas from them on coping strategies to live with grief. Or, if you know someone who experienced a loss, ask him or her about the experience and what helped him or her cope with loss.
3. Accept the full range of emotions you experience before and after your loss.
All feelings are legitimate, so do not avoid these no matter how painful they are. Also, do not judge yourself for any negative feelings even a sense of relief felt after a loved one with a long-term, chronic illness died. It is okay to feel sad, depressed, upset, and angry for losing a loved one. You can be angry at the person you lost or even at God for taking this person away from you. You may even feel frustrated and overwhelmed from taking care of a loved one who has a terminal illness. Share your true feelings with others you trust and can confide in if you feel this gives you some relief and perspective.
4. Seek support from others.
Reach out to others for support when you need it. Let others know that you would appreciate a visit, a phone call or for them to contact you to stay connected. Some people may make generic offers of help like, “Let me know how I can help you” or “Do you need anything?” Be direct and tell them “Call me,” ‘Come over and watch TV” or “Let’s go to a movie,” “Can you help me clean my house?” or anything else that you believe can help you. Generic offers of help are usually only good if we make them more specific and ask for something we would like from another person.
Join a grief group if you think this can help you. Some hospitals, churches or organizations offer grief groups for adults or children. If you have kids, consider taking them to grief groups as well. A grief group can be an important source of comfort and support. You can learn how others experience loss, how they live with and manage their grief, and you may develop new connections with people who understand what you are going through.
5. Be active, but respect your need for privacy or alone time.
Avoid the extremes of being so active you have little time to reflect on your loss and your life, or isolating yourself and spending most of your time alone. There may be times when you have to force yourself to be with others, but there may also be times when you need to be alone. Just try to be balanced in regards to being active or alone.
6. Reflect on positive memories of the person you lost.
Think about the love and the special and ordinary times you shared. If you look back at your history with this person through photos, DVDs, letters or cards, you will be reminded of times you shared and rituals you developed in your life together. Think about what you liked about this person—their personal qualities, behaviors, values, and interests. This reflective process may also remind you of what you lost and miss since they are gone. It is okay to suffer as all of your emotions are important to your growth through grief.
7. Pay tribute to your loved one.
Visit them at their gravesite, mausoleum or where their remains are stored. Take flowers or leave a personal item or note. Organize your photos or other items that remind you of your loved one. Put some on display in your home and organize others in boxes or binders. Donate money in their memory to a cause or an organization they supported. When you go to a place that you associated with them or that was special for them—a restaurant, a park, a vacation spot—think about and reflect on shared times together. At the upcoming tenth anniversary of my wife’s death, my children, their spouses, and my girlfriend and I plan to visit and pay our respects to her, then have dinner in one of her favorite restaurants. During part of the dinner conversation, we will share stories and things we appreciate about her to pay tribute to all she gave us during her lifetime.
8. Develop new rituals.
Families often have rituals that are important and meaningful. Continue these or develop new rituals if needed. Rituals can relate to ordinary daily life experiences such as sharing meals, TV programs, movies or conversation, attending church together, reading together, and many others. Or, rituals can relate to events involving other family members or friends, planning a trip, vacation or other event, or involvement in the community.
9. Take care of your health.
Good health care habits are important for all of us, especially during our grief when it is easy to forego some of these when we feel depressed or low energy. Make sure you get enough rest and sleep, eat a reasonable diet, and exercise regularly. Be careful about excessive eating or using alcohol or drugs to numb your pain and escape. Also, keep all of your medical and dental appointments.
10. Use your religion or spiritual practices.
Stay active in your religion as your beliefs, practices, and rituals can help you feel grounded and connected to a higher power. Attend services or religious events, pray, read religious literature, and talk with others about religious or spiritual issues. Reflect upon the meaning your loved one added to your life.
11. Work on forgiveness if you harbor anger or resentments.
If you feel these or other negative feelings towards your lost loved one, work on ways to let go and move towards forgiveness. Remember, we are the ones who benefit from forgiving another person who we believe hurt us. They are no longer here, so forgiveness means nothing to them. I know of many people in recovery from addiction who finally let go of negative feelings towards deceased people that they carried for years. Feeling relief can free you from much of the negativity carried around.
12. Modify your home environment.
Change things at home, but do so in a way that respects memories of your loved one and also symbolizes a new beginning. If you feel a strong need to move to a different home or apartment, think this through and discuss it with a confidante before making a final decision. It takes time for some of us to adjust to living without them. On the other hand, if you feel you need to move and think this through, go ahead and do so if you believe this provides you with an opportunity for a new beginning.
13. Allow yourself to date or develop new relationships when you’re ready.
If you lost a spouse or intimate partner, it is okay at some point to allow yourself to date and meet or socialize with other people. This may feel awkward at first, and you may even feel guilty, but it is important for your well-being to have close relationships. You may even eventually remarry, which is also okay if you find a person you care about and want to share your life with. Only you can determine how long to wait before you date or get involved in an intimate relationship with another person. I know of people who remarried a year after losing a spouse, others who married more than five years after losing their spouse, and others who choose never to remarry. If you have children, they may have an initial reaction to you being with another person, so be prepared for this and talk with them about your need for companionship.
14. If you have children or grandchildren, be attentive to their grief.
You can provide support and love to them as they may not understand why a loved one died or what this means to their future. Encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings verbally or through artwork or writing. Younger kids benefit from drawing pictures that remind them of the parent or loved one they lost.
15. Write about your grief.
Some people find it helpful to write in a journal about their feelings and experiences. Others write a letter to the loved one they lost as a way of expressing their thoughts and feelings. Others write stories, songs or poems about loved ones. You can write as little or as much as you want. I wrote in a journal extensively during my wife’s illness and during the early phases of my grief. This helped me express my thoughts, feelings, and experiences. I sometimes review what I wrote years ago, which helps me put my loss in perspective.
16. Get professional help if needed.
If your grief persists and interferes with your physical or mental health, or your ability to function and take care of your responsibilities, ask for help from a psychologist, counselor or other professional who provides therapy or counseling. Many professionals are able to help with grief issues.
17. Explore resources on grief.
There are many excellent books, articles, and websites with information about grief. You can ask friends or colleagues for recommendations. For a start, see the resource list at end of this article.
How to Help a Family Member or Friend with Grief
First and foremost, let them share their feelings, no matter what these are, and do not try to take away their suffering because you want them to feel better. We must suffer by experiencing our pain before we can move forward. Many well-meaning family and friends try to take this away from us. Let the person who lost a loved one talk about their experiences or feelings, no matter how often they do this, especially in the early months of grieving. Instead of thinking what you can “do” for them, think about “being with” them and walking with them in their grief journey. This means sharing time together in person or by phone. You can be a great support if you spend an afternoon or evening with a grieving friend watching a movie or TV, even you talk very little during this time. Instead of asking another what you can do for them, offer to do specific things such as clean their house, help them pay bills, cook or take them out for a meal, take them out to an activity, visit them or even go with them to where their loved one is buried. Call, text or email to let them know you are thinking about them. What you talk about on the phone or in person is less important than being together and showing that you care about them.
Grief is normal and is to be embraced and experienced. Suffering and emotional distress improve over time and with the love and support of others. Do not suffer alone, learn ways to soothe yourself, and allow yourself to grow over time. And, if you struggle dealing with your grief over the long run, do not hesitate to get professional help.
Suggested Readings and Websites
- “Coping with Grief and Loss: A Guide to Healing” (2010). Boston, MA: Harvard Health Publications.
- Daley, D. C., & Douaihy, A. (2013). Grief journal: Living with the loss of a loved one (revised ed.). Murrysville, PA: Daley Publications.
- Davis, C. G. (2008). Redefining goals and redefining self: A closer look at posttraumatic growth following loss. In M. S. Stroebe, R. O. Hansson, H. Schut, & W. Stroebe (Eds.), Handbook of bereavement research and practice: Advances in theory and intervention (pp. 309–25). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.