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How to Deal With Grief After Suffering a Painful Loss, According to Mental Health Experts

With time and work, you can feel better—but that doesn’t necessarily happen in the “stages of grief.”

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For those dealing with a loss, grief is painful, confusing, consuming, and detaching all at once. It’s hard for loving bystanders, too, who want so desperately to help but just don’t know how.

The process may seem cut and dry, but “there’s no one way that people grieve,” says Judy Ho, Ph.D., host of the podcast Supercharged Life with Dr. Judy Ho. Most commonly, grief follows the death of a loved one, but a feeling of intense loss can also follow a divorce or the end of a relationship (including a friendship), a miscarriage, or the loss of a job.

Of course, the most common emotion associated with loss is deep sadness. But there are plenty of other feelings you may experience during the grieving process. You may feel depressed, angry, fearful, anxious, exhausted, numb, isolated, or be in a state of denial, shock, or disbelief. You may even feel a sense of relief, which then leads to guilt.

These feelings can set in at any time, bubble up without warning, and last as long as they’re meant to. They can also become overwhelming and even start to impact your physical health by disrupting your sleep and energy, appetite, and concentration.

“Some people grieve for years, and while they become more functional as time goes on, they may still get hit out of nowhere with grief-related feelings,” says Ho. “It’s important to be compassionate and understanding with yourself.”

There are no “stages of grief.”

Somewhere along the way, we came to view the grieving process as fitting into a model of five or seven stages of grief—often including the prime emotions mentioned above, such as sadness, shock, pain, or anger. But in reality, experts agree that that’s not necessarily how things go.

“I think those models can be useful for understanding the types of emotions that can come up, but grief isn’t linear, it’s more circular,” says Ho. “For example, you may feel like you’ve accepted the loss, then something happens months later, and you circle back to denial. That’s a very natural and realistic way of thinking—don’t feel like you’re taking steps back. You’re just processing in a way that’s unique to you and your situation.”

Instead of viewing grief as a set of phases, try focusing on these points, says Ajita Robinson, Ph.D., author of The Gift of Grief:

  • Acknowledge the loss.
  • Create space for your feelings.
  • Understand that grief is a lifelong journey.
  • Know that there can be joy in life post-loss.

    With time and work, you can feel better. Ahead, experts share their tips on how to deal with grief, so you can eventually come to terms with it.

    Develop a routine—and stick to it.

    Your day-to-day activities will feel different after a loss, and they’ll continue to evolve as time goes on. For some people, it’s business as usual—get up, go to work, and repeat. Others start out small, like making the bed each morning and remembering to make breakfast. It’s not important what your routine looks like, just try your best to have one. “Grief has a way of rocking our sense of safety, but routine creates stability, which often codes as safety,” says Robinson.

    Be open about your feelings.

    It’s important to identify individuals you’re comfortable sharing your feelings with. This can include family, friends, coworkers you’re close to, or people who have experienced a similar type of loss, such as a support group.

    “Don’t manage grief alone. If there was ever a time to lean on family and friends, this would be it. Let people know how you’re feeling and if you’re struggling,” says Melissa Robinson-Brown, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist at Renewed Focus in New York City. “Share memories and experiences. Share tears, anger, and laughter. It will go a long way in managing this process.”

    If you’re the listening ear, be open-minded and ask what you can do to help instead of telling someone what you think will make them feel better. “There’s no timetable for grief, so the most important thing is to be a support, ask what you can do to make their life a little easier, and then listen to what they say,” Ho says.

    Engage in rituals.

    If you lost a loved one, no matter how hard it may seem, it can be helpful to participate in funerals or memorial services because it gives you a chance to be around others who are grieving the same person you are.

    Doing something on your own to honor someone’s memory can also be a source of comfort, such as creating a memory book to look back on, journaling, or engaging in that person’s favorite activity, says Tasha Brown, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City.

    It can also be helpful to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, or other occasions that give you a chance to reflect. “Even something as simple as lighting a candle on their birthday can help you feel positive memories of that person and spark conversation about them to help you feel less isolated,” Ho adds.

    Reframe your way of thinking.

    One thing that goes hand-in-hand with grief are triggers. They can be something as innocuous as a particular smell or something more monumental like a major life event. One way to handle the often-unexpected wave of emotions is to simply feel them, really take note of them, then adjust.

    “It can be painful to still be crying years down the line, but take a step back and think: This person was such an important part of your life that you still have these strong emotions, and that’s a beautiful thing and shows the strength of your relationship,” says Ho. “It’s not a bad thing.”

    Focus on your core values.

    A good way to stay on track and actively focus on moving forward is to regularly check in with yourself about what you’re getting out of your life and what you’re doing to reach your goals. “It can really help people to direct their life in a meaningful way that brings joy instead of sitting too long in feelings of emptiness, which can derail you,” Ho says.

    Try to do one thing each day that supports one of your values. For example, if knowledge is important to you, read a new book on a topic you’ve been wanting to learn more about. If nourishing your body and mind is crucial to feeling full, spend time each week cooking a delicious meal.

    Seek help if you need it.

    There’s no single way to know when the time is right to ask for help, but don’t be afraid to seek out a professional therapist or even a trusted confidante, like a pastor or mentor, if you feel like you need extra guidance. (This directory can be a good place to start.)

    Remember, grief is not linear and does not fit into a neat box of phases. There will be both ups and downs during the process, but you should be able to feel sparks of hope, experience joy with loved ones, and take note of moments that make you feel happy as you cope in whatever way makes sense to you.

    But when grief feels constant—as if there is no off-switch to your suffering—it can turn into full-blown depression. Some common signs include:

    • Not being able to function in your day-to-day life
    • Struggling to feel a range of emotions other than sadness
    • Having strong feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or guilt
    • Experiencing suicidial thoughts

      If you ever feel like you might hurt yourself, reach out for help immediately by dialing 911. For support, you can contact The Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

      You can also reach out to an American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Healing Conversations Volunteer to talk. Click here find more resources.


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