What to do when someone dies? Coping strategies for grief
Grief: you’re going to experience it at some point. If you’ve never gone through a deeply traumatic situation before, you might not know what to do with yourself—in fact, when dealing with grief, many people turn to destructive means in order to take their mind off events.
Unfortunately, dealing with grief through avoidance and externalization will only hurt you in the long run. You might not know what to do when family members die, pets pass away, you lose your job, get divorced or receive a difficult medical diagnosis, but coping strategies for grief can help you understand how to move through the trauma of loss in a healthier, more productive way.
What is grief?
Grief is a trauma response to loss. If you’ve never felt deep grief before, you may wonder if the emotion is natural—it is. Grief is emotional suffering that occurs when something you love and care for deeply is removed from your life.
Grief can be tricky to pin down because it contains a multitude of emotions that aren’t always immediately apparent. More than simply feeling depressed, angry or sad, grief can contain moments of guilt, jealousy, unexpected joy and more.
Can grief cause physical pain?
Grief is especially hard to understand because it also impacts your physical health, making it hard to sleep, eat, exercise, spend time with friends or take care of your needs. Grief can lead to real physical illness, dampening your immune system and triggering bodily symptoms such as acne breakouts, rashes, nausea, weight loss or gain, nervous system issues, hyperventilation, headaches, back pains and much more.
What causes grief?
When we think of grief, we usually think of experiencing sadness in the wake of someone close to us dying. But you don’t have to lose a family member or partner to experience grief. The following are some common situations that cause grief:
- Loss of physical health
- Diagnosis of a debilitating condition
- Terminal illness
- Miscarriages and abortions
- Deaths of pets
- The loss of a dream or opportunity
- Illness in a loved one
- The end of a friendship
- Selling cherished possessions such as homes, cars or land
- Loss of safety after bodily trauma
- Losing a favorite coworker
- Sexual trauma
- Moving away from home or your current town
- Graduating from college
- Changing careers
- Entering retirement
- Getting fired from a job
The five stages of grief
The process of grief has been studied for decades. “The five stages of grief” is a categorization tool documented by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969 that studied patients facing terminal illness. Although the stages have since been attributed to other kinds of grief, including divorce, betrayal, breakups and the death of family members and other loved ones. The five stages of grief are:
- Denial: In denial, people experiencing grief refuse to believe the event has occurred at all. Statements like “This shouldn’t be happening to me” or “I can’t believe they’d do this” are common in the denial phase. Feelings of shock, awe, disbelief, amazement and incredulity are often associated with denial.
- Anger: After the shock of a traumatic experience wears off, grief usually turns to anger. People might blame themselves, their friends, family or even the world at large. Getting angry helps those dealing with grief externalize feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, providing both a distraction and escape from the situation at hand.
- Bargaining: Once anger subsides, people dealing with grief enter the bargaining phase. The bargaining phase often involves statements like “If you don’t break up with me I’ll change,” or “I’ll do anything to prevent this from happening again.”
- Depression: After bargaining, grief turns to depression. Grieving parties will often feel sad, tired, disengaged and uninvolved in their surroundings. They’ll remove themselves from their social circles, check out at work and may struggle with completing daily tasks and chores.
- Acceptance: The last stage of grief is acceptance. After denial, anger, bargaining and depression, those dealing with grief come to both acknowledge and accept the loss for what it is. “I’m finally at peace with this” is a common statement that accompanies the acceptance stage of grief.
What does grief feel like?
Grief is hard to put into words. Instead of describing what it feels like, reading about how others have characterized grief can help. The following are quotes from public figures and sources who’ve experienced grief before, and what it felt like to them:
- "The risk of love is loss, and the price of loss is grief. But the pain of grief is only a shadow when compared with the pain of never risking love."
Hillary Stanton Zunin
- "You cannot prevent the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building nests in your hair."
Old Chinese proverb
- "Death leaves a heartache no one can heal. Love leaves a memory no one can steal."
From a headstone in Ireland
- "No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear."
- "Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve."
- "Nothing that grieves us can be called little; by the external laws of proportion a child's loss of a doll and a king's loss of a crown are events of the same size."
Mark Twain, 'Which Was The Dream?'
Myths about grief
Despite the amount of research conducted on grief, there’s lots of myths surrounding how and why we grieve. Here’s some common grief myths you may have heard:
- Myth: Not thinking about grief makes it easier to process
- Fact: Ignoring grief only ensures it’ll come out at inopportune times. It will also make bouts of grief more explosive, painful and difficult when they do surface.
- Myth: Not crying is a sign I’m not grieving properly
- Fact: There’s no one way to grieve “properly.” Grieving properly can look different for everyone, and some people may not outwardly cry.
- Myth: Getting over my grief makes me a bad person
- Fact: Accepting what you’ve lost isn’t a sign that you’ve forgotten or stopped caring about your grief. In fact, acceptance is an enormous hurdle in the process of dealing with grief, and it signals that the memory of your grief is now a part of your story—without controlling your story.
- Myth: I should put a timeline on my grief
- Fact: Just as there’s no right way to grieve, there’s also no set timeline when it comes to the grieving process. Grief can last as little as days or weeks, or as long as years.
- Myth: My grief defines me
- Fact: Your grief defines you no more than the color of your hair or the clothes you wear.
- Myth: This situation is too small for me to be grieving over it
- Fact: There’s no event too “small” to grieve. If you feel grief because of something that happened, you’re allowed to grieve it. These feelings are also known as “disenfranchised grief,” where the loss you experience is stigmatized and minimized by your community, friends, family or even yourself.
How do we process grief?
Grief is processed through a combination of time, emotions and coping strategies. Unfortunately, there’s no “fast” way to move past grief, but learning tools to deal with grief can help make the process less painful—no matter how long or short it lasts. Some things to remember when processing grief include:
- Remembering to openly acknowledge your trauma
- Accepting that the emotions you feel won’t always make sense
- Understanding that your grieving process might not look like anyone else’s
- Choosing to let go of how other people view your grieving
- Continuing to support yourself by taking care of your body and mind
- Seeking out the company of friends, family and loved ones
Coping strategies for grief
While it might feel like the last thing on your mind, it’s important to develop coping strategies for grief. In fact, it’s even more important than taking care of yourself when you’re feeling just fine. Here’s some tools to deal with grief in healthy, productive ways.
- Try to exercise and eat right: Your body grieves much like your brain does. Without proper nutrition and exercise, you’re likely to feel even worse mentally than you might if you stay committed to a good diet and mild to medium movement throughout the day. Exercise can also be a good way to work out difficult emotions and let off steam.
- Start journaling: Grief can lead to patterns of black and white thinking, anxiety, depression and more. Picking up a journal, or journaling with a friend, can be an effective method of “exorcising” some of that grief and letting go of it, rather than keeping it all in your head.
- Talk to someone: Grief is harder to deal with alone. Talk with friends, family members or others about how your grief is impacting you. Acknowledge the pain in front of others and let them reassure you throughout the process.
- Get creative: If you have hobbies or interests, it can help to channel grief through those outlets. Writing songs, making art or engaging in other hobbies is an effective method of dealing with grief.
- Get further support: Talking to a mental health professional is important when dealing with grief. It’s especially important if you’re feeling depressed or, worse, suicidal. If you feel any of these emotions, get in touch with a therapist and let your immediate family and friends know as soon as possible.
For more help dealing with grief and getting coping strategies for grief…
Talk to one of our coaching professionals today about the grief you’re experiencing. We’re available for a call and 24/7 coaching support. For more information, visit The Journal That Talks Back™ to learn about coping strategies for grief and tools for dealing with difficult emotions.
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