By Alicia Jorgenson, M.D., Psychiatrist on the Swedish Ambulatory Behavioral Health Team
People love to give advice after a loved one dies. You should eat more of this and do more of that. Cry a lot. Don’t cry at all. Be strong. Get over it.
Some of this advice can be helpful and other advice may leave you feeling worse.
“Well, everyone can master a grief but he that has it.” - Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare
As Shakespeare noted, it is much easier to give advice about grief when you are not the one actively experiencing it. As a psychiatrist, this is the position that I often find myself in, helping people handle difficult emotions and experiences.
Here are a few common reactions to grief as well as tips for coping based on current research in mental health field.
What is grief?
Grief is a natural reaction to loss. This could be the loss of a job or relationship or the death of a pet, friend, or loved one. One specific type of grief, called “bereavement,” is the loss of a loved one. Here are some tips and suggestions if you are living with bereavement grief.
Common reactions to loss
Here is a key point: the exact experience of grief is different for everyone. It depends on your relationship to the person who died, how the person died and your pre-existing coping skills and beliefs.
Some common emotional reactions include sadness, anger, guilt, and emptiness. Your feelings may change from day to day or even from minute to minute. If you never cry or get angry, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.
You can feel grief in your body. You might feel tired all the time. Aches and pains can worsen. Sleep can be disrupted. Appetite can change. It might be harder to do things that you used to do.
Grief tends to ebb, flow, lessen and evolve over time.
Myths about grief
MYTH: Grief happens in an orderly, predictable fashion
The stages of grief that many are familiar with are – denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and then acceptance. These still resonate; however, with more research, we have discovered that the process is not very linear.
MYTH: Try to get over grief as quickly as possible
Recovering from loss is not a race or a sprint. You may have the desire to avoid pain, but ignoring your feelings will not make them go away or facilitate healing.
MYTH: Grief is personal so no one else can help with the process
The first part is true, but letting others help can be an important part of the healing process. Find someone who will be there to listen to you without judging. This could be a friend, family member, spiritual leader or others – even your primary care doctor.
Tips while you are grieving (aka. self-care)
After the loss of a loved one, you are in a more vulnerable state which is why taking care of yourself should become a priority. Self-care can be different for each individual person and it’s important to be easy on yourself.
Be kind to yourself. You are doing the best you can in the moment. It is okay to not be okay.
Here are some tips:
Try to return to basic routine and structure. Daily tasks may feel overwhelming, but the act of going through the motions can help restore a sense of normalcy. Think about ways to get enough rest (but not too much), stay active, and nourish your body with healthy food. Consider ways to express yourself creatively (journaling, art, music). Delegate some tasks to family and friends who want to be helpful.
Give yourself permission to be sad, angry, or whatever emotion you are feeling. Emotions come in waves. They do not last forever. The goal is not to fix the pain, but rather to tend to it. If feelings come up at a time when you really can’t give them space, remind yourself to check back in with them when you can. Sometimes you may need to distract yourself, while at other times you will need to create a safe place to move toward your emotions. Talk to trusted friends, family, and spiritual leaders. It can be hard to make space for positive emotions. You might feel guilty if you find yourself laughing or having a good time. Taking a break from grief is okay. It does not mean you love or miss the person any less.
And finally, be kind to yourself. You are doing the best you can in the moment. It is okay to not be okay.
Tips for friends and family
It might be tempting to avoid reaching out to someone who is grieving because you don’t know what to say. However, this is ultimately not helpful and may lead to further hurt feelings. I recommend simply acknowledging the pain of the loss – ex. “I am so sorry for your loss,” “My heart is aching for you,” “I wish I could take away your pain,” and “I am here for you in this difficult time.” Then try to be present and listen. Be willing to not have any answers. Share some memories. Try to anticipate the basic needs of someone in the midst of grief (ex. bringing food, doing laundry, and helping with child care). Avoid gossiping to others. The goal is to cultivate compassion in order to promote healing.
When to seek professional help
Some people do not require professional help to grieve, but for anyone, talking to someone who is removed from the process can provide extra support. While every grief is unique, the process of adjusting to acute grief typically lasts 6-12 months. If you are having difficulty returning to your daily routines, feeling intensely sad, hopeless, or even having thoughts that life is not worth living, these are signs that grief may be evolving into something more. Reach out if you or someone you know is struggling. You matter, and you deserve help.
Find a doctor
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
About the AuthorMore Content by Swedish Behavioral Health Team