This isn’t the easiest topic to cover, but it’s such an important one… so I’m willing to get uncomfortable in the hopes of providing you with some helpful info for when you have to go through the insanely tough grieving process.
What makes it super tricky is not only the depth of sadness, but also the fact that the grief process is so unique to every one of us…
…and it’s completely unpredictable.
The process can be arduous, confusing, and completely messy.
Here’s how we want grief to work vs how it actually works:
The 9 Stages of Grief
The 9 stages of grief are a common framework for understanding the process of grieving.
#1 Shock and Denial
The mind elicits a protective response to traumatic events. You might feel numb, without tears and emotions in the days immediately following the event. It can be confusing, but it’s very normal.
After denial starts fading and the grief starts settling, you start accepting what happened as true. Even normal daily routines and simple tasks are difficult to handle.
Your pain turns into anger. It’s not uncommon to feel anger towards the person you lost, towards yourself, and towards the entire situation. Even though you know it’s not rational, it doesn’t matter — nothing is rational in the grieving process.
#4 Guilt and Bargaining
You feel guilt because you felt angry. You feel guilt because of what you said, or didn’t say, or because you should have just done that one thing and maybe it would have been different. You’re just trying to get some sort of control, even if at the expense of yourself.
#5 Physical and Emotional Distress
This stage of the grief process can be particularly dangerous to your physical and emotional health. You may begin to feel a sense of hopelessness that presents itself with physical symptoms like shortness of breath, poor appetite, insomnia, or lack of energy.
The journey to overcoming depression is unique for each person, but there are many ways of doing so. And there’s not a right or a wrong way to handle it. It depends on the person and it takes time.
#7 Loss and Loneliness
As you come to terms with the situation, you start to fight the loneliness and loss. You might try to fill the empty space — in both constructive and destructive ways.
Dealing with loss and having to explain it multiple times might make you tired and lead you to withdraw from society.
Reaching acceptance doesn’t mean being completely fine. It just means that you’ve realized what you lost and are starting to fill the void in your life.
And while these 9 stages of grief are outlined…
- there is no set amount of time for each stage;
- all the stages can take shape in various forms;
- and the acceptance stage does NOT mean it’s over
Unfortunately, the reality of dealing with the loss of a loved one goes well beyond the 9 stages of a grieving process and can end up looking more like this:
The 9 Steps to Manage the Mourning Process
To help you get through the terrible mess of losing a loved one, here are 9 steps to help you better manage your grief process.
1. Acknowledge the mess
First things first – realize there’s nothing wrong with you, how you deal with death and loss, and your understanding of it.
There’s a lot we don’t know and one thing we certainly cannot ever truly understand is death.
The grieving process is a chaotic mess of highs and lows, ebbs and flows, with steps forward and steps backward…
Trauma therapist Margaret Howard in an article suggests that we embrace the mystery of death and to not ask why:
“Sometimes there is no good answer to ‘Why?’ That why question is not helpful. It’s a trap. Get out of it. Drop the thought. It may float by once in a while. Just acknowledge it then let it pass.”
Understand that grief can trigger so many different emotions and it can do this completely unexpectedly. Once it’s understood there’s a lot you can’t control, you can start to focus on the things you can control.
2. Face the Loss
It might feel better to numb the pain and it might be easier to be in denial… but we all know this can be dangerous and can make you susceptible to other ailments especially later on down the road.
Rather than beeline for the alcohol or other unhealthy habit of choice, it’s important to be honest with yourself and to give yourself the space to let your pain out. This will allow you to accept and process the loss, as heartbreaking as that may be.
And that means allowing yourself to cry it out. This is especially important if you‘re not one to normally cry. It’s not possible to cry too much.
Also – if you don’t shed any tears that doesn’t mean you aren’t grieving. Don’t judge yourself for grieving – no matter how it comes out or what form your grieving takes.
We’re all different and the shape and format that your specific grieving process decides to take is so unique to you.
Whatever form your personal mourning process takes, let it pour through you and allow yourself the time and space to experience it, which is #3…
3. Allow for Time and Space
It’s a myth that time heals slowly and steadily, and it’s a myth that the grieving process takes about a year.
There’s no exact formula for grief. It’s fluid and oftentimes cyclical.
Grief is not something that has an expiration date… and it’s not simply a phase that you just get over…
Grieving comes in waves and has its own schedule…
…Just give yourself the time and space for grieving to happen whenever and however it decides to.
- Sometimes you have a bad day for no reason
- Sometimes you have a great day – don’t feel guilty
- Celebrate when you feel like celebrating
- Be normal when you feel like being normal
- Be sad when you feel like being sad
Most people never stop grieving a death; they just learn to live with it. And oftentimes the death of another person will open up the grieving process all over again for other loved ones. This can feel cumulative like you’re having to experience the loss of your loved ones all over again.
Understanding the grieving process is completely unstructured and messy can help you understand that this too shall pass… however and whenever it does.
4. Practice Self-Care
While taking care of yourself may be the last thing on your mind when mourning the loss of a loved one, practicing self-care will help you get through the tumultuous waters. Some ideas to get you going:
- Take baths – taking hot baths can trigger your parasympathetic nervous system, which controls our relaxation and repose responses. One of the studies by the National Aquatics & Sports Medicine Institute found that there are positive effects of hot tub therapy on the regulation and balance of the nervous system.
- Reconnect with nature – go on a hike, take walk in the woods, or somewhere scenic. This can also help calm your nervous system. According to a Greater Good Magazine article: “Over 100 studies have shown that being in nature, living near nature, or even viewing nature in paintings and videos can have positive impacts on our brains, bodies, feelings, thought processes, and social interactions. In particular, viewing nature seems to be inherently rewarding, producing a cascade of position emotions and calming our nervous systems.”
- Exercise – going through something emotionally trying can make you susceptible to unhealthy habits, both physically and emotionally, so exercising is a simple way to take care of your body. If you can do this regularly and keep a routine – even better.
- Eat healthily – just like your physical exercise keeps you on a healthy track, sticking to a healthful diet can also help you take care of yourself as you go through the emotional roller coaster of mourning. Getting into a rhythm of healthful eating can keep you away from numbing agents like alcohol and stress-induced diets, like binge eating.
- Be mindful – spend 15 minutes per day reflecting alone, meditate, or do some breathing exercises. Practicing mindfulness and self-awareness will not only allow you to be more cognizant of making healthy choices, it will also allow you to better process the grief process and acknowledge more clearly your feelings and emotions.
- Journal – as you’re mourning, write out everything you feel and purge. If you want to take it to the extra step beyond pen and paper, go ahead and let it all out. If you need to scream, scream. If you need to cry, cry it out. The important thing is to not suppress your emotions and instead, allow yourself to process it, which brings us to #5…
5. Create Routines and Structure
This is especially important at the beginning when the grieving process tends to be the most tumultuous — try not to make any major changes to your life right away.
There’s comfort and stability in routine, especially while your emotions aren’t standing on stable ground.
According to Northwestern Medicine, routines can provide you with:
- Better stress levels – reducing anxiety while improving your mental health
- Better sleep – impacting your emotional well-being and energy level
- Better health – allowing you to incorporate health-conscious activities
Structure and routine will provide you with some sort of foundational daily stability, which can allow you the additional room to endure emotional ups and downs.
So even if it’s walking the dog, keeping up simple tasks and routines that give your days structure, will help you better cope with the wild emotional ride.
Also – if you’re able to partake in hobbies and activities that you enjoy, on a regular basis, that can help create structure and a positive routine in your life as you go through the grieving process.
6. Get Support from Others
Mourning the loss of a loved one is devastating and confusing enough; no one should have to go through it alone. Find people who will understand what you’re going through.
Some options to consider:
- Lean on caring empathetic friends. Your supportive relationships can go a long way in times of need. Take comfort in the caring people that you know and be open to mourning with others.
- On the opposite end – detach yourself from people who aren’t understanding or compassionate toward your experience. Someone who is dismissive of your grief may make matters worse and push you further into denial or cheapen the depth of your pain. If something hurtful comes up and you feel offended, be vocal about it.
- Find a bereavements support group. There are resources for any type of loss. It’s just a matter of putting in the research.
- Explore local Meetup groups. You might be surprised at what you find as far as common ground interests and experiences in your area. This of course, completely varies from place to place, but it might be worth researching since groups are being created all the time.
- Be willing to seek professional help. Understanding the difference between grieving and depression can be confusing. If you’re reaching an unbearable point throughout your grieving process, no matter the timing – there are always options available to you.
HelpGuide.org recommends you seek professional if you:
- Feel like life isn’t worth living
- Wish you had died with your loved one
- Blame yourself for the loss or for failing to prevent it
- Feel numb and disconnected from others for more than a few weeks
- Are having difficulty trusting others since your loss
- Are unable to perform your normal daily activities
7. Keep the Memory Alive
You of course can keep memories of your loved ones alive in a variety of ways. You can look through old photos, notes, letters, emails, or even make a playlist of songs that remind you of them.
Go with what works for you.
Sure, the point isn’t to have painful reminders surrounding you all the time, so avoid leaving mementos laying around as a constant reminder… but saving tangible things that remind you of your loved one will allow you to bring them out for when you want to remember them.
8. Create a Commemorative Ritual
Once you have ways to keep the memory of your loved one alive, you can create a commemorative ritual, and do this as often as you like.
- Visit the grave after the funeral – find a time to visit your loved one’s grave or ashes on a regular basis that works for you.
- Commemorate certain milestones – whether it’s your loved one’s birthday, day of passing, or favorite holiday, you can remember the happy moments with their favorite foods, songs, places, activities. It’s nice to remember the things that made them happy and to experience them in their honor.
- Write letters to your loved one – this can be an effective mindfulness activity, where you write out your emotions, thoughts, and feelings to your loved one.
9. Let Go of Regrets
The loss is not your fault.
A key to harboring no regrets is to let go of guilt-ridden thought patterns of what you could’ve and should’ve done differently.
Beating yourself up over the past won’t do you any good.
If you’re feeling guilty and wishing you would’ve done something differently, it can be helpful to remind yourself that you can’t change the past and that you have no control over what happened.
And again – there’s no real way to truly understand death.
You’re doing the best you can in this human experience and in your mourning process.
No Right Way to Process Grieving
For me, the grieving process is tough because it tends to feel cumulative each and every time I experience a loss.
The year that this concept really hit home for me was in 2012 when 13 people I knew passed. It was really confusing at first why the grieving felt just as heavy each time, no matter how close or distant I was to the person who passed.
Then I learned about the “re-grieving” idea and it made more sense… not total sense, but some sense. It basically gave me permission to feel the pain all over again without beating myself up.
And since then, I’ve come to understand that the cyclical grieving process with its unexpected messy ebbs and flows doesn’t even have to involve the loss of someone I know directly.
If I’m hearing about a friend’s loss of a loved one, I tend to feel very empathetic.
So without trying to understand death, or even get a grip on the grieving process, I just allow the emotions to pour through me and accept the mess that it is whenever it happens.
For anyone who’s experiencing or re-experiencing the loss of a loved one, I am truly sorry.
I hope this article helps you better manage the grieving process in some way, even if just a little.