The loss of a loved one is an unfortunate reality we will all experience at some point, and while everyone deals with grief differently, we asked some experts for tips and advice that can be used by all of us.
For years, it was generally accepted that there are five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But this isn’t always the case. Each situation is different – some people don’t experience the stages of grief in that order, and some don’t experience every stage. The timeline of the grieving process is an individual thing, and the needs of each person vary.
Thanatologist (thanatology is the study of death and its resulting losses) and author of Mindfulness & Grief Heather Stang says there is no one right way to deal with loss.
“Your experience of grief is as unique as the relationship you had with the person that died,” she says.
“There may be similar experiences from person to person, but only you know what you need. Listen to your inner wisdom. As long as you are not hurting yourself or others, your best bet is to treat yourself with self-compassion – with the same understanding and kindness you would offer your best friend.”
Stang also recommends these 3 universal tips:
Remember your loved one and how they impacted your life.
“If your relationship with the person who died was primarily a good one, find ways to incorporate their memory into your life,” Stang says. She adds, “if the relationship was difficult, ambivalent or abusive, by all means acknowledge that and do what you need to do to honour yourself as a survivor.”
Connect with other people.
“Grief is a human experience and connecting with other humans can go a long way to help you reduce suffering and regain your footing,” says Stang. “Some people may benefit from a support group, while for other people it will be connecting with family and friends. It is good to spend some time alone, but make sure you are not isolating yourself.”
It is all right to cry. Or not.
“If you are going through a box of tissues every few days, have stocked up on grief books and feel like you can’t stop talking about your loss, you are what is called an intuitive griever. Give yourself the time and space you need to feel what you feel and connect with other people who can provide a compassionate ear,” says Stang. “If you are an instrumental griever, people may be wondering why you don’t cry. You know it is because you are working out your feelings in your head or through inquiry and actions. Most of us experience our grief as a blend of these two grieving styles and tend to lean more toward one or the other. One is not better than the other – just different.”
Psychotherapist and author of The 4 Facets of Grief Ruth E. Field, offers her approach to the stages or elements of grief. She breaks it down into four facets:
- Accepting (acknowledging the reality)
- Adapting (figuring out how to go on)
- Meaning making (figuring out how to make sense of the loss or how this has changed you)
- Replenishing (self-care)
She recommends utilizing these four facets to navigate grief.
We also asked our experts to break down the grieving process as it relates to three key universal areas – food, fitness and mindset.
“Food, fitness, and mindset are part of the replenishing facet,” says Field. “Grief is an important time to make sure you’re replenishing yourself regularly.”
“Grief triggers the stress response,” Stang explains, which can result in various symptoms, including sleeplessness, muscle tension, achy joints, nausea, and anxiety.
“One of the easiest ways to help reduce these symptoms is to take care of your physical body as best as you can,” she says.
“In the early days of loss, many people feel nauseous at the thought of food,” Stang says. “When you first wake up, try to get something into your system, even if it is just a few ounces of juice … if your body feels starved, it can trigger anxiety and other unpleasant emotions.”
Many of us may turn to comfort foods during times of grief, so Field says balance is the key here.
“Too much of anything can be problematic, so lean toward healthy food choices with an occasional splurge,” she says. She also advises not overindulging in alcohol, because it acts as a depressant.
Stang also recommends avoiding an excess of caffeine and focusing on getting plenty of water to keep hydrated.
“Research indicates exercise can be just as effective as taking antidepressant medication,” Field says. “So, the more you exercise, the better able you’ll be to feel all your feelings without descending into a major depressive episode. The goal is to incorporate your loss into the rest of your life, not to ‘get over it’.”
Stang says any kind of movement will help you feel more in balance. “Instead of letting your mind run wild during your exercise time, focus your attention solely on your breath and body. This will turn your movement into meditation,” she says. “I highly recommend getting outside if you can. A change of scenery can be good for you, too.”
Stang also notes that sleep disturbances are common during the grieving process. “Most people experience a lack of it, while others sleep too much,” she says. To help improve your sleep, Stang recommends practising good sleep hygiene, such as reducing your exposure to blue light before bed, trying guided meditations, and exercising during the day.
…with your mindset
“Mindfulness, or coming back to the present moment, is often the only way to navigate heart-breaking grief,” Field says. “When functioning as usual feels impossible, taking things one moment at a time makes sense.”
Where does the grieving process end?
The grieving process is never truly over – but that doesn’t mean it does not get better. It eases and changes over time.
“We are never done grieving the loss of a loved one,” Field says. “We will never stop missing the person even though, over time, we get used to their absence. We will never stop caring that they’re gone … the goal is not to get over the loss or to be done grieving; the goal is to incorporate the loss into the rest of our lives in the healthiest ways possible.”
When is it time to seek professional help?
“Anyone can benefit from working with a grief counsellor if that professional helps them process their thoughts and feelings,” says Field.
Some people may want to seek professional help immediately, but for those who don’t, Field shares some signs that you may benefit from meeting with a professional.
“If you don’t see a gradual improvement in functioning after several months (if you’re still sleeping too much or too little, eating too much or too little, feeling hopeless, have no interest in doing typical activities, feel ongoing overwhelming sadness, ongoing fatigue, have slowed thought and physical movement, have thoughts of death), it makes sense to contact a therapist or counsellor who specializes in loss and grief.”
Stang also recommends speaking with a certified thanatologist or using your local hospice as a resource.
And remember, as Field says, there is no universal timeline for grief. “It’s an individual process with no right or wrong.”