How to Cope with Grief

Today’s topic is a difficult one. But it’s something that we all experience at some point: grief.

[00:46] I’ve lost several loved ones. The youngest was 9, the oldest in her nineties, one my niece, the other my great-grandmother. I’ve been to funerals for people that I knew from a distance, and people that I hold close. Given that death is an inevitable conclusion for us all, we cannot avoid bereavement and grief.

When Do We Grieve

[01:13] Grief can be brought on by many different experiences, but the focus of this episode is on grief as a result of death. Even if you’ve never experienced the death of someone you love, someone you know, probably even someone you’re close to, has. People may grieve right after a death, or for weeks, months, years thereafter. Grief looks different for each person, and in different situations. It isn’t always obvious when someone is experiencing grief.

Possible Symptoms of Grief

[01:48]]In some cases, you may be able to recognize that someone is grieving. Or you may experience these yourself during grief:

  • relief
  • shock and disbelief
  • sadness or depression
  • dazed or numb
  • emptiness
  • overwhelmed
  • anger
  • not wanting to be around other people
  • difficulty doing usual tasks
  • trouble sleeping and change of appetite
  • lowered immunity
  • exacerbation of an OCD behavior
  • extra struggle with addictions

I’ve read about the 5 stages of grief, but I’m not sure how useful they are. From my research, I’ve learned that they have more to do with dying than with grieving so I’m not going to dwell on them.

How To Grieve

[03:08] Your grieving will be influenced by many factors, all the things that make you unique, the relationship you had with the person, and the environment that you’re in. It can be really hard, especially when you were estranged from someone, but you still feel the losing. Losing a parent is different than losing a child or losing a spouse, but it’s really no competition. We can’t really say that we know exactly what it feels like when somebody else is grieving, but we also can’t say that our grief or their grief is worse . Even when the relationship is the same, different people experience grief differently.

However you grieve is the right way for you. I’m going to say that again because I think it’s really important. And sometimes, you may feel some judgement from the people around you. But however you grieve is the right way for you. My one caution is that if you are engaging in harmful behavior to yourself or others, then get help from a licensed professional. They can help you to develop healthier coping strategies.

Coping with Grief

[04:23] We grieve primarily because we feel a sense of loss. The loss may be traumatic (sudden) or anticipated as in the case of a seriously ill family member. Grief may even start before a person dies, called anticipatory grief.

Some people start their grieving journey before death. Symptoms may or may not be as intense as grief after death, but they still impact your day to day. Often, this grief starts when someone is seriously ill, when we know that their illness has no cure, or when we see how their illness is ravaging them. With anticipatory grief, people tend to be more anxious, feeling that the future is uncertain. You may have trouble making plans for the future; it’s a terrible waiting.

I remember when my grandmother was sick and I was told that she was getting worse, I canceled many of the travel plans that I had because I wanted to be available to be able to make a sudden trip to St. Lucia. It’s interesting because you may not even realize the tension or the stress that you are carrying in such a situation.

[05:56] Once a loved one dies, we experience a myriad of emotions along with loss: guilt, anger, denial, sadness, despair. The feeling of loss stems from thinking about the future we won’t have with our loved one. It usually involves fixation on lost opportunities. An antidote to this is to focus on the good times you had with the person. Last week, we could hear Angela’s joy when she talked about walking with her father, and enjoying McDonald’s with him. We carry our memories forward with us through grief.

Another cause of suffering is when we think of being/having less in the absence of the person who died. We might even fall into the trap of thinking that we will never be happy, feel love, smile … again. We can get caught up in thinking about all the things missing from our life now that the person is gone. This is why Angela’s message of trusting that things will get better is so powerful.

Even if we are sad or despondent, we can believe that we will find moments of happiness and optimism again. We can choose to bring our good memories to mind. Remember what you got from having the person in your life, a gain that remains with you even if they are gone.

I’m not saying that we should escape from the emotions associated with loss and grieving. In fact, we might even feel some guilt if our feelings of loss and our intense emotions lessen, because we might feel that we are getting a bit more distant from our loved ones. And that’s one of the things that we might actually need to combat. But give yourself time to feel the emotions of grief. Meditation and mindfulness may come in handy here, to remain in the moment, to feel the emotions. If you struggle with that, Tara Brach’s RAIN process may be helpful here.

[08:07] The acronym RAIN stands for:

  • Recognize (what are you feeling)
  • Allow (let yourself feel it, without judgement)
  • Investigate (why are you feeling this way)
  • Nurture (be kind and compassionate to yourself)

The key here is to allow yourself to feel, without judgement, to process the feelings, and to act with self-compassion.

I remember wanting to be alone as I grieved for my grandmother. I wanted to cry without anyone telling me it’s okay or asking me how I am. That’s usually my stance with anything new actually, to have processing time first before sharing with others. My approach was to communicate this to my friends who wanted to support me. I appreciated them being there, but I also wanted some time alone. But I appreciated the friends who contacted me, and asked me out. They were still there when I was ready.

Right after my grandmother died, before I could get a flight to St. Lucia from Prague, I met a friend for dinner. It was a pleasant break from the emotional upheaval to have a “normal” dinner with her. I told her at the end of dinner, but it felt like a little respite. My emotions were so near the surface that I needed a break from it, some normalcy.

[9:42] Julia Samuel, author of Grief Works, says:

 “you have to have time when you grieve, and time when you have a break from the grief”

Julia Samuel, How to Live and Learn from Great Loss, The Guardian

Experts suggest that accepting your feelings and practicing mindfulness is helpful for going through grief. Don’t run away from your feelings, but recognize when you might need to take a break. While grieving, you’ll be going through strong emotions so you’re likely to be more tired than usual, so give yourself enough time to rest. Take care of your health with sleep and exercise. It can also help your mental health to connect with people, volunteer, practice gratitude. Speak about your loved one if you feel like it. Surround yourself with people who support you, not ones who judge you or how you grieve. You may want to reach out to others who are also grieving, friends or family, or a support group. Or get professional help.

I’m not trying to suggest any of this is easy. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.

Supporting Someone Who Is Grieving

[10:52] Even if you are not grieving, you may have the opportunity to support someone who is. Recognize that people grieve in their own way. Give them space to do so. Offer help in a specific way, and be compassionate and kind, no matter how long their grief takes. You might offer to get some groceries instead of asking the person to tell you if they need anything.

It can be hard to know what to say to someone who is grieving. Tell then you are sorry for their loss and that you are willing to listen if/when they want to talk about their loved one. Ask “how are you today”, which may be focused enough to allow the person to answer, depending on how much they want to share.

Here are 8 specific tips from The Guardian:

  • Listen and let your friend be upset, even if they repeat themselves.
  • Reach out first to see if they want to talk or meet up.
  • Follow the lead of your friend; let them define how you can help (or not).
  • Acknowledge them and their situation; say something rather than nothing at all.
  • Provide meals, particularly later on when many people may have moved on.
  • Be specific and honest about what you can provide, for example when you might be able to drop by and for how long.
  • Be sensitive to your friend’s pain and their experience.
  • Continue to support past the 3 months mark, 6 months mark as needed.
  • Write a card or letter with a personal message (rather than a cliche), but don’t expect a response. It’s okay to send the card later on.

The key thing here is that if you are in doubt about whether to get in touch or not, do. And then follow the lead of the person who is grieving.

Creating a New Normal

[13:22] One of the difficulties when going through the grief journey is that people may not understand what you are experiencing, and they may suggest that you need to move on from they grief. They may tell you it’s time to get over your loss, it’s time to do this or to do that.. That is callous and unhelpful. Newer views on grief accept that we don’t move on, but rather we carry on. We’re not the same after losing someone, but instead, we redefine our life without their physical presence in it.

You may experience feelings of sadness when you think of the person for years to come, or you may experience joy, depending on the story you tell yourself. Reminders in your environment may catch you when you least expect. Or events may trigger grief e.g. date of death, birthday of the person, certain places you’ve visited together. A friend of mine talked about how quiet the house was when his wife died. I sometimes think of sharing something with my grandmother. For a while, I expected to hear her voice when I called “home”, the house that I grew up in, which still has the same number for the landline.

Your life has changed with the loss, and so that means creating a new normal for yourself. You may need to stop doing certain tasks, or start doing new tasks. This means that it may take some time when you feel unsettled, before the new state of things becomes “normal”.

“it’s when you recognise that bereavement is a life-shattering experience, and that you have to grieve and rebuild, that you can move on positively into a new phase of life.”

Julia Samuel, How to Live and Learn from Great Loss, The Guardian

[15:08] So how do you cultivate that new normal? Here are some ideas:

  • If you need to get rid of stuff from the person who’s died, do it as soon as you can. But don’t forget to check in with other friends or family members to make sure that they are ready too.
  • Recognize all the ways your life has changed. There may be things that you have to do or stop doing.
  • Gather your support system around you. Work on your existing relationships and build new relationships when you’re ready.
  • Discover or rediscover something that you love – farming, volunteering, hiking, painting
  • Keep reminding yourself that it’s okay to feel positive emotions, and to laugh.

Angela recently recognized the anniversary of her father’s passing, and we were talking about what we do on the anniversaries of the death of those we love. My grandmother’s death hit me the hardest. I was relieved because I know she was in pain. But then I found out that she was calling for me on her deathbed. That has haunted me, because I wanted to be there, but I didn’t know that it was time for me to go to St. Lucia. It takes more than half a day to get there from Prague. My rational brain knows that it’s okay, but I’m still on a journey of forgiveness. I lob=ve talking about her. I carry the love I feel for her with me, and I miss her presence in the world. I still lose my mind a little when I think about her death.

[16:39] So does it end? I’m hopeful that the grief won’t catch me unaware at some point in the future. I look forward to the day when I can focus on the love that we shared, the sense of security that she always gave me, without this sadness. I think of her often and I take the chance to honor her regularly, through prayer. When I go into a church, I light a candle and say The Lord’s Prayer or a Psalm for her. We said those prayers every night when I was a child. Sometimes I also say the Baha’i prayer for the deceased, because when she was sick, she asked me to say some prayers from my religion. As I sat on the bed and said the long healing prayer, she said that it sounded like the rosary, and she sees how connected religions are. If you have a religious belief, that may provide some framework within which you can grieve. Many people find it helpful to talk to the deceased, to visit their grave or scatter ashes.

You may find different ways to honor your loved one after their death, by doing an activity you enjoyed to do with them, or that they enjoyed doing, making a donation in their name, telling stories about them. And you can carry the memories with you forever.

Getting Help

[17:52] If you don’t see a way out of your grief, and you are suffering for years, you may have what’s called complicated grief. It’s also called unresolved grief or delayed grief. In such a case, it’s important to talk to your doctor or therapist to get help.


What is Grief

Quotes on Grief and Death from Ted Talks

Grief is the a series of responses that have to happen in order for you to form a new and integrated identity as someone who has lost something or someone you love.

Joe Primo, Grief is Good, TEDxAsbusyPark

Death isn’t this intuitive thing that we know how to deal with. We need help, we need to know what to say to people so we can give them the support they need.

Laura Prince, Changing the Way We Mourn, TEDx Golden Gate Park

There is no right or wrong way to say goodbye. Grief, which is a set of normal reactions to loss, is an art, not a science. Grief is a uniquely expressed process.

Isabel Stenzel, The art of saying goodbye, TEDx Stanford

There’s no five stages of grief; there never was. And there’s no closure. when we’re talking about grief. Because death ends a life, not a relationship.

While everybody’s grief is different, there are those commonalities in grief. We move forward in our grief. The trajectory is forward, albeit two steps forward, 1 step back. But it moves; that’s how we’re hard-wired. So a reasonable metaphor is to think of grief like a train journey. We all get on the train but we stop at different stations for different amounts of time. The difference with the grief journey is there is no end point. There’s no closure. You don’t get over it but you accommodate to it. That’s how we’re made as human beings.

Susan Delaney, Grief, it’s Complicated ….… 10% of the Time, TEDx UCD


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