Dealing With Grief: Coping Skills and Strategies

Grief is normal and expected, but that doesn't mean going through the grieving process is easy.

As we move through life, we'll all experience grief. Grief can come from the death of a loved one or a beloved pet companion, the end of a relationship, and missed opportunities.

Even that bittersweet feeling that accompanies positive life-stage transitional moments—like graduating from school or getting a new job. Those events can qualify as grief, as you're permanently moving from one phase into another.

Grief is a natural, normal reaction to loss and change rather than a mental health issue, La Keita Carter, PsyD, owner of the Institute for HEALing, LLC, a private mental health practice in Owings Mills, Md., told Health

"The vast majority of people are resilient and recover from it [grief] completely," said Carter.

But just because grief is normal and expected doesn't mean going through the grieving process is easy or even something you can anticipate. Here, experts shared coping strategies that can help you weather the grieving process.

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Coping Strategies Can Help

Most likely, you already use coping strategies in your day-to-day life. Those coping strategies may include a light workout to relieve stress after a tough work deadline or a phone call you make to a friend when you're overwhelmed.

When you're grieving, leaning on your regular coping strategies can help weather the storm of grief's emotional and physical symptoms.

"If healthy coping strategies aren't in place, those who grieve can move into serious, unremitting depression. When this occurs, the grieving person may forget to eat, engage in healthy self-care, and spiral downwards," Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist, speaker, and author of Date Smart, told Health.

Grieving people are also at risk of turning to drugs, alcohol, or food for comfort, which only worsens their mental and physical health and doesn't resolve grief, added Manly.

While coping strategies are helpful, they're not one size fits all. For example, some people want to talk about a loved one who passed away, while others get upset by that and would prefer not to.

"Coping strategies work best when personalized," said Manly. "For example, some people do very well sharing in grief groups, whereas others prefer sharing one-on-one with a close friend or therapist." 

Accept Your Feelings and Take Your Time

"The best coping strategy is to give yourself permission to feel your feelings without judgment," said Manly. That means sobbing if you're sad, feeling rage when angry, and resisting the idea that displaying those emotions is wrong or bad.

Accepting your feelings takes time, even if your loss wasn't unexpected. Allow yourself that space to feel your emotions and recognize them. "People are often told that they should 'get over the loss' or 'leave the past behind,'" noted Manly. 

Yet, there's no way to fast-forward through the grieving process. That process takes as long as it takes, and your feelings may be intense—even unfamiliar—during that period.

Rely on Your Go-To Coping Mechanisms

Think about your everyday coping mechanisms, the ones you use when you're stressed or upset—attending a yoga class, curling up with a book, organizing your closet, or doing crossword puzzles, for example. 

Start with one of those when dealing with grief. See if those usual strategies can help under these circumstances, too. Those coping mechanisms might seem trivial in the face of grief. But your regular stress-relieving activities might be just the simple, effortless tactics your brain and body need.

The idea is to try the least-invasive strategies—your tried-and-true coping mechanisms—first, explained Carter. 

"And if you're still struggling, you say, "OK, how do I ramp this up?" added Carter.

Join a Support Group

In support groups, people can make deep connections. In other words, support groups can help you realize that you're not alone in your problems. Likely, you'll observe others experiencing the effects of grief—tears, strong emotions, difficulty sleeping, and so on—and working to reimagine their lives after a loss or life change.

"[Support groups] help to engage this factor called universality," explained Carter. 

Support groups could be online or in person. Some hospitals, religious institutions, and community centers offer support groups. To find one, search the internet or ask friends who have experienced a loss recently if they have a recommendation.

Participate in Rituals

In other historical periods, mourning was considered a natural part of grieving, pointed out. For example, Queen Victoria mourned her husband for decades after he died by only wearing black. Soon, wearing black became following customary death for months or years. But these days, visual cues that make grief known to friends and strangers don't exist.

"We do not have the rituals and mourning garb that once alerted others to our inner pain," said Manly. 

Since modern society falls short, you can create your own grieving rituals. According to Manly, some ideas include: 

  • Plant a grieving garden or tree
  • Go for walks and think of your grief as a companion
  • Journal
  • Share grief with friends
  • Create a grieving altar containing items that remind you of what or who you're mourning

You may even want to incorporate your loved ones in rituals, suggested Carter. For example, try going to the theater followed by a meal with family and bring a picture of your deceased loved one to place on the table.

"The more you honor the sacred nature of your grief—that how much you grieve is an indication of how much you have loved—the more you will move through your grief in a healthy, compassionate way," said Manly.

Reach Out to Friends and Loved Ones

Lean on your community of friends and family for support, suggested Carter. Generally, people want to help to grieve loved ones cope with their loss. So, look for friends who will allow you to cry, vent, and talk about memories. And do what's helpful in your grieving process, said Carter.

Contact someone experiencing the same grief you are—say, a family member who was also close to the person you're grieving—may be helpful. That person may understand what you're going through. And not having to explain yourself too much can be comforting.

But choose who to reach out to wisely: Some people may make harmful or hurtful statements while you're in a fragile state, noted Carter. Even if those statements may be unintentional, they can set you back and make you feel even more alone.

Get Counseling

Trained professionals lead many support groups. But support groups may not be the same as one-on-one conversations that focus on your grief. "Don't hesitate to reach out for professional support from a trained psychotherapist," said Manly. Counseling is a safe space to talk about what's on your mind with an objective expert.

 Plus, therapy "helps us tease apart what is grief and what is not," added Carter. 

Sometimes, people get counseling because they struggle to get past a loss. Still, conversations may reveal that even before the loss, they faced mental health concerns that can now be addressed.

Give Yourself Grace, Particularly Around Unexpected Moments

When you experience loss, some moments will be more challenging than others. Those moments may include the event's anniversary or the first birthday of a loved one after they passed away.

Plan ahead for those moments, and be gentle with yourself. If your mother died, for instance, anticipate that you'll feel low on Mother's Day. In that case, staying off of social media may help. Also, consider making plans with friends for tough days. But give them a heads-up that you may cancel if you're not feeling up for it.

Remember that triggers can occasionally pop up unexpectedly—the scent of a perfume, the sight of a grandparent's favorite pie, and so on, said Carter. Give yourself the same grace during those more random moments of grief. 

And for significant losses, you may never achieve closure, added Manly. Instead, expect the pain to diminish, and know that, in all likelihood, you will be able to function and feel joy again.

"Closure indicates that the grief is fully resolved. But it's absolutely normal to have mild surges of grief years, even decades, after the loss of a loved one," said Manly.

A Quick Review

When dealing with grief, coping strategies can help you navigate the loss and change. Being gentle with yourself and giving yourself permission to feel your feelings without judgment is important, especially in those unexpected moments when a wave of emotion hits you.

Try to turn to activities you enjoy, and that help you relax. Lean on close family and friends when possible, and consider joining a support group or seeing a therapist.

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  1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mourning dress.

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