Dealing With Grief: 7 Coping Strategies, According to Experts
As we move through life, we'll all experience grief: the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, and missed opportunities. Even that bittersweet feeling that accompanies positive transitional moments (think: graduating school or getting a new job) qualifies as grief, as you're permanently moving from one phase into another.
Grief is a natural, normal reaction to loss and change—not a mental health problem, La Keita Carter, PsyD, the owner and CEO of the Institute for HEALing, LLC, a private mental health practice in Owings Mills, Maryland, tells Health. "The vast majority of people are resilient and recover from it [grief] completely," Carter says.
But just because it's normal and expected, that doesn't mean going through the grieving process is easy, or even something you can anticipate.
Coping strategies can help as you grieve
You may not think about them this way, but you already use coping strategies in your day-to-day life—such as that extra-hard workout to relieve stress after a tough work deadline, or the phone call you make to a friend when your child is acting up and driving you crazy.
So when you're grieving, experts advise that you lean on coping strategies too; they'll help you weather the storm of emotional distress and physical symptoms associated with grief.
"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 the upcoming book Date Smart, tells Health.
People in grief are also at risk of turning to substances for comfort (think: drugs, alcohol, or food), which only worsens their mental and physical health and doesn't resolve grief, Manly says.
While coping mechanisms are helpful, they're not one size fits all. "Coping strategies work best when personalized," Manly adds. "For example, some people do very well sharing in grief groups, whereas others prefer sharing one-on-one with a close friend or therapist," she notes. Some people want to talk about a loved one who passed away, while others get upset by this and would prefer not to.
Here, experts share seven coping strategies that can help you weather the grieving process.
Accept your feelings (and take your time)
"The best coping strategy is to give yourself permission to feel your feelings without judgement," Manly says. That means sobbing if you're sad and feeling rage when you're angry, and resisting the idea that displaying these emotions is wrong or bad.
Remember: Accepting how you feel takes time, even if your loss wasn't a surprise or unexpected. Allow yourself this space to feel your emotions and recognize them. "People are often told that they should 'get over the loss' or 'leave the past behind,'" Manly notes. Yet there's no way so fast-forward through the grieving process. It'll take as long as it takes, and your feelings may be intense—even unfamiliar—during this 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 yoga class, curling up with a book, organizing your closet, or doing crossword puzzles, for example. Start with one of these to deal with your grief, and see if these usual strategies can help under these circumstances, too. They might seem trivial in the face of grief, but they 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, Carter explains. "And if you're still struggling, you say, "OK, how do I ramp this up?" she says.
Join a support group
In support groups, people can make deep connections, Carter says. "[Support groups] help to engage this factor called universality," she explains. In other words, by participating in support groups you'll realize that you're not alone in your problems. 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.
Grief support groups could be online or in person; they're often offered by hospitals, religious institutions, and community centers. To find one, Google around or ask friends who have experienced loss recently if they have a recommendation.
Participate in rituals
In other time periods throughout history, mourning was considered a natural part of grieving, Manly points out. After her husband died, Queen Victoria mourned him for decades by only wearing black, and soon it became customary to wear black following a death for months or years. But these days, visual cues that make grief known to friends and strangers alike don't really exist.
"We do not have the rituals and mourning garb that once alerted others to our inner pain," Manly points out. Since modern society falls short, you can create your own grieving rituals, Manly says. Here are a few of the ideas she often shares:
- Plant a grieving garden or tree
- Go for walks (and think of your grief as a companion)
- 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, Carter suggests. She describes going to the theater followed by a meal with family, and bringing along a picture of her beloved, deceased grandmother 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," Manly says.
Reach out to friends and loved ones
Lean on your community of friends and family for support, Carter suggests. In general, people want to help a grieving loved one cope with their loss. So look for friends who will give you the space to cry, vent, talk about memories, and do what's helpful in your grieving process, Carter says.
It might be best to contact someone who is experiencing the same grief you are—say a family member who was also close to the person you're grieving, or a coworker who also lost their job during cutbacks. They'll know what you're going through firsthand, and it can be a comfort to not have to explain yourself too much.
But choose who to reach out to wisely: Some people may make harmful or hurtful statements while you're in a fragile state, Carter notes. That can set you back and make you feel even more alone.
While many support groups are led by trained professionals, it's not the same as having one on one conversations that focus on your personal grief. "Don't hesitate to reach out for professional support from a trained psychotherapist," Manly says.
Counseling is a safe space to talk about what's on your mind with an objective expert, Carter notes. Plus, therapy "helps us tease apart what is grief and what is not," she says. In some cases, people get counseling because they're struggling to get past a loss, but conversations may reveal that even prior to 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, like the anniversary of the event or the first birthday of a loved one after they passed away.
Plan ahead for these moments, and be gentle with yourself. If your mother died, for instance, anticipate that you'll feel low on Mother's Day (and might do better if you stay off of social media). 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.
Know that sometimes the triggers for grief can be more unexpected—the scent of a perfume, the sight of a grandparent's favorite pie, and so on, Carter says. Give yourself the same grace during these more unexpected moments of grief. "That's grief, we're gonna have to roll with it," Carter says.
For significant losses, you may never achieve closure, Manly says. "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," she says.
Expect instead for the pain to diminish, she adds, and know that in all likelihood you will be able to function and feel joy again.
How to Be OK When You're Not OK Check out Health's special series on life after loss.