If you’ve ever lost anything you’ve loved, you’ve likely felt grief. Grieving something is a horrible feeling, but one we will all face, in varying degrees throughout life. It might be as trivial as reaching the end of a brilliant Netflix series you’ve been watching. Maybe it’s grieving the baby stage as your children grow up and reach new milestones. Or it's hugely challenging; the loss of a loved one, a miscarriage, a break-up, coming to terms with life-changing disruptions.
So we asked Grace McMahon, Beingwell's Chief Life Coach, how we can navigate grief.
Grief is hard, but it’s a natural response to loss. It’s our emotional reaction to having someone or something we love no longer in our lives. It causes us to experience painful emotions that we can shy away from and it can often feel out of control and overwhelming.
The grief blueprint
We tend to recognise 5 stages of grief, like a blueprint for processing. The individual feelings or stages we go through to deal with grief, to accept it and move on from loss.
Denial - ‘This can’t be happening to me!’
Anger - ‘Why is this happening? Who can I blame?’
Bargaining - ‘Change this, and in return I will…’
Depression - ‘I’m too sad to do anything.’
Acceptance - ‘I’m at peace with what happened.’
We might find peace in a blueprint, knowing what we’re going through. It’s important to know that grief (and any really challenging emotion) isn’t experienced in exactly the same way for us all. We won’t all go through these stages, and we very likely won’t go through them in order.
“There’s no right or wrong way to grieve.” - Marie Curie
And that’s why grief can be so difficult to manage, or why someone may seem to be doing so well following a loss to suddenly fall into deep sadness or longing years later.
Try not to focus on ticking them off, or think that healing only comes after going through each stage. We might not experience all of the stages either, and that’s ok.
How do we deal with these stages?
We all recognise the pain in grief, whether it’s yourself or someone else experiencing it. We can struggle to deal with the pain and want to get through it as quickly as possible which unfortunately isn’t really possible at all.
“Time heals all” is about as useful as being told to calm down when our anxiety is spiking or to cheer up when we’re feeling sad. It doesn’t help us in the moment of emotional turmoil, but time does heal grief, so how do we cope on the way to that?
Pay attention to the moment
When consumed with grief things can feel overwhelming and out of control, especially when we start ruminating on the past, or look to the future trying to guess how things will be. Practice being in the moment, even when the feelings are tough. Focus on what’s around you right now, to help you stay grounded. You could try mindfulness or meditation exercises, or simply take some deep breaths and count to 10 slowly, see what works for you and what you can manage.
Keep notes on your feelings
Try keeping a journal, or a notes page on your phone, or post-it notes on a mirror. Note down the feelings you’re having, try to place the triggers. When we’re dealing with grief but trying to keep going our feelings can seem like they're in the way. They loom over us clouding the path. Jot them down, clear the path, and come back to them later. Although emotions are normal, we don’t always feel it’s safe to express them - and that’s ok, just come back to them later.
Allow yourself to feel the emotions
It can be really challenging to sit with our difficult feelings, when we’re grieving we often want to hide away or push the feelings aside to feel ok again. We generally don’t like to feel uncomfortable, but not allowing ourselves space and time to feel what we’re feeling usually only sees those challenges come back, for stronger and longer. Create time to feel things, crying or feeling angry can be part of the process. Create a comfortable space to be in - comfy cushion, cosy blankets, or maybe you’d prefer a bath. Or find a cathartic release that helps you relieve these feelings, perhaps a long run, an intense workout, or painting your feelings.
Talk about it
Talking, especially about those we miss and things we longed for, helps us process our feelings. Whether it’s with a family member, a friend or even a professional, talk about the loss, reminisce and remember, laugh and cry with others. Connecting strengthens bonds in relationships, making them more satisfying which can be really comforting for us in difficult times. It helps us work through the big feelings, without feeling so submerged into them that we have no way out.
Take care of yourself
Grief can do strange things to us, we can feel topsy turvy with no indication of when it’ll stop. And this can make us feel worse, or like there’s no way to get back to ourselves. Emotional pain is draining to experience, leaving us exhausted and lethargic, which tends to worsen how we feel. Nourish, move and rest your body to take care of yourself physically, and protect your wellbeing when things are tough.
“Even years after a loss, especially at special events such as a family wedding or the birth of a child, we may still experience a strong sense of grief.” Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Psychiatrist
Time as a healer: Yes, time is a healer but that’s not super helpful when we’re going through pain, it doesn’t feel tangible. Be patient and kind with yourself (and others) when you’re healing. We can’t predict the process, we can’t banish the feelings, and we can’t gloss over things (sustainably at least).