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How to process grief and find healthy ways to overcome loss

October 21, 2021 - 15 min read

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What is grief?

Types of grief and common causes

How to process grief

How long should grief last?

When to ask for help

It hits you in the gut. That sense of hollowing and an inability to breathe. The empty seat at the table or the empty spaces on the calendar. The sensation of a rogue wave of sadness and loneliness slamming down out of nowhere. 

To say that we grieve is an understatement. We experience grief.  It is less an emotion so much as a visceral experience. 

At times, we are grief.

The grieving process is shared by everyone at some time. Yet in it, we can feel alone, even when our family members or friends are also grieving. Our pain is common but felt in our own way. The experience of grief is unique in its particulars. 

Knowing that our pain is not original doesn't always make this difficult time easier. Sometimes we resist grief support and welcome the intense emotions and pain of loss. But it is important to pay attention to its effect on our mental health and physical health and find our way back to healthy ways of living with loss.

There is no one right grief process.  In this article, we'll consider the common causes of grief, tips for processing it, and when to seek professional help.  

What is grief?

Grief is the natural response to loss. Loss is part of life, and all humans experience grief. It can be triggered by any significant loss that formed part of your identity. 

The natural grief process can be experienced emotionally, physically, mentally, and socially. It can stay with a grieving person through their daily activities and co-exist with getting on with daily life. 

Because each person goes about it in their own way, co-workers and even friends may not recognize behaviors as symptoms of grief. We can be unaware of the pain or range of emotions a person is going through internally.

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Types of grief and common causes

Grief is experienced due to many kinds of significant loss, not just the death of a loved one. Sometimes it can be hard to recognize symptoms of grief for what they are when the loss is less obvious or significant. 

Some common causes of grief can include:

      • loss of job

      • loss of social connection due to quarantine

      • cancelation of a significant event

      • miscarriage

      • divorce

      • “empty nest”, when children are grown and moved out of the familial home 

      • life-changing diagnosis for yourself or a loved one 

      • death of a cherished pet

      • death of a loved one

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Grief takes time to process. Different types of grieving change that time and may require additional support.  

Normal, or uncomplicated grief, is the type of grief that is experienced by most people following a significant loss. It is what we often think of as the period of grief and bereavement following a death.

The American Psychological Association defines this as grief that lasts 6 months to 2 years following the loss.  

Normal grief subsides over time. While you may experience deep sadness or other emotional or physical impacts, especially in the early stages, normal grief does not interfere with your day-to-day life or ability to work, take care of yourself, or go about daily activities.

There are other types of grief as well. Understanding that there are different kinds of grief, and naming what you are experiencing, can be helpful in supporting your healing through the stages of grief in your own journey.

The most common types of grief include:

      • Anticipatory Grief. This type of grief is felt in anticipation of a significant loss. This includes things like a terminal diagnosis, anticipated layoffs or impending divorce. Anticipatory grief of normal and should be treated as grief even if the loss has not yet occurred.

      • Delayed Grief. Sometimes we don't have the opportunity to process grief when a loss occurs. This might be because we are caring for other family members, because external events (such as the coronavirus) prevent our normal grieving rituals, or because we don't recognize a significant loss for what it is.

        Delayed grief may be caused by growing up in a culture that discourages grieving, or simply by now wanting to face a prior loss. Indeed, the only way around grief is through it. Sometimes delayed grief is brought on in the face of another significant loss. This type of grief can be confusing and hard to ask for support.

      • Complicated Grief.  This type of grief is marked by conflicting feelings for the loss. For example, grief over the death of an estranged parent or abusive partner, or the loss of a job that you no longer like. A mental health professional or support group can sometimes help us make sense of these conflicting feelings, especially when friends or family members might not understand.

      • Cumulative Grief.  Grief of this type builds up over time and is marked by a number of losses taking place in a relatively short period of time.  Individually, any of the losses may feel less significant, and grief feels misplaced. We may feel embarrassed to admit the pain of grief for a canceled trip or the absence of school concerts and other activities for our kids. But these small losses add up. The fatigue felt by many in the face of the COVID pandemic is a type of cumulative grief.

      • Collective Grief.  This type of grief happens when a community, society, village, or nation all experience extreme change or loss. Collective grief can manifest in the wake of major events such as war, natural disasters, political or social upheaval, major economic downturns, pandemics, terrorism, or other acts that result in mass casualties or widespread tragedy.

        A health care team, for example, may experience this grief when a patient dies, and even more so in the wake of an event where they take on multiple traumas. Like individual grief, there is a feeling of lack of control and powerlessness that comes with collective grief.

      • Disenfranchised Grief. Kenneth Doka, Ph.D., writes in Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow, that this type of grief occurs any time someone feels that society has denied their “need, right, role or capacity to grieve.”  Examples of this type of grief include hidden or secret relationships, pets, or where the loss is seen as small by others or minimized by the culture.

        When a person doesn't feel that their right to grief and bereavement is recognized, they may feel cut off from normal sources of grief support or support groups. They can get stuck, unable to move beyond the early stages of grief.

How to process grief

While everyone grieves in their own personal way, Drs. Kenneth Doka and Terry Martin have published a body of research that describes grieving styles.  Understanding your own grieving styles can help you by clarifying what you need for your own grief journey, and how to support others.

Drs. Doka and Martin describe two ends of the grieving scale as Intuitive and Instrumental grieving.

      • On one hand, intuitive grievers tend to display more emotion and cope with their loss by sharing their feelings with others. These individuals are more likely to seek and/or accept community support through events such as support groups, social media, or 1:1 therapy.

      • On the other end of the continuum, instrumental grievers are less likely to express emotion and are more likely to direct their energy into activities. These individuals are more likely to express their grief by creating memorial walks, establishing memorial funds, or creating memorial gardens or public spaces to remember their loved one.

      • As this is a continuum, it is rare to find people who belong purely to one stye of grieving pattern. Most people are blended grievers, exhibiting qualities of both the intuitive and the instrumental griever.

As you go through your own grief journey, loved ones around you are going through their own. It’s helpful to remember that just because someone grieves differently does not indicate that they feel the loss anymore or less. They are just expressing it differently.

So don’t expect others to react the same way you do or need the same things you do. Remember to keep an open mind and allow them to grieve in their way, while you grieve in yours.

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Framework to process your grief

This three-step framework will help you no matter where you are in your grief journey.

  1. Describe your loss. Naming your loss and any associated losses is an important part of accepting the reality of the loss. Associated losses are unanticipated additional losses related to your primary loss. For instance, associated losses related to losing a job may be the loss of friendship or regular fellowship with colleagues. Try asking yourself:

    • What did I love about the person I lost?

    • Who did I lose touch with because of the loss?

    • What can I not do now as a result of the loss?

  2. Explore what’s different now.  After a significant loss, you are different. What you need may be different. What’s important to you may be different. Taking time to explore these things helps to bring clarity on who you are now, after the loss. Knowing who you are now, helps you identify what you need right now, and what you need or want for the future. Try asking yourself:

    • Who are you now?

    • What’s different?

    • What are you holding on to that no longer serves you?

  3. Envision your future life.  With significant loss, it can be tempting to jump right into the “Now what?” Take time to acknowledge your loss and explore what’s different now. These are actually forms of self-care that are important steps to building a new life.  Some people make the mistake of trying to recapture their old life before the loss. Working through these three steps support your ability to move through your grief and find a new way forward, even in the face of your loss.

    • What will you do differently in the future?

    • What is important to you now?

    • How can you continue to honor and remember your loved one?

How long should grief last?

The good news is that, for most people, grief resolves over time. With time and attention, it’s likely you will find joy again too.

Grief, especially from smaller losses, tends to pass more quickly once it is acknowledged. Recognizing your grief and how it is affecting your daily life and processing it isn't wallowing. It is an important act of self-care that ultimately helps you move through to the other side.

Normal grief, such as from the death of a loved one, can take from 6 months to 2 years to subside. That doesn't mean you won't have days where the loss and sadness sneak up on you. Often this happens around holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries of certain milestones long after you believe you are done grieving.

Complicated and disenfranchised grief may linger, especially without support. 

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When to ask for help

There isn't a way to short-cut the grief process or avoid the pain of grief — the only way forward is to go through it. Everyone has bad days, but look to your physical health and mental health to assess whether you are still moving through or if you're stuck. If you're stuck you may need to seek support in the form of grief counseling or grief therapy from a mental health professional. 

The good news is there are options for those seeking support and professional help. 

If you notice declining mental health over a period of time (>4 weeks) you may benefit from the help of a grief counselor. A grief coach can help you if you feel “stuck” and need some clarity on how to move forward.

Support groups provide space to connect with others who are experiencing loss, share your struggles and let out your emotions in a safe space. They provide important social support when your usual support system is unavailable or unequipped to give the support you need. 

Be patient with yourself

If you or someone you know is grieving, take comfort in knowing that it will ease up. Take time to honor the difficult time. It is part of what shapes us individually and as a group and helps us appreciate and be grateful for what is good in our lives. 

People in the grieving process can find joy again. And while you cannot bypass pain, you can make the process better by seeking healthy ways to connect with others and take care of yourself.

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Published October 21, 2021

Nikki Moberly, PCC, CBC

Better Up Premier Fellow Coach

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