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Grief: 3 Ways to Cope and Learn to Live Meaningfully

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Grief: 3 Ways to Cope and Learn to Live Meaningfully

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The idea of grief is universal; it is a part of life in so many ways. We can feel a sense of loss and grief over many things at various times in our life journeys. Grief that every one of us will experience is the loss of someone we love, such as a parent, sibling, partner, or friend, who will pass on. Other times, we may face grief when we lose our pet, who is a family member. Other times, grief may show up in a less conventional way, in that no one has passed away, but they are no longer part of your life. When you experience a break-up, job loss, or a house loss (for example, after a devastating fire), you will experience grief and loss.

Do You Have a Hard Time Dealing With Grief?

You may have heard about the five stages of grief, as outlined by the Kübler-Ross model. These five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and

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acceptance. These five stages were initially introduced to the world in the context of death and dying; they have since been adopted as a guideline for processing any kind of loss.

The first three stages are about self-protection. Denying that anything is wrong is a way of avoiding the truth of a situation; this insulates against shock and the full magnitude of the experience. Anger, often worn as a shield for fear or sadness, can feel powerful and empowering but take a devastating toll on your physical and mental health. Bargaining is another form of denial, hoping that if you promise the “right thing,” your situation will improve. Depression sets in as the truth of the situation begin to take hold, especially once the denial and bargaining have passed, you begin to realize that they’re not working, or anger has become too exhausting to maintain. Depression can feel like sleeplessness or needing to sleep all day. It can coexist with anxiety or create a feeling of numbness. Acceptance (coming to terms with the fact that you will survive the situation, even if you wish it could have been different) can feel miles away.

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Grief is difficult and painful, and a big part of that pain can be approaching and processing it. How can you really know that you are having a hard time? Is it when you have signs of depression? Or is it based on the length of time? The answer depends on you. No one can tell you how long it should take until it is not “normal” for you to grieve. Hopefully, you have people around you who are supportive of your individual needs as you process your grief. If you have come to a place in your life where you feel like you are having a hard time living with grief, then I would like to share some suggestions with you.

3 Ways to Cope and Live with Grief

1) Process your feelings:

When grief is painful, it can be incredibly difficult to talk about it. This can lead to spending a lot of time in the denial phase. Suppressing emotions can be very taxing on your spirit and your overall wellness. You might feel, at first, that if you even think about the person or situation you are grieving, you’ll overflow with emotion and pain. Maybe you worry that you have to keep everything bottled up, or it will all be too much. To begin processing your feelings, you have to take the first small step of opening up about the situation.

You can do it in increments. Let’s say you are grieving the loss of your dad. You can start to talk about what may seem like more “ordinary” or “small” memories of him and move your way towards

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reflecting and sharing the more difficult memories and emotions. Memories that are difficult to process may include his last day, the last birthday you spent with him, and your last family dinner. Some of the more emotionally charged ideas may include things that haven’t happened yet, such as how he is not going to be present on your wedding day to walk you down the aisle or meet any of your children.

Another way you can process your grief on your terms and gradually is through visualizations. For example, if it is hard to go back to your favorite restaurant after a breakup, you can imagine driving by the restaurant, then pulling over and walking in. Visualization is powerful because the brain can not tell the difference between your physical location and where you imagine yourself. As a result, it will respond emotionally as if you are physically there. This can give you some gradual exposure to places where loss is associated without the vulnerability of being physically there.

This process is not a straight line; you may begin with memories or thoughts that are easier to process, then work your way toward the tougher stuff for a while. Or you may visualize different places, or different activities, depending on how strong you are feeling overall. In times of additional life stress, you may take a break from processing or choose to process some easier ideas for a while. Yes, consistency is key to working on any project or through any struggle. But that doesn’t mean that you sometimes can’t give yourself a day off. Remember, at the end of the day, your grief is your journey. It does not have to be compared to anyone else’s.

Grief has a way of making us feel lonely, misunderstood, and fragile. No matter how supportive your friends and family are, you may feel uncomfortable processing your grief out loud to them. Or, you might feel that you can share a little of it, but not all of it. You might want to enlist the help of a therapist, whether in-person or online, to guide you through this time. We see many people in all stages of grief here at our therapy practice in Woodland Hills. No two stories are identical, but the feelings experienced are universal. In connecting with another person in your grief, you can help to dis-spell some of the ideas you may have about how you “should” be grieving, including how it might look for you, how intense your emotions may be, and for how long you think the grieving process will take.

2) Understand that grief does not change over time:

There used to be an older belief that, in time, one’s grief “shrinks” such that it does not hurt as much. What we have come to know better today is that it is not the grief that changes or shrinks, but more so, our life that changes and expands. As years go by and you have more life experiences, the grief is accompanied by meaningful memories, making it easier to cope with grief. In this way, you are liberated from the idea that you should be working to change (namely, to minimize) your grief and your emotional response to it. Instead, your task is to continue to build a life that supports your wellness as best as you can.

A woman experiencing a sense of deep sadness and depression.

A bittersweet experience of grief is that it is also a memory. When we grieve the loss of someone or something, it is because there is a lot of love there. The idea that healing from grief requires us to care less about that person, home, pet, or job can hold us back from moving forward. Even though we want to feel better, we cling to the pain because it means that the thing we lost is still real, still tangible. We believe that our grief is a representation of how important that person or thing was to us; did we really deserve to love it if we are able to get over it?

It is liberating to realize that the life we build around our grief makes it easier to bear. The love doesn’t go away; the importance doesn’t change. Nothing can undo what was important to us at that time, and nothing can bring us back to the time and place when we had what it is we are now grieving for. Instead, we supplement our memories and day-to-day experiences, growing our hearts and minds so that the grief, still the same size, takes up less space. Not because it is smaller, but because our life is bigger. This is how we navigate it. This also means that sometimes, despite everything we have built our lives out of, we still find ourselves in that small corner of our memory where that pure love lives. And, in that moment, we may experience our grieving again as if for the first time.

3) Hold space for your grief when it is triggered:

There will always be a time, situation, or event that will trigger your grief, sometimes out of nowhere. When you are able, explore ways that you would want to ride the wave of grief when it is activated. This process does not ensure that you will handle your triggers flawlessly, but it gives you something positive to work toward. It is far more rewarding to move towards something positive than to dodge and run from things that are negative. It is the same with triggers. If we know that we will inevitably encounter them, and we have a plan for when we do, we can spend more energy looking for the good in life instead of being vigilant in our avoidance of the bad.

It is crucial to be flexible with yourself. Every year, you may find yourself holding space for your grief differently. Some days, weeks, months, or years may be more difficult than others, more challenging than expected. More painful than you would like for them to be. The first time you notice that it’s an ex-friend’s birthday and you two aren’t spending it together might hurt less than the second year. This might happen because the reality of the end of the friendship has sunk in more, or it might be because events in the time between birthdays have impacted the way you miss your old life, including your friendship. It could be for any reason. If you don’t assume that you know how things will go but rather make an effort to try to steer them toward your most positive outcome, you will be more resilient when you are taken by surprise.

Change is never easy. Grief involves adjusting to a transformation, often one that you did not choose to make. Part of our pain around what we grieve is that we feel like we are powerless. No matter how much time goes by in life, we may still struggle with changes. When a change causes you to grieve, allow yourself to experience your emotions with self-love and self-compassion. Ask for support from others, don’t be afraid to admit to them that you’re having a tough time. Treat yourself with the same compassion that you would have for a friend who was grieving.

No two people will grieve the same way over the same thing, just as many people would grieve differently for different things. If you are grieving, try not to get hung up on what other people are doing. Even in a situation where you think you and someone else might be on the same page, such as if you have both lost a parent, don’t look to a sibling and compare yourselves and your process. 

When processing your grief, be mindful of your reality, sensations, and journey. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have empathy for other people around you or that you are insensitive to other people. It means that you recognize your journey with grief as an individual story. It is not your responsibility to make others see why you are grieving the way you are or why you would feel grief in the first place. Validate your loss for yourself. Your loved ones will show up for you as best they can, but it is not up to them to decide for you what you feel or how you should handle it. 

Honor yourself and what you are grieving by acknowledging and accepting your grief process, and keep trying! Grief does get easier to manage in time, even if you never feel quite the same again. Lean into things that bring you joy or even a little relief or comfort. Continue to eat, drink water, and sleep as best as you can. Put one foot in front of the other, even if slowly. You will feel better in time. I promise.

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