Healthy Ways to Process Grief
It’s safe to say you’ve experienced the pain of grief at some point in your life. We’ve all been there at some point, or will be. So let me share my thoughts on healthy ways to manage, even eliminate, your pain.
It’s important to start out by connecting two dots.
Grief is an emotional experience. But it’s also a medical condition.
It’s one of the most powerful kinds of stress, and stress is one of the most powerful causes of illness—if not the most powerful.
So my concern here is with both your emotional and physical health. We need to think of the two as one.
Common misconceptions about grief #1
If you picked up on “eliminate” above, and feel or think that a life free of grief is unlikely or impossible, it’s neither. But that’s the most common misconception about grief—that it’s forever, that the best you can do is “manage” it.
After all, you didn’t cause the death of your loved one, and you can’t bring them back. How can you possibly make the heartache just … disappear?
I’ll tell you how in a minute. Let’s clear up other misconceptions first.
Common misconceptions about grief #2
Another misconception: your grief should be silent. Even with supportive friends and family, your pain is so great, and so permanent, that you should “manage” it on your own, and try to avoid being a burden.
Nothing could be further from the truth. People who care for you need to know the depths of your pain. Only then can they truly help you. The more you share, the more care you’ll receive.
Common misconceptions about grief #3
“Getting over” your grief is disrespectful to the one you’ve lost. Your grief is a sign of your love. Your grief honors your loved one. The loss is permanent, so your grief should be permanent.
The real disrespect here? It’s the belief that your loved one would want you to grieve forever, instead of getting on with your life and finding every happiness you possibly can, including, in the case of losing a spouse, finding a new love.
Think about it
A teacher and grief counselor I greatly admire tells this story.
A man is told that his wife has suddenly died. He falls to the ground, in shock, in horror, in grief.
He’s then told she hasn’t died. It was all a mistake.
What is his emotional response?
His shock, horror, and grief? Gone. Vanished.
What is the lesson?
Our thoughts manage our emotions, and our emotions manage our physical bodies.
The thought of his wife’s death caused an immediate chemical response—a powerful one.
But in the next instant, it was gone. Because it was only a thought—an instantaneous firing of neural pathways—that was replaced by a new thought.
If you’re unsure about the connection between thought and chemical response, try this:
- Imagine you’re holding a firm, bright yellow lemon in your hand
- Roll it around in your palm
- Now, smell it and imagine biting into it
Your salivary glands should have just kicked in, yes?
And it wasn’t a real lemon … just a thought.
Self-awareness, metacognition, self-talk
I’ve written about these interrelated issues in the past, in the context of dealing with physical illness.
They’re all also in play when dealing with this emotional issue of grief.
Once you believe that you can think about your own thinking—metacognition—then you can believe that you can change that thinking.
In grief, there is one simple, unchanging fact: a death.
But there are countless ways you can think about that fact.
It’s your choice.
Must you grieve forever? If that’s your belief, that will be your result—along with the damage caused by that chronic stress.
But who’s telling you that’s the case? Nobody. Just you.
Are you helpless to do anything about it? Do you need to suffer in order to honor your loved one? Did your loved one really want that life of misery for you?
In practice, many grieving people have found that the best results when putting these concepts into play come from a session with a trained therapist. While we all can readily recognize many of our beliefs, many of them have deeper, less visible causes or sources, often dating back to our earliest years.
A one-on-one session with a skilled therapist can guide you to discovering those hidden beliefs, so you can address them head-on. And change them.
Indeed, I know of many cases where a single, two-hour session has replaced longtime suffering with a bright, loving future. And not just for people grieving a personal loss. Veterans with PTSD find healing in the same method, as did a Vietnam vet who lost both legs decades ago and had suffered phantom pain and other tragic after-symptoms since.
Voices of the grieving—listen and learn
One of the most influential voices in the realm of grief is that of Elizabeth Kubler-Roth, a Swiss psychiatrist who had intimate, revealing conversations with hundreds of dying and grieving people in the 1960s and beyond.
She concluded that there are five predictable “phases” or “stages” of grief—changing emotions over time that mark the road to recovery, or at least some relief, from grief:
The five stages of grief
- Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.”
- Anger: “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”
- Bargaining: “Make this not happen, and in return I will ____.”
- Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.”
- Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what happened.”
Not everyone experiences all, or even any, of these stages, and they’re not to be taken as Steps 1–5, in that order. Everyone grieves differently, but many people go into and out of some or all.
Dr. Kubler-Roth said as much herself:
“They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grieving is as individual as our lives.”
My point is that if you’re experiencing anything like these emotions, it’s a natural response, and nothing to be concerned about.
Be sure to do
Let me emphasize that the single most important factor in healing from loss is having the support of other people. You might ordinarily feel uneasy about sharing your feelings—but try to get past that. Sharing your loss eases the grief. Do not grieve alone or in silence.
That said, don’t let anyone, no matter how well intentioned, tell you how to feel. And don’t tell yourself how to feel. No one can tell you when it’s time to “move on” or “get over it.” Cry or don’t, laugh or don’t, curse the heavens or don’t … feel what you feel, be patient, and share it.
Remember that support can come from many sources:
- Your friends and family
- Your faith
- A support group
- A therapist or grief counselor
Finally, returning to the connection between emotional and physical health, be especially focused on healthy foods, healthy sleep, and exercise. Think of them as pain relievers. They all reduce the stress that grief imposes on our bodies.
Give peace a chance
I hope I’ve given you some new, or at least useful, ideas to think about.
If you’re grieving, feel it, but know that it isn’t forever…give your feelings a chance to run their course.
- Kellehear, Allan. “Foreword: On Death & Dying” Elizabeth Kubler-Roth Foundation. Published NA. Last accessed November 20, 2016.
- McDonald, Robert. “The Basic Conflict—Healing, Yes, Healing No” Cure to Cancer Conference 2014. Integrated Health International. Published on Jun 6, 2014. Last accessed November 20, 2016.
- Smith, Melinda, Segal, Jeanne. “Coping with Grief and Loss” HelpGuide. Published October, 2016. Last accessed November 20, 2016.
- “‘Stages’ of Dying’” Elizabeth Kubler-Roth Foundation. Published NA. Last accessed November 20, 2016.
Last Updated: August 16, 2018
Originally Published: December 12, 2016