How to Cope with Grief
Updated: Oct 14, 2022
The Covid-19 pandemic has contributed to a staggering loss of life. Many of us have lost loved ones personally, whether due to Covid or other reasons. And now with the sad news of Queen Elizabeth II’s passing these emotions are likely to come to the fore. As we come to terms with this sad news we are also reminded of our personal losses. Processing grief takes time and can disrupt our emotional lives. We may experience high levels of fear, sadness, anger and frustration. This can be confusing and can leave us feeling overwhelmed as the emotions run riot and we feel powerless to respond. Here we hope to help by offering an understanding of the process and providing some ideas about how to cope with grief.
Stages of grief
Words can’t do justice to how difficult it can be to come to terms with loss. Everyone finds their own way through. And although there are some common stages that people tend to progress through there is no set order to these. There is no typical response to loss, just as there is no typical loss.
However, understanding the stages of grief and grieving can help us understand our own and others’ reactions and build compassion for ourselves and others.
Associated with feelings of shock and confusion, denial is often the first stage of grief. We might feel emotionally numb, try to shut out the reality of the situation and wonder if we can keep going. Denial is an important part of the grieving process. It allows us space to process only as much of the loss as we are able to, whilst compartmentalising the full extent of our experience until we are ready to face it.
Allowing ourselves to feel anger and other distressing emotions such as anxiety and fear, is part of the healing process. It is natural to feel angry as this gives us something to hold onto when we feel so much around us is uncertain. When we can direct our emotions outwards we gain a sense of strength. The more we allow ourselves to truly feel the anger, the more it will begin to fade as we start to heal.
Bargaining is about the ‘What ifs’: what if I had taken them to hospital sooner, what if I had stopped them going to the shops. It is an attempt to make sense of our own role, to address the guilt we feel and to find a way out of the pain of loss.
As we start to realise the loss is real, that our loved one did not get better and is not coming back, or that we really had no control over the survival of those entrusted to our care, we can become overwhelmed by feelings of sadness, hopelessness and emptiness. We might wonder what is the point of life, and experience an urge to withdraw from family, friends and life.
Gradually we learn that our lives have been changed forever and we start to adapt, initially through just having fewer bad days. We begin to understand the reality of the loss, that our loved one is gone and will not be coming back and that we are living in a new reality which is permanent. As time progresses we start to re-engage in life again and grow and evolve with it.
When we experience trauma and loss our world is turned upside down and our feelings of safety can be challenged. Where we once thought we understood the order of things, we are suddenly faced with a new world of pain, anger and fear.
Learning to stay in touch with our emotions, to care about our own wellbeing and notice when we are struggling is key to getting through. Having self-compassion and treating ourselves with kindness rather than judgement and criticism helps us to grow through the experience.
The emotions associated with trauma and loss can be overwhelming and we may want to push them away with all our might. But however all-consuming and unmanageable they seem, they will never be bigger than you are. Grounding techniques allow us to keep them in perspective, calmingour feelings of overwhelm.
The experience of grounding helps us to feel safe and builds our confidence that we can cope. A sense of grounding can be drawn from connecting with our senses. Finding familiar and comforting smells, sounds, images and touch will help to calm us, perhaps through the smell of clean clothes, fresh-cut grass, herbs or spices, or aromatherapy oils. Listening to soothing music or the sounds of nature can help, as can visualising an image of a place where you have felt safe and content. Or you may find the feel of a soft blanket or a smooth stone will help you feel calm and centred. We are all different, so finding your own ways to cope with grief and feel safe is essential.
It is important to note that coming to accept the loss is not just about saying goodbye to a loved one, but also about finding a way of inviting them into our lives again, of finding a new connection with them.
Freud suggests that the completion of the mourning process requires those that are left behind to develop a new reality which no longer includes what has been lost. But . . . it must be added that full recovery from mourning may restore what has been lost. Full recollection and retention may be as vital to recovery and wellbeing as forfeiting memories. (Meyerhoff 1982, p:111*)
Similarly, the founder of Narrative Therapy, Michael White’s metaphor of ‘saying hullo’, is a way of incorporating the lost relationship into our lives. It opens up a possibility to reclaim our relationship with our loved one. Through this process of establishing a new relationship with the person we have lost, we eventually come to a place of being able to remember them with more love than pain, and to find meaning in our lives again.
In talking here about the impact on individuals, it is important we also acknowledge the trauma and grief we have experienced collectively as a nation through the pandemic and now with the passing of Queen Elizabeth II.
This parallel process of trauma and grief has led us all to feel disbelief and denial, to experience anger at how things have been managed or feel overwhelmed by thoughts of ‘if only…’ concerned with how things might have been different. We may feel depressed, hopeless about the future and helpless at the lack of control we have over how things unfold.
It is important to remember that these feelings may be uncomfortable or distressing, but they are normal reactions and they are temporary. They will gradually heal, as we adapt pick ourselves up and carry on. And we will do this most successfully if we support each other with patience, compassion and love.
*Meyerhoff, B. (1982). Life history among the elderly: Performance, visibility and remembering. In Ruby, J. (ed), A Crack in the Mirror: Reflexive Perspectives in Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.