• How To Understand and Navigate Loss and Grief

    Loss and grief are profound experiences that touch our lives in various ways. Whether we’re facing the death of a loved one, the end of a significant relationship, the loss of a job, or any other form of separation, the emotional impact can be overwhelming.

    Grief is the natural response to loss, encompassing a range of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors triggered by the absence or separation from someone or something that held significance in our lives.

    While we know death and endings are a part of the human experience, grief can be one of the most challenging emotions to navigate. How one experiences loss and grief is purely an individual experience with no one way or “right way.”

    In this article, we will explore the nature of grief, what it may look like for you (or those you care about), and offer coping strategies and different healing processes to try to make sense of this complex and deeply personal experience.

    Different Kinds of Loss and Grief

    Grief can manifest in various forms, including:

    • Bereavement – The experience of losing a loved one through death.
    • Divorce or relationship breakup – Coping with the end of a significant partnership or marriage, for any reason and particularly if there was an affair.
    • Job loss – Dealing with the loss of employment and the associated changes in identity and routine.
    • Loss of health – Adjusting to a decline in physical or mental well-being.
    • Loss of identity – Coping with significant life transitions that alter one’s sense of self.

    Grief elicits a wide range of emotions, such as sadness, anger, guilt, confusion, and even relief. Recognizing and honoring these emotions as valid and natural reactions to loss is important. There are no right or wrong feelings or emotions when experiencing a loss. You may not feel much, or you may feel a lot all at once. The emotional pain of grief is not something to be fixed but to be experienced and worked through.

    The Impact on the Brain and Cognitive Changes

    During the grieving process, the brain undergoes chemical and structural changes. Emotional distress experienced during grief triggers the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, which can significantly impact cognitive function. You may experience difficulty concentrating, memory lapses, and reduced decision-making abilities.

    Additionally, grief can disrupt sleep patterns, further contributing to cognitive difficulties. Sleep deprivation can impair memory functions and cognitive processing, making it harder to retain information and perform your daily tasks effectively.

    These mental changes can be distressing. They are also a natural and normal response to the intense emotions and stress associated with loss and grief.

    Please know that this impact on the brain is generally temporary and gradually improves over time as the grieving process unfolds. Healing from grief involves embracing the concept of neuroplasticity, which recognizes the brain’s ability to adapt and form new connections.

    Engaging in activities that bring comfort and joy, practicing self-care, and fostering resilience are critical components of the healing process that we will continue to discuss.

    The Stages of Grief

    You may have heard of the stages of grief. Created by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, it provides a basic framework to help us understand the emotional and psychological process that individuals may go through when confronted with loss. While the field of thanatology — the study of death and dying — continues to grow from her original work, my clients have found that understanding these phases can be helpful in understanding and normalizing their experience of grief.

    It is important to note that these stages are not linear, and you may experience these emotions in different orders or revisit certain stages multiple times.

    Additionally, not everyone may experience all of these stages. For example, you might not ever experience anger or denial or ever find total acceptance of your loss. In all situations, it is important to assume that whatever your experience is, you are a normal person, experiencing your own understandable and normal responses to a significant loss.

    The stages, really phases of grief, that you may or may not experience can include:

    This initial stage often involves a sense of shock and disbelief. It serves as a defense mechanism, allowing you to gradually absorb the reality of the loss at a pace you can handle. Denial can provide temporary relief from overwhelming emotions.

    As the denial wears off, you may experience intense anger and resentment. You may direct your anger toward various targets, including yourself, the deceased or the loss, or even a higher power. It is essential to understand that anger is a normal part of the grieving process and should be expressed and processed in healthy ways.

    In an attempt to regain control or reverse the loss, you may engage in bargaining. You may make promises to yourself, a higher power, or the universe, hoping to undo the pain you may be experiencing. This stage often involves a series of “what ifs” or “if only” statements.

    During this stage, the total weight of the loss begins to sink in, and you may experience a deep sense of sadness, emptiness, and despair. Feelings of loneliness, isolation, and hopelessness are common and completely normal. It is essential to distinguish grief-related depression from clinical depression and seek appropriate support if needed.

    In the final stage, you gradually come to terms with the reality of the loss. This does not mean you are okay with the loss or that you no longer feel sadness, but instead, you begin to find ways to live with the pain and adjust to a new normal. Acceptance does not signify forgetting or moving on but rather acknowledging and integrating the loss into your life.

    Dr. David Kessler worked with and helped expand on Kubler-Ross’ work when he introduced a sixth phase – helping those who are grieving to focus on moving forward by emphasizing the love as well as the pain and to focus on the meaning of the loss and its implications for working through your grief.

    It is important to remember that these stages are not a rigid roadmap and may not occur in a linear fashion. You may experience certain stages more intensely or for a longer period, while others may move through them more quickly. The grief journey is deeply personal, and it is crucial to allow yourself the time and space to navigate through these stages in your way and at your own pace.

    Each person’s journey is unique.

    Challenges, Myths, and Social Misconceptions of Grief

    Our society often imposes misconceptions about grief, expecting people to follow a predetermined timeline or “get over” their loss. This can create additional and unnecessary pressure and invalidate your unique grieving process. People may unintentionally make hurtful comments, such as saying, “You should be over it by now.”

    Educating others about the nature of grief and communicating your needs is important, asserting that healing takes time and cannot be rushed. Your grieving process is yours, and working through it and learning to live with it is your own personal journey.

    There are some losses that we may never get over. It’s a matter of acknowledging and accepting the pain and not covering it up. Emotional pain, especially grief-related, is not something to be “cured” or “fixed” but to experience, learn from, and help find meaning.

    As such, there is no timeline for grief. Period.

    Cultural and Traditions Around Loved Ones That Are Gone

    It’s not uncommon for people to avoid talking about or experiencing our thoughts and feelings of death and dying. In many cultures in the US and worldwide, death is much more normalized as a part of the circle of life.

    Diverse customs and traditions are associated with honoring and remembering loved ones who have passed away. These cultural practices provide a framework for expressing grief, finding solace, and maintaining a connection with the departed. Understanding and embracing these traditions can offer comfort and a sense of belonging during the grieving process.

    Some cultural and traditional practices related to loss and remembrance include:

    Dia de los Muertos 
    In Mexican culture, Dia de los Muertos is a vibrant celebration held on November 1st and 2nd. Families create altars adorned with photographs, flowers, candles, and favorite foods of their departed loved ones. They believe that during this time, the souls of the deceased return to Earth to enjoy the offerings placed on the altars.

    Ancestor Worship 
    Many cultures, including China, Japan, and various African and Indigenous communities, engage in ancestor worship. They believe that deceased ancestors continue to exist and can influence the lives of the living. Rituals, prayers, and offerings are used to maintain a spiritual connection and seek guidance and support from previous generations.

    Mourning Rituals 
    Different cultures have specific mourning rituals to help individuals navigate the grieving process. For example, in Jewish culture, sitting Shiva is a practice where close relatives gather for seven days to mourn after a loved one’s passing. This period allows for reflection, support, and sharing of memories among family and friends.

    Commemorative Events 
    Many cultures hold commemorative events to honor and remember loved ones. These events may include annual memorial services, candlelight vigils, or special occasions dedicated to sharing stories, memories, and prayers. Coming together in this way allows individuals to find support, express their grief, and keep the memories of their loved ones alive.

    By embracing or adopting these cultural traditions, you can find solace, a sense of community, and meaningful ways to honor the memory of your loved ones. Whether it’s celebrating Dia de los Muertos with colorful altars or sitting Shiva with family and friends, these customs provide comfort and help keep the presence of your loved ones alive in your heart and mind as you navigate the grieving process.

    8 Coping Strategies and Ways to Manage Grief and Loss

    Here are eight examples of coping strategies and ways to manage your grief and loss. Remember, these are just a few ideas; finding what works best for you is important.

    1. Allow yourself to feel. Allow yourself to experience the full range of emotions that come with grief. Whether it’s sadness, anger, or confusion, acknowledge and validate your feelings. They are a natural part of the healing process.

    3. Seek support. Reach out to trusted friends, family members, people in your religious or spiritual community, or support groups who can offer empathy and understanding. Be with people who accept you where you are and do not necessarily need to make you feel better (unless that is helpful for you).

    5. Practice self-care. Take care of your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Engage in activities that bring you joy (no matter how small) and provide a sense of comfort. This could include exercising, meditating, journaling, or engaging in hobbies that nourish your soul and feel good to you.

    7. Journaling. Journaling provides a safe and private space for self-reflection and emotional release. It can provide an outlet for expressing and getting out pent-up feelings you may not have realized are present. Grief can be overwhelming, and thoughts and memories may swirl in your mind. Writing them down in a journal can free up mental space and provide a sense of solace. It can allow you to externalize your thoughts and memories, making them more tangible and manageable and creating meaning from them.

      Journaling allows you to explore your thoughts, beliefs, and experiences related to the loss. It provides an opportunity for self-reflection and gaining insights into your own healing process. You can ask yourself questions, uncover patterns, and discover new perspectives contributing to your understanding of grief. It also can serve as a way to track your progress over time.


    9. Create rituals or memorials. Honoring your loved one through ceremonies or memorials (like the cultural ones mentioned above) can be a powerful way to process grief. This could involve lighting a candle in their memory, visiting their favorite place, or creating a scrapbook of cherished memories. These acts can provide a sense of connection and comfort.

    11. Express yourself creatively. Artistic expression can be incredibly healing during times of grief. Explore different creative outlets such as painting, writing, music, or dancing. Expressing your emotions through creativity can provide a cathartic release and help you process your grief meaningfully.

    13. Practice mindfulness and relaxation techniques. Engage in practices that promote relaxation and mindfulness, such as deep breathing exercises, yoga, or guided meditation. These techniques can help calm your mind, reduce stress, and provide a sense of grounding during turbulent times.

    15. Seek professional help when needed. If your grief feels overwhelming or prolonged, don’t hesitate to seek the guidance of a qualified therapist or counselor. They can provide additional tools, strategies, and a safe space to process emotions. Remember, seeking help is a sign of strength and can significantly aid your healing journey.

    Remember that grief is a profoundly personal experience, and what works for one person may not work for another. Be gentle with yourself, take things one day at a time, and trust that healing is possible. You are not alone on this journey, and resources and support are available to help you navigate your grief and find consolation in the midst of loss.

    Building Resilience

    Resilience is a powerful concept that plays a vital role in navigating the challenges of loss and grief. It refers to the ability to adapt, bounce back, and find strength in the face of adversity. While grief can be overwhelming and deeply painful, resilience reminds us that we have an innate capacity to heal and grow.

    In the context of loss, resilience allows individuals to gradually integrate their grief into their lives and find a new sense of normalcy. It involves acknowledging and accepting the pain while cultivating hope, focusing on the love of someone you were very close to in order to emphasize your gratitude for their presence in your life, as well as grief, and believing in one’s ability to move forward.

    Resilience does not mean erasing or forgetting the loss but instead finding ways to honor the memory of what or who has been lost while embracing the present and future.

    Building resilience over time involves engaging in self-care practices, seeking support from loved ones or professional resources, and allowing oneself to experience and express emotions. The way out of grief is through. It also involves reframing the narrative of loss, finding meaning and purpose in the midst of pain, and recognizing personal growth and strength that can emerge from the grieving process. Resilience is a journey unique to each individual, and it serves as a guiding force in the process of healing and rebuilding a fulfilling life after loss.

    What to Do If Someone You Care About is Grieving

    When supporting someone who is grieving, it is vital to approach them with empathy, patience, and understanding. Here are some helpful guidelines:

    Listen attentively
    Offer a nonjudgmental space for them to express their emotions and thoughts. Avoid offering unsolicited advice or trying to “fix” their pain.

    Validate their feelings
    Let them know their emotions are valid and understandable. Assure them that it is okay to grieve and that their experience is normal.

    Be present
    Simply being there for them, both physically and emotionally, can provide immense comfort. Offer a shoulder to lean on or a listening ear whenever needed.

    Offer practical support
    Assist with daily tasks or responsibilities that may feel overwhelming during their grieving process. Simple acts of kindness can go a long way in showing your support.

    Encourage self-care
    Remind them of the importance of self-care, such as maintaining a healthy routine, engaging in activities they enjoy, and seeking professional help if needed.

    Respect their unique journey
    Recognize that everyone grieves differently, and there is no “right” way or timeline to grieve. Avoid comparing their experience to others or imposing your expectations on them.

    Grief can be an experience of trauma. It also can be one of the most challenging experiences of being human. While the thoughts and emotions may be overwhelming, at the end of the day, please remember that you are a normal person, having a normal reaction to a challenging life event.

    Again, I can’t say this enough: each person’s journey is unique, and it is crucial to allow oneself the time and space to navigate your grief at your own pace.

    Navigating loss and grief is a complex and deeply personal experience. This article has explored the nature of grief, different forms of loss, coping strategies, cultural traditions, and the concept of resilience. It is important to remember that grief is a natural response to loss and that there is no right or wrong way to grieve.

    Seeking support from loved ones, engaging in self-care practices, and embracing cultural traditions can provide solace and aid in the healing process. Resilience plays a vital role in rebuilding a fulfilling life after loss, reminding us of our innate capacity to heal and grow.

    As we honor the memories of our loved ones and find meaning in our grief, we can gradually integrate loss into our lives and embrace a new sense of normalcy.

    I think that this recent quote says so much.  It is from a colleague who experienced the loss of her wife five years ago.  

    “Grief is a living thing and not something that gets resolved and then disappears.  It is a lifelong relationship.  Loss forces a shift in perspective on life and our engagement with it.”  –  Nicole Parker-Adams, LMFT

    Remember, you are not alone on this journey; support is available to help you navigate your grief and find consolation in the midst of loss. I am reminded of an old saying, “Pain shared is pain halved.”

    I hope that this article was helpful. If you would like some additional help with your grieving process, I invite you to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation to see if I am a good fit for your needs. I’m happy to help in any way that I can.