5 Compassionate Ways to Cope With Your Grief
When we lose someone or something we care about, we tend to also gain something we didn’t ask for: grief.
It’s an emotion we always have at our disposal, but it can emerge in such an overwhelming and all-encompassing way in the wake of a loss. And when it’s something we so rarely talk about: It can feel blindsiding.
“Everyone on this planet will experience grief,” Jor-El Caraballo, L.M.H.C., co-founder of Viva Wellness and the guide for the grief meditation in the Shine app, says. “Just like joy or happiness, it's a human emotion. Yet it can feel isolating simply because we don't talk about it often.”
If there ever was a time to start talking about grief: It’s now.
With the COVID-19 pandemic also comes a grief pandemic.
A study from Pennsylvania State University estimates that every COVID-19 death in the U.S. is felt by more than eight close living relatives.
COVID-19 is also disproportionately impacting communities of color, adding to the already heavy psychological toll of enduring daily racial injustice.
And then there are all those other forms of grief happening right now that are also valid: Grief for plans that had to be canceled, like graduations and weddings. Grief for the millions of jobs lost each month as a result of the pandemic. Grief over a shattered sense of safety.
On top of all this: We can’t cope with grief in some of our usual ways—gathering together to comfort one another or even being with someone before they pass away.
All this to say: If your grief feels difficult to manage right now, you’re not alone.
“Your grief is a healthy, human response to loss,” Caraballo says. “And it means you cared deeply about someone or something. Just think about it this way: If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t be feeling as you do now.”
Here, he shares a few tips to help you ease into accepting your grief and breathe through the moments when it feels overwhelming:
1. Aim to Adjust Instead of ‘Get Over It’
It’s easy to think of grief as something to “get over,” but it’s one of the biggest misconceptions about grief that Caraballo wants to clear up. “Something I often tell my clients is that there’s no quick fix for grief—and we don’t ever fully ‘get over it,’” he says.
Instead, Caraballo likes to think of grief as a "process of adjusting."
“I think of grief as the process by which we adjust to life without X,” he says. “Grief doesn’t end—it changes. It might be more present in the immediate aftermath of the loss, but for most of us it does become less present over time.”
And Caraballo wants you to know: That “X” isn’t just reserved for people—it can also be grieving the loss of a pet, a romantic relationship or friendship, a job, plans that were forced to change, and also things or ideas. Your grief is valid, regardless of the root cause.
Caraballo says adjusting to life without “X” starts with recognizing what you're grieving specifically.
“It starts with acceptance that you have experienced a loss—and that’s difficult in and of itself,” Caraballo says.
2. Know there’s no 'right' way to grieve
This is another misconception about grief that Caraballo wants to clear up. While things like the “stages of grief” framework (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) gives us language to help describe our experience, grief isn’t a linear journey.
“One day you could really be in denial, the next day or hours later you just might be in anger, and the following day you might cycle back through those,” he says.
Give yourself permission to simply be in your grief rather than feel like you have to be a certain way. Grief is a process—and it's your process. There is no timeline you have to follow.
3. Trust it’s OK to create space for grief
Our first instinct when grief appears is often to avoid it or bury it down—it can feel like the easier option than facing such an intense emotion. But according to experts, this will only prolong the process even more.
Instead: Give yourself permission to honor your grief. “Honoring negative emotions it’s about creating space for them and knowing you don’t have to eradicate them,” Caraballo says.
For most people: He says it’s easier said than done. So many of us carry a fear that we’ll get “trapped” in a negative emotion. “But you can lean on certain tools and people to help you climb out of those more difficult spaces,” he says.
One way Caraballo says you can honor your grief: Taking a moment to get in touch with your body and how the feeling is manifesting within you.
Start by noticing where the feeling is living inside you. Is it in your stomach? Chest? Heart? Then, think about what color your grief is. And if it were a shape: What shape would it be?
This exercise gives you a chance to examine your grief with compassion and even find the words to describe it. “It can be hard to find the language to talk about your experience and that’s OK,” Caraballo says.
And know that if you do feel stuck in your grief for a prolonged amount of time—or simply want more support: Seeking help from a mental health professional is a strength, not a weakness.
4. Accept that your grief will ebb and flow
Grief is an emotion in flux—meaning some days can feel grief-free while other days something as simple as cooking pasta might trigger a memory and your grief along with it.
That’s why Caraballo likes to compare grief to the weather: There might be some dark, rainy seasons, other beautiful temperate seasons with warm memories—and on some days, a tornado that comes out of nowhere. “Just wait it out and know tomorrow will be different,” he says.
And it’s in those moments when you’re feeling triggered that being kind to yourself and self-soothing matter.
Ask yourself: What do I need? Maybe it is to take some time to think about the thing or person you lost—whether that’s by writing them a letter or imagining them in the room with you for a conversation.
Or: It might mean getting in touch with the feeling of grief in your body and the present moment.
“The feeling will come and go, just like a rainy day,” Caraballo says. “And you’ll learn how to create space for it each time.”
5. Know you're growing through grieving
While so many losses are and can feel senseless, we evolve through the experience. And recognizing how you’ll grow from adjusting to loss can help you stay hopeful in the process.
“We learn and grow from our grief, the same way we would from any other challenge in our life,” Caraballo says.
Ask yourself: What parts of yourself can you strengthen as you grieve? Maybe you’ll hold yourself with more compassion. Or feel more resilient. Or be more present with the people and things you care about moving forward. “Think about who you’re becoming through this difficult experience,” he says.
It takes time, but you’ll find a new “you” on the other side of grieving—and, if it helps, think of that version of yourself as someone you can already be proud of. It’s someone who’s not “over it” but did the hard work of adjusting and learning about themselves along the way. And someone who lived a meaningful life by allowing themselves to care deeply.
Read next: How to Be Mindful of Someone Else's Grief
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