One of the toughest ― and often most traumatic ― experiences in life is grief, a part of our journey that impacts everyone and doesn’t get any easier the more times you go through it.
“Grief is a universal and human experience,” said Christina Zampitella, the founder of the Center for Grief and Trauma Therapy in Delaware who also has a grief-focused podcast called “Phoenix Rising With Dr. Z.” But, unlike many other universal experiences, grief is not anticipated or straightforward.
“It’s your natural response to loss. That’s a simple answer, but, of course, it’s not a simple experience,” said Dr. M. Katherine Shear, director of the Center for Prolonged Grief at Columbia University in New York.
Grief shows up differently for everyone and changes depending on what activates it, who’s around and a person’s state of mind, Shear added. Its complexity means there is no grief road map — it looks different for everyone, which means there is no way of knowing how it’ll impact you until it does.
But while grief is different for everyone, there are commonalities, Shear added. One of those commonalities is that there are things you can do to move through your grief and help yourself feel even just a little bit better. Here, experts share the things you can do to take care of yourself as you’re grieving.
Understand that there is no right or wrong way to grieve.
“The first thing is to be sure not to second-guess grief,” Shear said. “We want to kind of let it be and not worry about whether we’re grieving in the right way or not.”
In other words, you are never grieving “wrong” — however you’re feeling is right for you. So, if you’re worried your grief isn’t normal, put that thought out of your head. (One exception is if you’re doing something dangerous to grieve — like drinking too much or driving recklessly. That is an unhealthy way to cope.)
She added that grief is not something we can control, either, so any thoughts or feelings you’re having are valid. “Maybe get interested in [the thoughts] or maybe not take [them] too seriously, but don’t try to control it because grief is not really all that controllable, honestly,” she said.
Make sure your basic needs are met.
Taking care of yourself by sleeping, eating, drinking water, exercising, resting and practicing proper hygiene are all necessary parts of self-care, according to Zampitella. Your body won’t feel any better if you aren’t eating three meals a day or if you’re skipping crucial aspects of your routine.
There’s no doubt that some of these so-called basic things may feel like a challenge for you in the early phases of grief, but it’s important to try to prioritize yourself ― even if that means missing a step in your regular skin care routine (that’s OK) or skipping breakfast to get some extra sleep.
Allow yourself to put your grief aside.
“We need to have periods of being with our grief, even though it’s painful, because pain doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad … and we also need respite,” Shear said.
It’s necessary to both feel the pain of grief and allow yourself to take breaks because that pain is a lot to cope with, she added.
“Try to commit to taking some time every day, even just five minutes … just some time every day to do something a little bit pleasant,” Shear said.
And this means doing something as pleasant as you can manage — it doesn’t have to be going to happy hour with friends or treating yourself to a spa day. It can mean watching a funny YouTube video or making yourself your favorite tea.
“Do it and make it almost like a ritual … you can think of it almost as a way of honoring the love the person who died had for you because you know that’s what they would want for you,” she said.
Be careful of what you say yes to.
While you’re in the early stages of grief, you can’t expect yourself to show up as you always have for friends and family, Zampitella said.
“[Make] sure that you’re very intentional with what you’re saying no and what you’re saying yes to,” she added. While you still have to do necessary things like getting your kids to school or paying your electric bill, you shouldn’t take on things that aren’t essential.
Instead of saying yes to things that feel like too much, let yourself lean into your grief, Zampitella said. Oscillating back and forth between grief and the day’s necessities can help you move through your grief in a healthier manner, she said.
Additionally, Shear said, you should avoid anything new for the most part — “unless it’s something you really want to do and that fits into having some pleasant time.”
Things that are not rewarding or that are stressful should be put on the back burner, she said. When you’re actively grieving, “it’s not the best time to take on new tasks or do anything challenging,” she said.
Find ways to express your emotions, like journaling.
According to Zampitella, it can be helpful to find outlets to express how you’re feeling. This could include listening to music, doing crafts or journaling.
She noted that when it comes to journaling for grief, there are time parameters that can help you effectively cope. Zampitella recommends journaling for four days a week for 20 minutes. (More than 20 minutes can cause you to get flooded with emotion while less than that amount of time won’t allow you to get into the practice, she said.)
“Learning mindfulness and meditation techniques are a really nice way of being able to hold your feelings without getting swallowed up by them,” Zampitella said. And when it comes to meditation, you don’t have to commit to long periods of time ― even just five minutes of meditation is a good way to practice mindfulness, she said.
Zampitella added that another good mindfulness practice is yoga, which impacts people’s well-being in a different way than other forms of exercise. Spending time in nature is another option.
“When you’re in nature, you’re away from man-made objects — that gives you a sense of getting away,” she said. Also, you have things to hold your attention, like streams or trees or birds, but these things also don’t completely divert your attention, which allows you to think about the loss in your life, Zampitella noted.
Learn how to narrate the story of your loved one’s death.
“An important one is to be able to narrate a story of the death, to be able to tell a story of what happened,” Shear said.
This will help you be prepared to talk about it and be ready to answer one of the biggest questions you’ll hear.
“People usually do this very naturally. Their friends and family will say, ‘Oh, what happened?’ and they’ll tell the story, and that’s a part of what you need to do is be able to tell yourself and other people what happened,” she said.
Death is one of the most salient moments in someone’s life, Shear added. Being able to tell the story of your loved one’s passing is a way to honor them and also won’t allow you to block out this important moment.
Reach out to loved ones when you need support.
“You’ll notice that often there’s a lot of support, especially in those first three months, but it will wane because things change,” Zampitella said.
When you find that support is dwindling, don’t be afraid to tell your friends and family that you need them.
Additionally, Zampitella noted, if a loved one says something that bothers you — for example, if they say “your loved one is in a better place” and you don’t want to hear that — don’t be afraid to let them know that thought isn’t helpful. At that moment, try sharing the things that would be helpful, whether that’s telling stories about your loved one or just letting you cry.
If you’re really struggling, seek help.
Death and grief are some of the most stressful things we experience in life, Shear said.
While coping with grief is possible, some folks will require more support. Zampitella said some signs that you may need additional help include not being able to accept the loss, not engaging in any future goals and not reconfiguring the relationship with the person who died.
Also, if you find that you’re unable to meet your basic needs (like if you aren’t eating, sleeping or bathing), you may want to reach out for professional help. There are grief therapists who can help you feel better.
You can search for one via Psychology Today’s therapist database or Google therapy groups in your area that specialize in grief. “There’s no shame in getting help. There’s help available,” Shear said.
And know that grief is ongoing.
“Death is permanent, and so grief is also permanent,” Shear said. “We don’t stop having some response to that loss — in other words, we still feel it.”
As time goes on, your grief will change, she said. In the long run, it usually quiets down and moves into the background, but it’s still there.
You may feel your grief pop up around your loved one’s birthday, around the holidays or when visiting their favorite restaurant. Know that if it’s been years and years since you lost a loved one and you wake up feeling down one day, that is perfectly normal.