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How to cope with grief

Updated: Apr 22

Through my work a theme of peoples expectations on themselves and how they 'should' be dealing with grief has become apparent, they are often so unrealistic and add pressure on to ourselves to 'be better'. So, I wanted to demystify grief and what can happen for us in grief.

a whit candle that it lit on a black background

This post includes:

What is grief?

Grief is a complex mix of emotions that come about from a loss; the grief that we experience will be different to how others experience it as it is unique to the relationship we had with who we've lost. Because it is different for everyone it can be really difficult to describe exactly what grief is - it may be intense sadness leading to depression, it could be anger, feeling numb, feeling relieved, feeling guilty, shock, disbelief etc. Whatever it is you are feeling after losing someone is 100% valid and human, there is no right way to feel grief.

The grief we experience will also be different depending on our culture and upbringing. If we have a religion the aspects of that religion can play a part in our grief and how we cope with the loss. Some cultures and religions see death as a way of 'completing' life, you have fulfilled what you needed to and can move on to the next life. There is, largely, acceptance around death, and though it can be a sombre occasion, it is also celebrated. Other cultures don't really talk about death and so grief can hit harder as we may feel completely unprepared for what death means for that individual and for ourselves.

Experiencing grief for the first time can be really scary whether we have an overwhelm of emotions or a lack of them - there are quite often the questions around comparison and questioning if our grief is normal i.e. does anyone else feel this way? Why can't I stop crying? Why aren't I feeling anything?

There can be times where our grief is much more complex; bereavements through unexpected, shocking or traumatic situations, multiple bereavements, and bereavements through the COVID pandemic are examples of where bereavement can be complicated. Complicated grief is where we may feel stuck in our emotions or unable to manage our emotions over a long period of time.

A white lotus flower on a black background

How can I manage self expectations?

Some people may go back to work within days of a close bereavement, others may take weeks or months to feel ready to work again or find a daily routine that now works for them. The impact of grief can be so different, so it can be hard not to compare our grief to other people and then look at why we aren't like that.

I like to remember that "grief can often be a reflection of the unique relationship we had with the one we've lost. The pain we feel can be so intense because of how much we loved them."

Remembering that our grief is unique to us and the relationship we had is so important as this shows it can't be compared. Even siblings experiencing a loss of a parent will experience grief differently, whilst there may be some overlap of emotions.

It's also important to remember we all experience emotions differently and process them differently too. You may process feelings & emotions quickly and be able to manage continuing the day to day, but this doesn't mean you didn't care as much as someone who struggles to process the feelings & emotions. It just means you process and manage in different ways, which is okay!

One way to challenge the expectations you put on yourself is catching yourself thinking statements including 'I should' or 'I must' - as a client once put it - 'should or must according to who'. Do you actually believe you should be doing something in a certain way or is that coming from elsewhere?

Another way is to think of what you might say to your friend if said friend was going through the grief? Would you expect them to be coping flawlessly? Or to not cry? If you wouldn't expect them to do those things, then why do you expect that from yourself?

The idea behind doing this is to reality check yourself - are you grounded in what you're expecting from yourself. This can be particularly useful when we are having feelings of guilt around the bereavement as, whilst guilt is valid, it often brings a lot of unrealistic self-blame.

A close up of someone comforting someone else by holding their hands over a table. The framing is just of the forearms and hands.

What can I do to cope with grief?

This is always a question I get asked, "how can I cope?, what can I do?", but there isn't a golden answer, it will be different for each of us!

The first thing I would always say, is to try and be kind to yourself and give yourself some compassion. Berating yourself or putting yourself down for experiencing grief in a certain way is only going to make things feel worse - so what would it look like if you were to give yourself some compassion and acknowledge that grief is really hard and difficult to manage.

I like the analogy of feelings being like the sea. Sometimes those feelings can get really choppy and hit us hard. It can feel like they're pulling us under and if we fight it, it can make them feel worse.
So instead we can try and let them wash over us, as well as using buoys (coping techniques) in the process. Like a storm at sea, it can get rough, but it will pass - your feelings are like this too.
  • If things are feeling too overwhelming it can be good to break things down into small manageable chunks. Take some pressure off yourself!

    • The best way to do this is by taking things day by day or even hour by hour. Look at what feels manageable for yourself in the next hour and stick to that, then reassess when an hour has passed.

    • Try and imagine what your first step might be. If that feels too big break it down even further.

      • e.g. I want to have a shower but that feels too overwhelming. So your first step might be getting out of bed. If that still feels too much it might be sitting up in bed etc.

  • Letter writing - sometimes people find it useful to write letters to those they're grieving over. This letter can be to say goodbye, or to say things you wish you had time to say, or just letting whatever comes out come out.

    • This letter is written in a safe and quiet place, the reason being, it can bring up a lot of emotions we might not have originally been aware of, whilst also allowing us to process our thoughts.

    • Once you have written the letter you can keep it somewhere safe, share it with someone you trust and feel comfortable with, talk it through in counselling/therapy, rip it up, burn it etc.

      • Keeping it allows you to come back to it at a later date if you wanted to

      • Sharing it allows you to process the emotions and feelings further whilst exploring it in a different context. This is especially useful if anything still feels like it's stuck in your mind.

      • Ripping it up or burning it can be a way of 'letting it go'. Some people find this useful if it's been painful emotions that they felt able to process through the writing and no longer want to 'hold on to it'. Sometimes the process of writing is enough to give us some respite.

    • Letter writing can be done as a one-off tool or it can be done regularly depending on what works for you. Personally, I use this tool often in different ways as I find the actual act of writing, getting the words out of my mind and onto paper/screen, helps me!

  • Some people like to create memorabilia in order to remember the one(s) they're grieving. This could be:

    • a jar full of memories - get a clear jar and different coloured paper and/or pens. Then write different memories of the person to fill the jar. You can colour code different type of memories if you wanted - this is done to remember the person as a whole and human (the good, bad, and neutral).

    • a scrap book of different memories, stories, photos of the person you're grieving. This might be done in a random order, you might want to put it in a timeline of their life, or you might want to order it in a different way that gives meaning to you.

    • You can do an online version of a tribute here -

  • Get support in place for yourself. We might find that when we are grieving we tend to withdraw and isolate even though what we're craving is connection and support. It can lead to feeling angry at everyone and the world or exacerbate your already difficult feelings.

    • Ongoing support might be speaking to friends or family, finding a support group, speaking to online communities, starting therapy or counselling, speaking to your GP etc.

    • Short term support might be using helplines when things are feeling too overwhelming to help get you through the immediate and the self-help suggestions above.

a photo of one hand giving a black paper heart to another hand

Further Resources

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