Grief holds a unique place in the human experience. It’s intensely personal and universal. Everyone who cares about someone or something will go through it, since nothing and no one is eternal. At its core, grief is what we go through when we experience loss—suddenly or slowly, expected or surprising, big or small, it doesn’t matter.
Every Loss Is Individual & So Is The Grief
Grief holds a unique place in the human experience.
It’s intensely personal and universal. Everyone who cares about someone or something will go through it, since nothing and no one is eternal. At its core, grief is what we go through when we experience loss—suddenly or slowly, expected or surprising, big or small, it doesn’t matter.
We will all experience grief, as long as we experience love. That’s the deal, take it or leave it.
We know what grief looks like—screwed up faces, unstoppable tears, cries of anguish, hair-rending, teeth-gnashing whimpers asking “Why?” And most of us know what grief feels like—a bottomless pit of absence that feels like it will never be full again.
But grief won’t and can’t be forever unmanageable; if that were the case, humans could never accomplish anything, and our species has proven to be nothing if not resilient. It can benefit us to learn about grief, confront the monster in the closet, and learn how to gently lay it to rest, rather than barricading the door while it pounds away, begging to come out.
For me, getting through grief takes a variety of methods and avenues, but the most powerful has probably been journaling. It’s available to everyone at anytime, and can help give the perspective you need to begin cognitive restructuring, which is the confrontation and eventual dissolution of maladaptive thoughts and cognitive distortions. Maladaptive thoughts are par for the course when someone is experiencing grief. Facing the fear, pain, and loss in a cathartic and therapeutic way is critical to people who want to find a way forward with their lives.
When Grief Comes Calling
I’ve had different experiences with grief in my lifetime, and each has shaped me in different ways. I’m going to share one experience with you that will help us to explore grief together. I’m going to tell you about my friend Zoe.
Zoe was one of those people who literally lit up rooms. She was beautiful, smart, kind, generous, funny, charming… you’d hate her if she weren’t so lovable and loving. Being friends with her felt like winning the lottery. Everyone who knew her loved her deeply, and she always gave more than she got. She was a couple of months younger than me, and I knew her since we were 14 or 15. Over the decade-plus that I knew her, she changed, and so did I, but one thing that held fundamental to our friendship was the big bear hugs we would give each other every time we met, and the sincere “I love you”s we exchanged every time we parted.
One night, on a night like any other (as they always say) I was finishing up at work. I was a sous chef of a high-volume restaurant, enjoying the organizing, cleaning, prep lists, ordering, and wrapping up of another busy weekend night. When I sat down to the computer, I had a text from a friend: “Is it true that Zoe passed away? I saw something on Instagram…”
So began my journey through grief for Zoe.
First, I went into denial.
Not a chance, I thought, there must be some kind of mistake.
How could Zoe be dead? I had seen her a couple of months prior. She was looking for a job and I recommended her to someone I knew who was recruiting banquet servers. She told me about how putting fruit and veggies in her water was helping her to drink more of it. How could she be dead if she was job-hunting and hydrating?
I checked the aforementioned Instagram post, and indeed, it seemed that somebody was certain that she was dead. But it still didn’t make sense to me—Zoe was a couple of months younger than me, after all. How could I possibly outlive her? Answer: I couldn’t. It was impossible. There was some kind of mistake, and she’s not really dead.
The denial was strong, and it made itself welcome more than welcome in my brain, but it wasn’t long before I moved into the next stage: anger.
And once I began getting mad, I got livid.
How dare this happen? I thought, What kind of God or universe would allow someone like Zoe to die so young?
Only an evil God or pathologically uncaring universe, that was certain. And oh, boy, I had a deep, unfathomable animosity for who or whatever had allowed Zoe to die. How dare they? Didn’t they know how special she was, how beloved, how important to her friends, family, and community?
I would literally see red thinking about it.
As the anger slowly receded, the bargaining began.
It should have been me, I thought.
Why not? I didn’t have nearly as much to contribute to the world as Zoe did. Why wouldn’t or shouldn’t I be able to take her place? This was probably the darkest moment of my grief—asking an unseen force who I hated to let me switch places with a friend I loved, since I saw her life as far more valuable than mine.
I was in thrall to the various bargains my brain concocted—let me switch with Zoe, let this all be a terrible mistake, let her come back and I will never curse your name again.
And since these bargains were no good, impossible to calculate, and even more impossible to follow through upon, the depression came.
It was a monsoon. Any time I tried catching my breath, I was instead swallowing the droplets that beat onto me at all times. I was listless, sad, having trouble getting out of bed, staring unseeing out windows or at walls. Why bother? my brain asked me, Why bother with anything at all?
If someone like Zoe could die so suddenly, so senselessly, then what was it that made our lives worth living? What was the point of trying to do or have or love anything, when it could be savagely ripped away at any moment, for no reason at all?
With a lot of time, a lot of work, and a lot of love, I was able to answer these questions and more, in a state of acceptance.
Not to say that acceptance is a static state, and that once I reached it, I became and remain unceasingly serene when I think about Zoe and her passing. Sometimes I think about Zoe and all I want to do is cry. Writing about her means thinking about her, and wondering once again, why, why, why?
But now, generally, I accept that she’s not walking this earth anymore, no longer attached to her mortal coil. I see her in dreams and instead of being upset, angry, or in denial, I cry tears of joy that I still get to give her bear hugs. I feel grateful that I knew her, loved her, and was loved by her.
I feel grateful to grieve, because it’s really just love wearing a disguise.
Everyone Does It
While for a long time, grief was considered a human emotion, scientists have found many instances of grief-behavior in the animal kingdom. Elephants are famous for their unusual displays when encountering a dead member of their species: they pause their journey, handle and observe the bones or body, and eventually move on.
Monogamous birds are known to pine for weeks or even months when they lose their partners. Some primate mothers will carry the body of their deceased baby for days after its death. Sometimes members of the group will even continue to groom and care for the dead body of a fellow, not unlike the human tradition of preparing a body for burial.
In humans, while different cultures grieve in different ways, there are some aspects of grief that seem to be universal. There are studies that show brain activity connected to grief that present the same way as stress, which we know is bad for our health outcomes. And while there are different evolutionary theories for why we grieve, the safe assumption that grief researchers make is that everyone does it.
Scaffolding for Grief
Since grief is a universal human experience, and it affects us so profoundly, it’s no wonder that scientists and researchers have spent decades trying to figure out how and why grief changes us, and how best to cope with it.
In 1969, an American psychiatrist named Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote a pioneering book called On Death and Dying. In it, she gave the first description for the 5 stages of grief model, based on her studies of people experiencing terminal illness.
While we know now that the Kübler-Ross model is not the end-all, be-all description of what we experience when we are bereaved, it does provide a framework for us to look to while we grieve, and are trying to see ourselves out through the other side.
In 2020, David Kessler, who co-authored an expanded model for grief with Kübler-Ross, used the 5 stages model to describe what the world was going through with respect to the coronavirus pandemic. He said in the Harvard Business Review:
“Understanding the stages of grief is a start. But whenever I talk about the stages of grief, I have to remind people that the stages aren’t linear and may not happen in this order. It’s not a map but it provides some scaffolding for this unknown world. There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.
Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.”
With Kessler’s understanding in mind, let’s take a look at the classic 5 stages of grief, and come to understand how we can work through them with the tools available to us.
The 5 Stages Of Grief
What is it?
Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt! It’s a common first reaction to hearing about a devastating loss, and as we know, it can come in waves. Just when we think we’ve accepted a loss as a fact of reality, a tiny little denial thought can creep in…
What if there was a mistake?
There’s no way this could happen to me.
Does that doctor really know what they’re talking about?
What if someone’s playing a strange, cruel prank?
When I was in deep denial about Zoe’s death, I lived in constant anticipation of the call or text that would let me know that there had been some kind of terrible mix-up, and that Zoe was alive and well and I would be able to hug her again.
Denial allows us to cling to a reality that may be obviously false, but emotionally preferable to the reality in which our loss is a matter of fact. It is a well-known defense mechanism: if there is a fact or reality that is too painful or uncomfortable for us to take on, then denial helps us keep it at bay.
Of course, getting that kind of aid is not necessarily useful in the long haul. Eventually, we will have to face reality, and when we do, denial will prove to be a fickle friend.
How Denial Manifests
Denial initially manifests as a straight-up rejection of reality. Sometimes, a short-term fling with denial can be beneficial to someone experiencing something horrible. It can be a way of easing oneself into the new, distressing reality, because conscious denial allows the unconscious to begin taking on the new information without too much pain.
Denial can even play a part in surviving traumatic experiences. Many people who have experienced violent and brutal injuries have described themselves in the moment as not feeling any pain, and thinking that they were not grievously injured, which allowed them to keep moving or to get themselves help.
However, when denial goes from a short-term solution to a long-term mindset, we are putting a band-aid on a bullet wound—not exactly a healthy and sustainable strategy. When it comes to grief, we can be in denial about multiple factors: the loss itself, how profoundly we are hurt by it, and how our grief is affecting our everyday life, for example.
With Zoe’s death, not only did I experience denial of the fact of her passing, I was definitely also in denial about how her passing was affecting me.
How Denial Affects Your Life
It happens. It’s sad, but that’s life. I’m not in deep mourning, since she wasn’t a family member. I might be sad right now, but I’ll be better in a day or two.
By attempting to succumb to these types of denials, I was trying to protect myself from the fact of my grief. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that denying my grief was unsustainable. Trying to suppress or deny my grief was like trying to swallow a sneeze—painful, uncomfortable, and generally just felt wrong.
Plus, we all know that a swallowed sneeze will come out eventually, and it will be uglier and more painful than it would have been if we’d just let it out in the first place.
Being in denial about grief made me tender and irritable for what seemed like “no reason” to anyone who didn’t know what I was going through, which was most people. I would be reminded of Zoe and start crying at the littlest things, even just thinking about the color blue! By trying to deny my larger grief, it was like my every emotion was on a hair-trigger, and it made me nervous to be in the world. And the longer I denied it, the less I felt like I could talk about it.
So How Can We Get Through Denial?
What can we do if we feel like there’s no one to talk to about our turmoil? When we’re stuck in denial, it’s because our fear of the new reality is overwhelming us, so the best thing for us to do is to unflinchingly face our fear.
Easier said than done, right?
Well, what if it could be simple? What if we could face, inventory, explore, and assuage our fears in a safe and comfortable way?
That’s what journaling did for me, and I know that it can do for you, too.
Recommended by the Mayo Clinic, along with many other mental health professionals, writing in a journal is a safe and private way to delve into our fears without feeling like we are making ourselves vulnerable to the judgments of others. Writing about loss and how profoundly it’s affected me has definitely helped me cope with my grief, rather than trying to bury it. Journaling and writing give me the permission I need to think about loss, and to feel my emotions. It’s what’s helped me pull the band-aid off the bullet wound and get real care for my injuries instead.
If journaling is not enough, and for many people, it won’t be, then the person in mourning should consider talking to a mental health provider. Sometimes we turn so inward that it’s hard to see a way out of our unhappy and unhealthy cycles. In this situation, having a professional give us perspective is invaluable to our healing process.
What is Anger?
Anger is one of the most basic human emotions, and we all pretty much know what it feels like. Seeing red, feeling hot, tears of rage, an urge to exert ourselves physically, whether in violence or channeling that urge into exercise.
The physiological effects of anger are universal and contribute to the visceral nature of this emotion. Our heart rate and blood pressure increase, as well as our adrenaline. Anger is intimately entangled with fear, in that anger is often a reaction to a perceived threat or injury, and it is the emotion that pushes us to take action against that threat. When anger is used to deploy action against an actual threat, it can be a life-saver! As one of my mentors used to tell me when I got angry at work—anger is an energy, and a strong one, so use it carefully.
There are different types of anger, of course, from being mad at a bad driver to being livid about being treated unfairly at work. But no matter where and how we experience it, anger is a part of the human condition.
However, when we feel anger against an imagined threat, force, or unchangeable situation, we’re delving into territory where anger is less than useful, and can even be extremely harmful.
How Anger Manifests
Psychologists generally agree that there are three different types of anger: (1) sudden or hasty anger, which is episodic and in response to a perceived immediate threat, (2) settled and deliberate anger, which is also episodic and is in response to a harm that is perceived as deliberately perpetrated, and (3) dispositional anger, which is more personality based, and connected with traits like being irritable or sullen.
When we allow our episodic anger to exist, we can recognize its utility in encouraging us to mobilize ourselves to take action to right a wrong or protect ourselves. We are tapping into the positive outcomes the emotion can provide. On the other hand, if we try to push down our anger, it can often become the third type, dispositional, which is much harder to utilize as a force for action, and much more likely to harm us than help us.
The anger that we feel in grief can quickly and easily become dispositional. After all, one of the prevailing thoughts that we have as we grieve a loss is that it’s not fair.
It’s not fair that I got laid off, when I am a better worker than my boss.
It’s not fair that my house got foreclosed upon, when my bank got a 5 billion dollar bailout.
It’s not fair that Zoe died, when all of these terrible people still roam the earth freely.
Allowing ourselves to stew in angry thoughts until they become dispositional can have a profoundly negative affect on our lives.
How Anger Affects Your Life
While there is a difference between anger and aggression, they are commonly linked, and for good reason. When we act out of pure anger, our actions are often aggressive, if not violent. There’s a reason why American law recognizes severe emotional distress as mitigating in cases of criminal violence such as assault and even homicide—the law recognizes that sometimes, when our anger overwhelms us, we are not acting in our right minds.
But aggression against others is not the only problematic behavior that anger can precipitate. We are also more prone to treating ourselves poorly for lack of care. From there, it’s a quick and easy downward spiral into feeling angry and uncared-for, and lashing out at others, who in turn don’t know how to help you.
Anger left unchecked is an alienating emotion; we don’t understand why we’re the only ones feeling enraged, we can’t imagine how everyone around us remains serene and calm, we blame it on their ignorance or privilege or uncaring hearts and we get angry at them, too.
Long-term anger means long-term physiological effects, like the stress response, increased blood pressure and adrenaline. This means that sustained rage can literally weaken our hearts and shorten our lives, so it’s crucial to find a way to cope.
So How Can We Get Through Anger?
Once again, we have to address the root cause of our anger in order to release the grip it has on our emotions and our lives. Like we learned, the emotion of anger is a response to a threat or a perceived threat. So let’s take a look at what we feel is threatening us when we are grieving.
The most obvious source of anger is whatever caused our loss in the first place, but there can definitely be nuance within what we believe caused our loss. If you lose a loved one to suicide, for example, the source of the loss is extremely complicated. We can be angry at the person who died for taking their own life. We can be angry at them for not reaching out for help. We can be angry at ourselves for not knowing that they were in danger of suicide. We can be angry at society for perpetuating the stigma surrounding mental illness. We can be angry that our healthcare system makes it difficult verging on impossible for many people to get real help. We can be angry at anyone or anything that we perceive as facilitating the suicide—gun dealers, drug dealers, over-prescription from doctors, bridges without safety measures… the list can go on forever.
I believe that it is extremely cathartic in grief to use your journal to make a list of the things and people that have incurred your wrath, and then brainstorm as to how you can neutralize the threat they represent. For example:
I am angry that I did not know my loved one was suicidal. If I had known, perhaps I could have prevented their death. I am angry at myself.
Threat: I am ignorant of my loved ones’ emotions and problems. I am a bad friend/family member, and my ignorance and neglect is literally deadly.
How can I neutralize this threat? I can talk to my loved ones. I have to understand that I cannot control anyone else’s emotions or actions, but I can tell them I love them and show them I care. I cannot control them, I can only control myself, and it will feel good to give my love to them, regardless of the consequences.
And for many people, journaling their anger is only the first step. Sometimes, we are so angry that we cannot visualize a way to neutralize our threats in a productive and safe way. Sometimes, the rage we feel makes it such that all we can think to do is smash things and yell at people. In cases where our anger feels hopelessly powerful and without recourse, it is time to get some outside help before we take actions that we will regret, or retreat into our anger in such a way that we alienate the people we love.
What is Bargaining?
As we can see from techniques to cope with denial and anger, bargaining feels like a pretty natural progression as we move through our grief. If we’re wanting to reject or mitigate a certain reality that makes us feel helpless and hopeless, uncomfortable and angry, we might try to make bargains or negotiations to attempt to regain some control in the situation. This is the step where we often hear the phrase “if only.”
If only I had spent more time at home, then we wouldn’t have gotten a divorce.
If only I had called her more often, she wouldn’t have gotten so unhealthy.
If only I had been better at office politics, I wouldn’t have gotten laid off.
Unlike the journal exercises mentioned in the previous section, these kinds of bargains are impossible, and we know it. “If only…” we could change and control the entire fabric of space-time reality, then our lives would be perfect!
These bargains can also be with a higher power:
If only you’ll bring him back to me, I promise to serve your will for the rest of my life.
If only God could intervene and reverse this diagnosis, I will dedicate my life to helping others.
If only you promise me that my fears are not realized, I will behave better.
Is it starting to sound like we’re grasping at straws? That’s because we are—the phrase comes from the image of a drowning man who will try to grab anything to stay afloat, even a straw. And when we attempt to make these kinds of bargains, they are as useful as a handful of straws in the middle of the ocean.
How Bargaining Manifests
Anyone who’s received a grim prognosis for themselves or a loved one knows what it’s like to bargain with the perceived entity of power in the situation, whether it be a doctor, higher power, or other figure of authority.
If my mother quits smoking immediately, will you give her 6 more months to live?
If I start attending mass every day, will God give me the strength to stay sober?
If I make a perfect appeal to the judge, will he give my brother a lenient sentence?
In some cases, the bargain may actually have some effect—quitting smoking is obviously a healthy thing to do, a person struggling with sobriety is often advised to seek comfort and strength in a higher power, and showing the authorities that a person has loved ones who care about their rehabilitation may indeed sway them toward leniency.
However, relying on bargaining as a coping mechanism is, once again, a band-aid on a bullet wound. While we are willing to make offers and sacrifices to influence outcomes, those in charge of influencing the outcomes—whether it be cancer cells, God, or our child’s teacher—might not be buying what we’re selling. And when we rely on or get stuck in the bargaining phase of grief, we may slip back into anger when negotiations don’t go our way, or back into denial.
How Bargaining Affects Your Life
A fairly common phenomenon in grieving people, especially children, is magical thinking.
Sounds kind of fun, right?
Well, magical thinking is actually a psychological phenomenon that can profoundly affect children, and can also cause torment to adults in grief. A person is engaging in magical thinking whenever he or she believes that disparate events are actually connected, despite a lack of evidence for the connection. Magic comes into play when the belief is centered around a superstition or an impossible connection—like a child who believes that his father got into a car accident because the child stole a cookie from the cabinet that day.
Engaging in magical thinking is extremely common for people in grief when they are going through the bargaining stage, living in those if only versions of reality. Joan Didion, American author, even wrote a book called The Year of Magical Thinking, a haunting account of her grief and mourning process in the year after her husband of almost 40 years died. She recounts her inability to let go of her dead husband’s shoes, because she believes he will need them when he returns.
These kinds of illogical bargains can go from short-term coping mechanisms to long-term maladjustment if they’re not addressed.
So How Do We Stop Bargaining?
So now we want to know: how can we stop making these impossible negotiations? We can try appealing to our rational minds—I know that people don’t come back from the dead, so no amount of prayer will bring my wife back. But oftentimes when we engage in bargaining, we are starting from an illogical premise—that our loss is connected in some deep way to some kind of action we could do, that it’s intrinsically tied to our own personal control of the situation.
Sometimes, it helps to see the kinds of bargains you’re trying to make in black in white. Try writing out the kinds of deals you would make with a higher power, whether it be supernatural or not, to try to regain what you’ve lost, or what the world has lost.
If only I hadn’t asked her to stop for ice cream, she never would have been at that intersection, and she never would have gotten into that accident. I would give anything to go back in time and tell her to just come straight home instead, so she would still be here today.
So what’s the bargain? You are offering anything for a chance to go back in time. You feel as though if you were able to make this bargain with whoever is in charge of these things, you would be able to prevent your loss. You know that that’s impossible, and writing about it can help you act more compassionately toward the child inside you, who just needs to regain some control. Now, you might brainstorm about ways to reassure your inner child:
She knows I loved her, and she wouldn’t blame me for her accident.
She would be unhappy to hear that I was beating myself up.
She wants me to be happy, eternally.
Remember the dark bargain I made in my grief for Zoe?
It should have been me, instead.
It’s a common thought for people with survivor’s guilt from traumatic situations, and it is not a healthy mindset. You are placing no value on your own life, and any true loved one would hate to see you treat yourself that way. Once again, it’s important to write down these thoughts, and really consider for yourself their utility, and explore possible avenues toward self-compassion.
And of course, if it’s impossible for you to stop blaming yourself, or wishing you were in someone else’s place, it’s probably time to talk to someone else about it, like a therapist who can give you and your inner child the compassion and perspective that is currently out of your reach.
What is it?
Depression in grief should not be confused with major depressive disorder, which is a mental illness with different causes, symptoms, and treatments. However, the mood, emotions, and symptoms of depression in either case are definitely similar.
Commonly, being depressed means feeling sad, having a hard time concentrating or thinking, having trouble executing normal daily functions, having a change in appetite or sleeping patterns, and an overall lack of joy in life.
While we often think of depression as a personal, low energy experience, being depressed can actually be very stressful for people. Living in depression means asking the question Why bother? over and over again as you try to get through daily life. It’s exhausting and alienating to be sad and unmotivated, especially in a culture where we often say things like Cheer up! and It’s time to move on! to people who have an invisible but extremely heavy weight in their souls.
The invisibility of depression and the lack of external manifestation and validation for the feeling can make people feel more alone and sad than ever, especially people who grow up in families or a culture that see depression as a weakness, something to be conquered, rather than something to be treated.
How Depression Manifests
People experience depression differently, but a common theme is anhedonia. Anhedonia is a loss of interest or joy in things, people, or activities that would typically bring a person joy. An easy example would be of someone who normally loves going for hikes in the woods to see the birds. They enjoy the peaceful nature of the forest, seeing the different types of plants through the seasons, are in awe of the age and beauty of the trees, and feel their heart sing along with the various birds in the wilderness. Long story short—hiking in the woods makes them feel good.
Now, this same person with anhedonia will walk into nature and see a very different forest. They will think about the ugly deaths that little animals have there, they will stew upon the trash that other human visitors leave, they will find the bird songs annoying and repetitive, and they will be bored by the long, monotonous walk that was once filled with variety and beauty for them. Experiencing anhedonia is very alienating. Your fellow hikers cannot figure out why you’re so irritable and upset, and why you’re not excited to see the rare bird you’ve all been searching out for months.
How Depression Affects Your Life
The overwhelming sadness, exhaustion, and anhedonia that characterize depression can affect your life in so many ways, both big and small. It casts a pall over everything you do and everything you used to enjoy.
Why bother trying to find another partner when they’ll probably only abandon me like my ex did?
What’s the point of applying for a new job? Nobody ever appreciates the work I do, anyway.
Why bother getting out of bed? My wife is dead, so I have nothing to live for.
These thoughts and similar ones can start small and snowball into the ultimate expression of depression:
Why bother living this life?
Being in this kind of mindset is not only bad for you, it is a sad situation for the people around you. Watching our loved ones drown in sadness is one of the most frustrating experiences we can go through, because we feel so helpless. Add that helplessness to the helplessness that a person deep in depression feels, and it can sometimes seem like there’s no solution.
When we’re depressed, we have trouble fulfilling our daily responsibilities like work, childcare, and taking care of our own minds and bodies. Everything feels useless, pointless, meaningless. Many people deep in depression attempt to numb their feelings with substance abuse or other risky behaviors. Attempting to white-knuckle your way through a life that you don’t really feel is worth living is a horrible experience, and one that takes some work to escape.
So What Can I Do About Depression?
Once again, I recommend journaling. I know I’m not alone in feeling that sometimes, my sadness and pain is not important enough to talk to other people about, so I push it down. Swallowing a sneeze, as I said before. I have been depressed and listless and thought—well, if I’m doing the bare minimum to continue to live my life, then everything’s fine, right?
Wrong! Life should be enjoyed, not endured, and everyone deserves a chance at a happy life, even if they don’t feel like it in the moment. But sometimes to reach a state of peace or happiness, we have to first accept the sadness that’s overwhelming us. Taking inventory of your depression can be critical in overcoming it.
Writing has been, for me, the most cathartic exercise when it comes to feelings of undifferentiated sadness and depression. When you don’t have a focal point, you can really drift into a sea of sadness, where everyone and everything makes you sad. Try writing first about your feelings, and then about what’s causing them. I discovered that by the time I describe the specific causes of depression in my grief, there was a relief, an unclenching. When I write something like:
I’m sad because I’ll never hug my friend again.
It’s like a lightbulb goes off—it’s okay to feel sad because you miss your friend, it’s normal! As simple as it sounds, that kind of solidarity with my own feelings goes a long way toward helping me allow the feelings to come and go, to be vulnerable and self-compassionate about what I’m going through. And self-love and self-care is a trending topic for a reason—it is always going to be more productive to use tools to accomplish peace by consciously working on ourselves, rather than beating ourselves up in frustration for not being “okay.”
Once again, if you find that journaling isn’t helping you to find grace for yourself, you may need to consider talking about your feelings with a professional, who can provide you the compassion and perspective that you need.
What Is It?
It’s only the holy grail of grief! Acceptance is defined as the affirmation of reality without attempting to change it. We often learn about acceptance in terms of getting along with people who are different from us; part of living in a human community of mixed cultures is realizing that you’re not going to really be able to change anyone, and instead, accepting them as they are.
In terms of grief, acceptance just means assenting to the reality of the loss.
My dad is gone and he’s not coming back.
I’ll never be able to drink again.
The foreclosure has gone through, and I don’t own my house anymore.
Not as easy as I might be making it sound! For those of us experiencing grief, accepting the bald statement of a devastating loss takes a ton of work. It can sometimes be the case that even trying to state the reality of your loss is overwhelming to you. I know that when I’ve tried to begin to discuss a loss with loved ones, I can sometimes have trouble even speaking the reality of the situation out loud because I find it so painful. But if you work through the stages, with help if you need it, I promise that it truly does get better. Acceptance isn’t a static, unchanging state of being—it’s a mindset that takes time and compassion to achieve, and practice to maintain.
How Acceptance Manifests
Acceptance is often discussed in religious doctrines and substance abuse programs as surrender. That’s because acceptance is truly a surrender to what constitutes the reality of the situation, whether you are surrendering your will to a higher power, or ceasing the struggle against what you know to be true.
People who accept reality are not struggling to regain control over situations in which they can have no control. Like the famous Serenity Prayer says:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference
Whether you believe in a higher power or not, the Serenity Prayer holds wisdom for anyone struggling with grief. Accept your loss, and recognize it as something you cannot change, and you will be well on your way to a happier life.
How Acceptance Affects Your Life
Moving into acceptance from grief opens up so many avenues for relating to your loss. Because you are not in denial, angry, trying to bargain, or overwhelmed by depression, this is the stage in which you can begin to consider your loss from a place of pure love. Of course experiencing loss will never feel good, but with acceptance, we can begin to feel good about who or what we’ve lost.
For example, when my grandmother died, I grieved and went through the stages. I was close with her and sad to see her go at what I felt was a young age. However, her illness was terminal and well-known to the family, so we were able to move through our grief with her while she was still alive. That made it so much easier to reach acceptance, which for me, is a space where I feel good when I talk about my Grandma—I love telling stories about her and remembering our time together. I’m no longer in pain when I think of her.
On the other hand, when Zoe died suddenly and as a very young woman, it took me a very long time to accept what happened. It took me a long time to be able to say Zoe is dead. But once I was able to, just like with my grandmother, I was able to once again cherish the memories I have of Zoe, and think of her with love and gratitude, which feels so much better than thinking of her with sadness and anger. Our loved ones deserve for us to think of them fondly, and acceptance makes it possible to do so.
How To Reach Acceptance
It probably won’t surprise you to hear me say—write it down! I’ve found that whenever something is too hard for me to say out loud, writing it down is an excellent alternative. For me, it’s easier to articulate myself when I have plenty of time and space to do so, like you do with writing. When speaking to people, sometimes I’m so overwhelmed by how they will react to what I sound like, look like, what I’m trying to convey, that I can’t even get my point across. This is especially true for me when I’m in a state of anger or depression; communication is nigh impossible for me when my emotions are in control.
That’s why writing something down, even something so simple as:
Zoe is dead.
Really does a lot to help my mind catch up to the reality of the situation. And yes, it can seem a little morbid to be writing repetitious statements about your loss over and over again, but that’s what makes journaling so special—it’s private and it’s all yours! You can dwell if you need to dwell, move on if you’re ready to, and there’s no one to judge you. Journaling accepts it all.
FAQs about Grief
Q. What kinds of life events can cause me to experience grief?
We all know that we experience grief when a person in our lives dies. But did you know that there are all sorts of losses that can precipitate the grief process? People commonly experience grief when there is a loss of:
Different losses will be devastating for different people, and no one but you can know what you’re going through.
Disenfranchised grief is the term describing grief over a loss that is not generally acknowledged by society, like the loss of a pet or a friend or even generational trauma. Just because your grief may be disenfranchised does not make it any less important for you to acknowledge and heal from it.
Q. Does everyone experience grief in the same way? Do we all go through all 5 stages?
No and no! While everyone experiences some form of grief when they experience loss, the experience is intensely personal and unique for everyone.
Like we learned in the introduction, the 5 stages of grief described in the Kübler-Ross model should be thought of as more of a framework than step-by-step directions on how to get through grief. Maybe your loss is similar to the loss I experienced when my grandmother died, and you are ready to move into acceptance fairly quickly. Or maybe you’re in the opposite situation, and your loss isn’t even quantified yet, like in the case of a missing or drug-addicted loved one, so you feel stuck in the denial stage.
No matter the loss and no matter the stage you find yourself in, your grief is real, valid, and needs to be taken care of.
Q. How do existing mental health conditions impact grief?
People who struggle with mental illness or cognitive impairment may find grief harder to process than neurotypical, mentally healthy people, but once again, it all comes down to the individual. For example, if someone is in a struggle with depression, experiencing loss and the grief that comes with it may intensify their symptoms, and make it harder for them to reach acceptance.
On the other side of the coin, if someone is in a struggle with their mental health and is already taking steps to help themselves with awareness and is seeking help from a therapist, they may find themselves better equipped to deal with grief because they already have tools and resources they are comfortable using.
Either way, it’s important to keep in mind that loss and grief are different for everyone, and there’s no “right” way to grieve, no “normal” way to mourn.
Q. What are the best coping strategies for grief?
After reading the rest of this article, I bet you can think of at least one that I recommend! I can’t say enough great things about journaling, especially in the context of moving through grief. It is a safe space to be vulnerable and work out feelings, which carries far-reaching benefits of clarity, self-awareness, self-compassion, and acceptance that are truly life changing.
And don’t just take it from me! Mental health professionals, spiritual guides, and just plain smart people agree that journaling is extraordinarily beneficial to people. The benefits of journaling are boundless.
Overall, the best coping strategy is to take care of yourself. Try to avoid reliance on excessive consumption of drugs, alcohol, food, or sex to numb or improve your mood—instead, think about things that will actually make you feel good, like going for walks, taking a warm bath, cooking a nice meal, watching a funny TV show, or commiserating with loved ones.
Much easier said than done, right? If it feels impossible for you to pull yourself out of your grief long enough to take care of yourself, then it might be time to consider talking with a mental health professional. Luckily, mental health care is easier to access than ever, which is only fair since everyone deserves to get the help they need.
Q. When should I think about reaching out for help?
If grief is overwhelming your ability to function in daily life, then it is definitely time to ask for help. There is absolutely no shame in that! I grew up in a family where we prided ourselves on being strong and self-sufficient, so I have always been wary and skeptical of seeking mental health help. But the truth of the matter is, we can’t all be experts in all things—even therapists have therapists!
And one of the hardest things for us to master is ourselves.
We want to feel good, be positive, and change the world for the better. We want to be loved, taken care of, and respected by the people around us. We want the world to be a better place because we’re in it, and we want joyful experiences to fill our lives.
Simple enough, right?
The reality though, is that life is tough, and grief makes it tougher. Seeking help from a mental health professional only means that you are prioritizing your health, which is proven to make you a better friend, family member, spouse, worker, and community member. It’s time for us to stop feeling selfish or narcissistic when we seek out self-care, because taking care of ourselves is taking care of the world.
Grief and loss are awful to go through, but not impossible. We really can come though the other side to a place of acceptance and serenity, and it is so much easier to get there when we avail ourselves of the resources we have access to in this day and age. There’s no need to suffer in silence, and there’s no nobility in subjecting ourselves to unnecessary pain.
Moving through grief to acceptance can be a difficult and treacherous journey through your life and mind, but once the hard part is over, the rewards are manifold. You will be able to cherish your loss with joy rather than anger, gratitude rather than a sense of unfairness.
It’s not easy, but you’re not alone.