Helpful Principles for Dealing with Loss and Grief

Written by Dr. Lee Hildebrand

Types of Grief

Recently, I recommended that a family friend see a long-time friend of mine for counseling. When they tried to contact him, they found out that he was no longer available because he had recently passed away. When I was informed of this, I felt shocked. I recently had interactions with him several months ago and he was a similar age. He was a good man. We had coached basketball together years ago and kept in touch over the years. It seems like yesterday.

Grief can take many forms. Like the example above, it can be grieving the literal death of a friend or family member. Grief can take the form of mourning the loss of an important relationship. Grief can also take the form of experiencing the loss of our own functioning, whether that be chronic disease like cancer or injuries that prevent us from living the way that we were able to before. Regardless of the type of grief, each person has a unique experience based on their specific circumstances.

Theory of Grief

Elizabeth Kubler Ross has posited the most famous theory of grief. She was a Swiss American psychiatrist and author of the best-selling book, On Death and Dying. She describes in this work five distinct stages of grief after a loss. The first stage is Denial, when the initial shock of the situation can result in feeling like the loss is surreal and we may go numb and deny the reality of the situation. The second stage she suggests is Anger, in which you might think “why me” or “life’s not fair” and become angry with the situation or angry with God. Following this, the third stage is Bargaining, when you might seek to make a deal with God or the universe, “please, if you heal my wife, I will be the best husband I can ever be and dedicate my life to charity.” You can feel so desperate to get your life back, you’re willing to make any changes to have things be better. After this, Ross suggests that Depression follows. This can be a sense of emptiness and extreme pain about things and hopelessness. The last stage of grief, according to Ross, is Acceptance, a phase in which our emotions start to stabilize and we begin to accept the reality of the circumstances. We try our best to make peace with the loss and continue living.

Each of these can be aspects of grief. I’d like to offer an alternative perspective to this linear stage model of grief. I have found through decades of experience assisting people with grief, that the process of grief is more individualized than a linear progression of stages. Grief is unique to the individual. Here are 8 guidelines to assist you when you’re grieving some form of loss.

  • Your Path of Grief is Unique to You: Elizabeth Kubler Ross offers great insight into some of the aspects of grief. However, it is important to remember that each situation is unique. There is not an exact or predictable path that people walk through. Oftentimes, the emotions of grief ebb and flow from anger in one moment, to depression in the next, and to resigned acceptance in another. Like the surf in the sea, loss can be so powerful that the emotions ebb and flow in an unpredictable pattern. This is important to realize because when grieving, people place expectations upon themselves on the timing of the process and may look at particular stages and wonder why they are not in sync with this. Your experience is unique and it is important to be compassionate and understand this when you are grieving loss.
  • There is No Predictable Time Line: It is crucial to know that your path of grief will be unique to you and that there is no specific timeline. Some often lament, “it’s been six months, why do I feel these feelings so strongly. It feels like everyone else would like me to be over this.” Please know that your path through these feelings is your own. The feelings will change. The grief will feel different in one year and in five years. It will decrease in intensity. However, depending on the significance of the loss, a sense of that person or reminiscence about who or what you’ve lost will always be a part of you.
  • Talk About It: Grief can be powerful and the emotions can be so intense that it seems that those around you who are not experiencing the loss may never relate. It is crucial not to internalize your grief. Talk with safe and appropriate people who can be a witness to your emotions and offer support. We don’t need pity. We need listening and understanding, whether that be a counselor, a pastor, a family member, or a trusted friend. Find your inner circle to talk about your feelings as you seek to cope with this loss.
  • Do Not Blame Yourself: Grief can be so powerful and the emotions so overwhelming that you may seek relief from the sense of powerlessness by blaming yourself. This seems to be a human pattern. “I really should’ve known that he was under that much distress even though he never said anything.” Others may lament, “if I didn’t insist that we take that trip we wouldn’t have been on the road that day and in the accident.” There are many forms of this and the common theme is finding some pathway of blame ourselves for the circumstances of the loss or tragedy. Hindsight is a rigged game. We really didn’t know back in that situation what we know now after the loss. It is unhealthy and debilitating to blame yourself for circumstances that are beyond your influence. Feel the pain but don’t blame yourself.
  • The Pain Will Change: Know that even though the pain can have incredible intensity that this will change with time. Whatever the loss, a death, relationship, or functioning, this loss will always be an impactful aspect of your history. Trust that the intensity will eventually subside. Grief a year from now, five years from now, 10 years from now will change and be very different from what you feel today. With healing and support, you will find a way to live your life fully once again.
  • Be Creative in Your Remembrance: When we experience severe loss, it’s crucial to find your own creative ways to both cope and memorialize who or what you have lost. I had a severe softball leg injury resulting in two surgeries and six months of no weight-bearing on my right leg. The rehab was long and intense. Walking is such a gift. I focused intently and patiently upon my recovery. When I came back to full strength, I went for a run to the same ballfield by myself and ran the bases one time in celebration of my recovery. I’ve had clients who have lost family members set up foundations and memorial events, like a day of offering acts of kindness in the community to memorialize their family member on the anniversary of their loss. Another decided to climb a mountain in remembrance of someone lost and said goodbye from the top. It is important to find meaningful and creative ways to help both remember and cope with these losses.
  • Don’t Turn to Substances to Cope: Oftentimes the pain of loss can be so great that many find themselves seeking soothing in a bottle. Drinking can increase, taking painkillers, or becoming over-reliant on sleeping agents like Ambien in the wake of an extreme loss. The key here is to find coping and soothing with the fewest number of negative effects. Substances often compound the situation, increase depression, foster avoidance, and delay the process of healthy grieving from taking place. 
  • Don’t Do It Alone: The weight of grief can be immense and tempt us to isolate and internalize these feelings. Research on grief suggests that we have to bring the insides out. We have to talk about things with those safe and trusted people. Talk with those that do not have pity but bring sincere compassion to your circumstances. Talk with those that know how to listen without offering flip advice because they are uncomfortable with the emotions surrounding grief. Find those who will walk beside you. For those who have a faith, turn to God and trust him to guide you through healing. Get a professional psychologist, counselor, or life coach who has experience in helping with this kind of loss to help you through this.

Remember, grief can take many turns and there is no formula or predicted pattern. Hopefully, some of these tips will be valuable to you if you are experiencing grief in your life. Take it one day at a time. Be compassionate with yourself. This is your unique journey. Loss for all of us is a very real and painful part of being human. It also gives us perspective on the value of each moment and the ways that we can continue to make our own lives valuable today.