Good Grief

The pain and emotional turmoil that comes with the loss of someone or something important to us makes grieving one of the most difficult—and important—things any human experiences in life. And not just for the obvious reasons.

Yes, learning how to cope with significant loss and the feelings it generates is crucial to getting through the difficult times, but that’s only part of the story. The ways in which we cope with losses shape other important dimensions of our lives, like how much meaning and satisfaction we will find, and what kind of chronic problems we'll contend with. But whenever we try to avoid feelings we don’t want to have, we diminish our capacity to experience the feelings that make life worth living. And we set ourselves up for the kind of problems that come with using other things—like food and eating—to avoid the feelings we don’t want to have.

Learning how to properly grieve is one crucial way to learn how to open up more fully to all of your feelings, and therefore, to all the good experiences that life has to offer us.

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Letting yourself feel the painful or threatening feelings of grieving is difficult enough, even when you know how to handle them. And most people just don’t get many opportunities to practice using it. In fact, we get just the opposite—lots of pressure to "get over" what hurts us without letting our feelings cause trouble for us or anyone else.

In this article you’ll find some general information about the grieving process, along with some practical ways to work on turning the bad events into real opportunities for emotional growth and development.

The Elements of Grieving

Grieving is not really about handling losses at all—the fact that it helps us do that is just a welcome bonus. Grieving is about handling ourselves when we are facing difficult situations. Each stage of the grieving process involves things you need to do to provide yourself with the same open, compassionate, and supportive response you’d like to provide to others when something bad happens to them. Difficulties arise only when we somehow get stuck in one stage of the process.

Experts who study the grieving process have identified at least five major elements, commonly referred to as stages:
  • Denial or numbness. This can take many forms, ranging from actual disbelief to emotional shutdown, which make it appear as if you're not affected at all. Both are basic self-defense measures, designed to protect you from experiencing the full intensity of the loss all at once. Periods of denial and numbness may alternate with periods during which you acknowledge what happened, its implications, and the feelings that come with it.
  • Anger. At some point, everyone who experiences a loss is likely to get angry about it, even if it doesn't "make sense." People who experience the death or disability of a loved one, for example, may get intensely angry at that person for abandoning them, or causing them pain and difficulty. Some may get angry with themselves for "allowing" something bad to happen, even when they had no control over it. This often helps you avoid being overwhelmed by debilitating feelings like helplessness and powerlessness.
  • Bargaining. This can also take many forms, including preoccupation with thoughts about what could have prevented the loss from happening, things that now will never be accomplished, or what can be done to minimize the consequences of the loss. All this thinking can keep powerful feelings at arm’s length when needed, and may also help draw lessons from the situation.
  • Depression. As the reality of the loss and its implications sets in, people may experience all the symptoms of depression. They may be unable to meet their normal day-to-day responsibilities, and may withdraw from normal social interactions. This temporary withdrawal of energy from external affairs may be necessary to have the time and opportunity to reorganize your emotional life to match your new reality.
  • Acceptance. At some point, you will be able to integrate what has happened, and all the feelings and reactions attached to it, into your "life-story," allowing it to take its appropriate place alongside other significant experiences. This does not usually mean that you're "done" with this loss, and can move on as if it never happened. It simply means that it no longer dominates the mental and emotional landscape so much.
However you define the elements of grief—as tasks, stages, or behaviors—research makes it pretty clear that there is no "right" or "wrong" way to go through the process of grieving a loss, no set order in which these stages or elements will be experienced, and no "normal" timetable for moving through the process.

It’s also pretty clear that it doesn’t take a major loss such as a death, serious illness, or loss of an important relationship or object to set the grieving process in motion. Any significant change, including positive ones, like finishing school, getting a better job, having a child (or having one move out), or reaching your weight loss goal and suddenly realizing you’re not quite the same person you used to be. Every life change entails a loss of what used to be (or what might have been), and a transition into something new, and that often leaves us in the strange position of grieving for something we ourselves wanted to change.

Help Yourself through the Grieving Process

As mentioned earlier, the biggest problem people experience during the grieving process is getting "stuck" on a certain stage. This usually happens when your belief system tells you that a "good" person wouldn’t have the feelings or thoughts you’re having. "It’s not right," we tell ourselves, "to feel numb or detached after something terrible happens, to be angry at someone who died or got sick, to feel guilty about something we have no control over, or to get so depressed we can’t meet our responsibilities." Or we feel foolish for feeling sad about "losing" something we didn’t like very much to begin with. So, when we find ourselves having those feelings, we fight them, and in the process, we make the feelings stronger, make ourselves feel worse, and diminish our ability to cooperate with the natural process of integrating the loss into our lives.

There are a lot of things you can do to avoid this. Here’s a short list of time-tested ideas:
  1. Always remember this: There are no bad or wrong feelings. Everything you feel is exactly what you need to feel right now.
  2. If your feelings seem too overwhelming to allow you to function as you need to, try setting aside specific times every day to allow whatever feelings you have to come up. Once your feelings know you’re willing to have them, they’ll usually be quite happy to come and go quickly, a little bit at a time. It’s when you’re fighting them that things can get really bad.
  3. Let yourself express your feelings physically. Cry, shout or scream if you need to. Find something to pound on or break. Go sit in the closet if you need to get away from people. Emotions are designed to move you to do something, and if you leave out the "doing something" part, you’re not fully expressing the feeling. Just be sure there’s no one else on the receiving end who could be hurt—or who might be inclined to call the police because you’re acting a little strangely.
  4. Don’t try to talk or reason yourself out of your feelings. Instead, try to have a conversation with them, as if you were talking to someone else. Ask them where they’re coming from, what they’re about, and what they are trying to tell you. Keep a private journal where you have these conversations with your feelings that you never share with anyone else. That way, you won't have to worry about subconsciously censoring yourself.
  5. If possible, find others who have gone (or are going) through similar losses to help you feel less alone and confused about what’s going on.
  6. Recognize that times of grief are not the time to play superhero. You won’t be able to function at your best, so accept all the help you can get. Even if it doesn’t seem to really help much, it will make the people around you feel better, and that will take a lot of stress out of the situation.
  7. Find someone you trust to talk to about practical daily business. Give her permission to be honest with you when she thinks your feelings are clouding your decisions and judgments.
Remember that your positive and negative feelings are one "package." You can’t experience real joy if you can’t feel sorrow; nor can you find happiness if you’re busy running from sadness. The amount of pleasure and meaning you can get out of your relationships is directly proportional to your capacity to feel the pain of loneliness, just as you’ll never know of the pride in your accomplishments as long as you avoid the anxiety of taking risks or the shame of failing.

The philosopher Nietzsche said that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. That holds very true for grieving, but only if you let yourself work with—not against—all the feelings and thoughts come as a result.
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Member Comments

Thank you! I have been grieving the loss of the life my DH and I planned for ourselves... the trips we were going to take; the cruise with our 5-year-old granddaughter; the visits to my distant children any time I liked... all have been put on hold by Covid-19.

At the same time, I was feeling guilty about my feelings... no one I love has died of Covid-19; perhaps we will be able to travel again "someday"; I should be doing something to help others instead of feeling sorry for myself.

But at 80 and 77, we don't have unlimited "somedays". Thank you for allowing me to own my feelings, whether or not others understand or accept them. Report
This is a difficult subject. Thank you for addressing it. Report
I lost my youngest daughter to cancer when she was only 39. It is 14 years now and I will miss her always. Report
I agree with the comment made by GETULLY. The stages mentioned are not really for someone grieving the loss of a loved one. The stages mentioned in this article are for people who are ill. I lost my precious husband more than 6 years ago and I have never tried to bargain away his death, because it is impossible. It seems like all the experts who try to say this fits the grieving process for the loss of a loved one, must have never dealt with a devastating loss. I have lost my husband of 35 years, both my parents, a stepdaughter, a sister, all my aunts and uncles, several cousins and some very wonderful friends. The so-called experts who think this applies to grief due to the loss of a loved one, do not know what they are talking about. Report
I grieve the loss of Dean Anderson. Report
Thank you. Report
Many thanks Report
Sometimes the grief process is in different order and others don't have all of them. Report
Grief is also different with different losses. I lost both of my parents and struggled with those. However, losing my husband of 46 years has completely devastated my life. I am working through it but will never be over it. I'm not the same person and my life is not the same. Report
An important topic! Report
These five steps only really relate to someone who has been told they are going to die. Grieving does not follow any sort of process like that. and Elaine K-R has started to say her five steps are not really that good for someone in the process of dying. Report
Some good information for everyone Report
there is some good things in the article but everyone grieves differently. the so-called phases of grief have been discontinued. they are not any longer considered always valid. Grief can last a short time or a long time, some people grieve deeply, some do not.... its an individual experience. Report


About The Author

Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.