How to Start Healing from Grief
Takeaway: While grief is a natural part of life, the pain and sadness that come with loss can be overwhelming. You might worry that you’ll never feel okay again. However, it’s important to remember that healing from grief is possible. While there is no formula that will guarantee emotional healing, there are plenty of steps you can take to support yourself during this difficult time. Here, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the grief healing process, including tangible tips for you to try today.
What is grief?
Grief (also known as bereavement) is the natural process of emotions that we experience after loss. While many people associate grief with losing a loved one, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) reminds us that we can experience grief after any kind of loss, such as that of a job or an important relationship.
Even though grief is a universal human experience, each person feels different during the grieving process. You might feel guilty, sad, angry, numb, or even relieved. It's likely that you will experience a range of emotions as you process the loss, or even feel conflicting emotions at the same time.
In addition to a range of feelings, people may also experience physical health changes during the grieving process. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), a person may notice changes in appetite or sleep patterns, dizziness, stomach problems, and physical pain such as headaches while grieving.
Types of loss
As we touched on, people can feel grief after any kind of loss. As bereavement counsellors in Vancouver, we support people as they mourn all sorts of different losses. Here are a few examples of different events that can cause a grief reaction.
Death of a loved one
When we think of grief and loss, many people will immediately think of death. This can include the death of a family member, friend, pet, or another important person in your life. You may also experience grief after the death of an important figure in your community or a public figure you looked up to.
Losing a job
Whether it's voluntary or unexpected, losing a job can be difficult to cope with. Depending on your circumstances, you might also experience a loss of financial security or identity when leaving a job. This can add to the feelings of grief associated with it.
Change in a relationship or role
Experiencing the loss of a relationship with another person can bring up feelings of grief. Breakups, divorce, fallouts with family members, and growing apart from a friend are a few examples. However, changes in a relationship can also elicit similar feelings. For example, the parent of a child who is moving out for the first time might go through the grieving process.
Being diagnosed with a chronic illness
Getting a new diagnosis can be a devastating experience. You might be grieving the loss of your health or previous abilities. You might even grieve the relationship you had with your body before you got sick. As chronic illness counsellors in Vancouver, we see all of these reactions (and more) with our clients. Know that you're not alone if you're feeling this way after being diagnosed.
Other types of loss
This is not an exhaustive list of losses. Grief is a normal response to any kind of loss, no matter how "big" or "small" that loss might seem to other people. Other examples include moving away from home, graduating from school, pregnancy loss, loss of safety, loss of autonomy, and more.
Types of grief
Just as there are many different types of losses a person might experience, there are also different types of grief. This is not about putting a person's grief experience into a category. Rather, the purpose is to gain more insight and understanding into what a person might be going through.
This form of grief is common when you know a loss is coming, such as in the case of a loved one who is terminally ill. You understand that their illness will take their life, but you don't know exactly when it will happen. According to HealthLinkBC, anticipatory grief is meant to help us emotionally prepare for the loss.
You can also experience anticipatory grief for yourself. For example, if you are diagnosed with a chronic degenerative condition like Parkinson's disease, you may begin to mourn your eventual loss of functioning and the future you had imagined for yourself.
Complicated grief or prolonged grief disorder
While all grief experiences have their own nuances, the term complicated grief is used to refer to a specific type of grief. Now recognized as prolonged grief disorder (PGD) by mental health professionals, complicated grief is a form of mourning that is longer and more intense than traditionally expected.
Unlike other forms of grief, PGD is now considered a mental health diagnosis. It is included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the manual that professionals use to diagnose mental health challenges. According to the DSM, people with PGD may experience some or all of the following symptoms more than six months after the death of a loved one:
Feeling like part of yourself has died
Disbelief about the death
Avoiding reminders of the death
Strong feelings about the death
Trouble integrating back into daily life
Feeling like life has no meaning
While many people experience these symptoms directly following a loss, the feelings tend to soften over time. When they don't (as is the case with PGD), the symptoms can interfere with your ability to function in your day-to-day life.
Not all losses are considered traumatic. Everyone experiences loss differently, and what may be considered traumatic for one person may not impact someone else in the same way. With that being said, many people do experience trauma-related symptoms while also grieving.
CAMH also reminds us that experiencing a loss may trigger difficult feelings from a past trauma you've survived. The past trauma may compound your current grief experience, making it even more difficult to figure out how to move forward.
As we've discussed, grief is a natural response to loss. However, there are some forms of loss that society may consider taboo to discuss or dismiss as "not bad enough" to elicit a true grief reaction.
This is where disenfranchised grief comes in. When you're experiencing grief after a loss that's not widely accepted or understood by those around you, you may feel isolated, invalidated, and misunderstood. This creates a unique form of suffering that is difficult to cope with. For example, this study examines how African Canadians experience disenfranchised grief after losing a loved one to gun violence.
Understanding the grieving process with an emotionally-focused lens
Having a framework to conceptualize your experience of grief can help you feel validated in your emotions and better understand what you're going through.
While there are many different theories that explain the grieving process, our therapists at Myriame Lyons Counselling & Consulting primarily use an emotionally-focused lens. This kind of approach helps us gain insight of your experiences by identifying and validating your emotions. With this information, you'll be better equipped to wholeheartedly embrace the feelings that arise for you throughout the grieving process.
Turning toward the emotions, no matter how difficult they are, is a key piece in healing with grief. When you can gently face your feelings with curiosity and compassion, you can gain a sense of what your emotions are trying to tell you and what those emotions need.
For example, you may notice that you feel abandoned by the loss of a loved one. Instead of pushing away this uncomfortable feeling, an emotionally-focused approach challenges you to sit with it. What is this feeling communicating to you? Does it want you to share this with others? Is it simply asking for space to be expressed and validated? Being open to whatever feelings come up during the grieving process is an essential part of healing.
Healing during grief
As mentioned, grief healing takes on a different form for each individual. Unfortunately, there is no way to make the intense feelings associated with grief completely disappear. However, there are ways of effectively managing grief to help you live with your loss.
Tips to help you through the grief process
No matter which kind of loss you've experienced, grief is completely normal. Yet, it's often difficult and uncomfortable. You might feel lost or unsure of what to do and how to cope. These strategies can help you start healing from grief and learn how to move forward with your loss in a gentle and validating way.
Lean on friends and family members
Grief can be an isolating experience. At the same time, it's important to get support from the people in your life. This can take the form of emotional support or even logistical support. For example, a loved one might be able to make some meals for you if it's difficult to take care of yourself following a loss.
For many people, reaching out for support is easier said than done. It is okay if you need some time to yourself to process your loss. However, we're not meant to navigate grief alone. Leaning on close others can be difficult at first but may ultimately help your healing process.
Connect with a support group
With that being said, asking for help from close others - like loved ones - is not possible for everyone. In this case, you may consider joining a support group. In this setting, you'll be able to get support from other people who are going through a similar experience. This can be incredibly validating and helpful in undoing aloneness.
Many provincial health authorities offer grief support groups. Local and national organizations also offer specific types of grief groups. For example, Healing Hearts offers grief support groups for people who have lost a loved one to substance abuse.
Get support from a grief counsellor
Grief counselling is another meaningful way to get support. In therapy, you can share your feelings and experience in a confidential setting with a supportive other that isn’t a friend or family member. This may be especially helpful if talking to loved ones is too difficult or simply not an option.
Whether you're coping with a recent loss or struggling to process unresolved grief from a past loss, grief counselling can also help you learn healthy ways of coping with your experience.
Find ways to incorporate self-care
Getting support from other people is essential in healing from grief. At the same time, it's important to take time for yourself and prioritize your own mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being during this time.
Like other components of grief healing, this looks different for everyone. This could involve doing an activity you enjoy, like swimming or painting. It might be as simple as taking a warm bath or hot shower. While self-care won't heal your grief on its own, it is a key way to show yourself some kindness and love.
Eat a balanced diet
Basic functions like eating, sleeping, and bathing may fall to the wayside while you're in the midst of grief. While this is understandable, it's also important to care for your body during this time.
One way to do this is through gentle nutrition. We recommend consulting your primary care provider, dietician or nutritionist for professional advice, but just making sure that you're fed is essential. You don't need to have "perfect healthy" meals, but nourishing your body is important. If cooking feels like too much, consider picking up some easy frozen or premade meals.
Embrace your emotional state
The emotions that come with grief and loss can be incredibly difficult to cope with. As a result, you might be tempted to numb, suppress, or avoid feelings when they start to bubble up. The emotions might be so overwhelming that you're afraid they will never subside if you actually let yourself feel them.
If you feel this way, you're not alone. So many of us have this fear and feel stuck by it. At the same time, it's important to gently embrace your feelings, as difficult as that may be. Avoiding emotions only makes them grow stronger over time, so facing your feelings is the only way to truly process them and make peace with them.
Spend time outdoors
Being in nature can have a grounding, restorative effect for some people. Being in the quiet of the outdoors can also be an excellent opportunity to reflect on emotions while giving your body gentle movement.
For outdoor enthusiasts, this might take the form of hiking, paddle boarding, rock climbing, skiing, or any number of other activities. However, taking a short stroll through the park might be exactly what you need to help you reap the benefits of being in nature and connect to your body.
Grief is a difficult experience. Some people get down on themselves for not "getting over" their loss fast enough or for feeling the "wrong way." This makes an already tough time even more challenging to navigate.
When you're starting to heal from grief, it's important to be as gentle with yourself as possible. Speak to yourself as you would a small child or loved one: by reassuring yourself that it's okay to feel whatever you're feeling and that you deserve love and support through the entire process. Kristin Neff’s 5 min self-compassion meditation is a great start.
Get support for your mental health as you heal from grief
Figuring out how to heal from grief is a highly individual experience. For personalized support in navigating your loss, consider working with a trained grief counselor. Therapy can provide you with a safe space to make sense of your emotions and process your experience without fear of judgment.
Our bereavement counselors will guide you through the grief process, whatever that looks like for you. Grief and loss can be messy, complicated, and confusing, but you shouldn't have to go through it alone.
Ready to get started? We serve individuals in Vancouver and throughout British Columbia with our online counselling and in-person counselling services. Reach out today for a free consultation to see if we're a good fit for each other. We look forward to connecting with you.
Founder and Counsellor