Grief: What it is and how to heal from it

When we think about grief, it's very common to imagine the death of a loved one. People often think of sadness, crying, or helplessness. At its core, grief is a natural reaction to loss...but loss does not always have to be about death. Grief can be a reaction to any kind of change or loss. For example, you might grieve the end of a relationship, the death of a pet, or even a job loss. Grief is often described in stages, but it's important to remember that grief is unique to everyone and there is no "right" way to grieve.

What exactly is grief?

Remember that grief is a natural reaction to loss. The degree to which we experience grief depends on the size of the loss. This is because grief impacts our brain at a neurological level. When we build relationships or a routine, our brain encodes that information until it becomes natural. Maybe we pick up a call from a good friend every day at a certain time, or you send a text to someone you love every time something exciting happens. Maybe you're just accustomed to seeing someone in your home on a daily basis. Our brains encode things deeply when the routine or relationship is well-formed. We expect certain events to happen with these people and in these environments. The bonds between our neurons become stronger and create thick pathways that help us function and know what to expect. There's a strong sense of comfort and familiarity associated with these events.

Now, imagine the loss of that someone or that something. It isn't just an emotional struggle to get through the shifts and changes; your brain is literally trying to rewire itself to adjust to something that has always been there. The grief process is our brain's way of slowly adapting to a new normal. It might take some time, but eventually those pathways will become thin and less active as your brain starts to accept the loss and build newer connections.

This sounds really simple, but of course living it is more complicated. Grief is a universal experience that all of us humans will have in one way or another.

How do you experience grief?

Many people think about the stages of grief when asked how to move through it. These stages were coined by Kübler-Ross and Kessler. Before we talk about them, we want to be clear: contrary to popular belief, these stages are not meant to be experienced linearly. In other words, we might call them "stages," but it doesn't mean that moving from one stage to another eliminates the possibility of experiencing the first stage again. Everyone's journey of grief is different. It's not uncommon to jump between "stages" or experiencing the first "stage" years after the event has occurred. So what are these "stages" of grief?

  1. Denial is what some may feel initially after the loss. According to Kübler-Ross and Kessler, denial is what helps our brains adjust to the initial shock of the loss. It keeps our brains from being overloaded with the weight of change. People might feel numb and removed, and sometimes people might think about how they ca move forward with the change. Denial serves the purpose of helping us pace through those first reactions that may arise. Soon, denial's buffer fades and allows us to feel more emotions.

  2. Anger is a common emotion during the grieving process. It's a normal reaction to injustice, though it may also be the primary emotion (what is most easily accessible and felt) to a more painful secondary emotion (the emotion that is beneath the primary). Anger, though, is an emotion that energizes us. It helps us find purpose in understanding what went wrong, how to fix a problem, etc. Though in the midst of grief, it can seem almost all-encompassing. The more you feel and examine your anger, especially the emotions that are beneath it, the easier it is to heal.

  3. Bargaining occurs when we say what we want to give in exchange for lesser pain. There is nothing wrong with wanting to experience less pain in life. With grief comes this level of despair that can feel heavy. It's difficult to sit with the reality that we don't always have control over what is gained and what is lost.

  4. Depression is something that many of us have experienced before. In the context of grief, it can feel very similar: the things that brought us joy no longer make us smile, eating or sleeping might feel almost impossible to do, and crying may become a consistent part of your day. It's important to be engaging in self-care activities to make sure your basic needs are met. It's okay to surround yourself with love that feels comfortable (i.e., having someone next to you to listen or sit quietly in their presence) and reminisce about the things you once had. Your brain is rewriting the neurological paths and working towards acceptance.

  5. Acceptance is the final "stage" (though remember, you can experience any of these in any order). When people think of acceptance, they think that it means people are okay with having lost something. That's not at all what it means; acceptance means that an individual has come to realize the loss and change are a new reality. It does not make the loss "okay," it simply means acknowledging that we must now live with change.

Coping with Grief

There's no right answer for the question, "How do I move through my grief?" This is because everyone's loss comes with unique layers that are specific to their life. You cannot (and should not) compare your loss and healing journey to another person. While that answer seems to be very vague, there are a few suggestions that are recommended across the board for coping with grief.

  1. Acknowledge that you have lost something. Remember that grief doesn't have to be a result of death. You can be grieving the end (or change) of a relationship, the image of someone you had that wasn't reality, the things you deserved but never received, among other things that you get to define. When you're able to recognize that you have lost something, it helps open doors to healing.

  2. Let yourself feel your emotions. This sounds intuitive, but you'd be surprised at how difficult it can be to feel something freely. Emotions that arise from grief can be uncomfortable. Maybe there's guilt, anger, confusion, or frustration toward the loss. Maybe there's also melancholy, yearning, and even joy at remembering what you once had. It's easiest to experience these emotions freely when you also are in a safe space. Maybe it's when you have a moment of solitude. Maybe it's when you're with a trusted, nonjudgmental friend. Maybe it's in session with a therapist to get that extra boost of support. Regardless, letting yourself feel the emotions for what they are without getting swept away in them is key. and remember, whatever you're feeling is valid.

  3. Surround yourself with love. This can look different for many people, too. Remember that you can reach out to others and set expectations for how you want to feel supported and loved. You have the ability to ask someone to share space with you without talking. You also have the ability to ask someone if they can sit and listen. Because grief is a universal experience, it sometimes is easiest felt in community with other people.

  4. Find what fulfills you. This can be difficult when you're in the throes of sadness, but it's okay! You can do things like engaging in a new hobby or with the things that you know would normally bring you joy. Part of losing something in your life is finding what else could be added to it. Remember to do these things when you feel ready to, however, as there is no rush to heal. It makes sense to want the pain to go away as quickly as possible, but grief is a process.

  5. Be patient with yourself. Remember that it's not as simple as finding a new routine to cope with change. Your brain is quite literally rewiring itself to adjust to a major shift. There will be days when it feels like you're experiencing the loss as freshly as it was that first day. There will be days when it is harder to function than others. Sometimes you'll hop into one of the stages and wonder what went wrong when, in reality, nothing went wrong. You're healing. It's important to take care of yourself and be patient in this process. You can try speaking to yourself gently or even just remind yourself that it will take some time.

Grief is universal and painful. It is the result of change and, unfortunately, something that we all will experience at some point in our lives. By following these coping mechanisms, you can begin to move through your grief in a way that feels best for you. Sometimes this means getting a bit of extra support.

Therapy is one of the many places where support can be found, but it's different in that therapists are trained to help you move through the process. At Cultured Space, our therapists are ready to provide 100% virtual support through telehealth. We want to ensure our clients feel safe, heard, and ready to move through their life prepared for change. While the healing journey is not always a beautiful, seamless process, we want you to know that we are here for you when you're ready.