How to cope with grief

Grief will inevitably touch all of our lives at some point, but how can we best cope when it does? Learn how to navigate the pain of loss and look after your mental health with our expert advice

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How to cope with grief

Grief will touch all our lives. It can be tough to navigate and feel all-consuming, but there are ways to cope with the pain of loss. Radha Modgil, a medical doctor, and experts from the Mental Health Foundation shine a light on grief, offer reassurance, explain how grief manifests in our minds and bodies and share tips for how we can help ourselves and others.

‘Grief is a natural process following loss and it can have a big impact on our emotional wellbeing and mental health,’ says Dr Radha. ‘It’s vital that we understand grief so we are able to seek support for ourselves and be there for others.

Grief is a feeling often experienced by people who have lost someone or something dear to them. People often associate grief with bereavement, such as the passing of a loved one or a family pet, but other things can trigger grief too,’ she explains.

‘Grief may be experienced following the breakdown of a friendship, leaving your home or a job that was part of your identity for a long time or when we leave a period of our lives behind us. Loss can be challenging and, what’s more, the symptoms of grief can affect people in vastly different ways, so it’s important we know how to spot the signs of grief.’

Understand the stages

As a general rule, there are four phases of grief:

‘It’s important to keep in mind that these stages are personal for every individual and will vary in duration and order,’ explains Dr Radha. ‘Grief can seem chaotic and doesn’t always follow a perfectly linear path or particular order, so don’t assume you “should” feel a certain way at a certain time – your journey will be uniquely yours.’

Identify the signs

‘It’s not always easy to recognise when grief is at play because it is different for everyone,’ says Dr Radha. ‘Feelings may be transient, mild or extremely powerful, which can make it difficult to understand how a person is feeling at any given time. However, some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Shock and numbness – this is usually the first reaction to loss, and people often talk about being in a daze.
  • Sadness – often with tears, but not always.
  • Tiredness or exhaustion.
  • Anger – sometimes directed towards the reason for your loss, sometimes at yourself or sometimes at life itself.
  • Guilt – for things you think you did, could have changed or feel you should have said or done.’

When to seek help

‘Grief will place a strain on day-to-day life and can feel like a “one step forward, two steps back” scenario,’ says Dr Radha. ‘If your feelings are prolonged, intense, stopping you from carrying out self-care or limiting your life, it’s crucial to see your GP or contact a charity, such as Cruse, The Loss Foundation or Mind, or seek advice from your local NHS trust.’ 

How to help yourself and others

‘Grief is experienced differently by everyone, but one common element is the type of comments grieving people might say or thoughts they may think, such as “I should feel differently”, “I should be able to cope” or “I should feel the same as others”,’ says Dr Radha. ‘It’s important to try to allay these fears and worries for yourself and others and understand that although grief is a personal experience, it’s beneficial to:

Feel the feelings: Allow yourself space to be with the feelings you are experiencing – try not to feel bad or guilty or compare yourself with others. Understand that difficult feelings come with loss.

Understand that grief is timeless: For many people, the intensity of feelings will diminish over a period of time but, for others, it may take longer. It’s important to remind yourself and others that there is no set time for grief.

Take care of your body: Physical care can fall by the wayside when going through the turmoil of grief, but looking after your physical health will help you get through psychological stress. This includes getting a good night’s sleep, eating well, exercising and taking time out for mindfulness and reflection.

Distract yourself: Doing something that makes you feel good can often be a welcome distraction from challenging thoughts and feelings. Try something absorbing, such as drawing, gardening, reading a book or watching a movie to help give your mind a break.

Give to others: Sometimes, giving to others or an act of kindness can help you feel better. Consider volunteering, delivering groceries or calling someone who may be lonely – compassionate acts might help you with your grief.’

Photograph: Getty Images