How to Handle Grief and Loss

Mix profound sadness, shock, and anger with relief, fear, guilt, and any number of other emotions, and you have the difficult and messy experience of grief. Here are nine important things to know about navigating loss.

Jade Wu, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #292

Grief can follow any loss—not just the death of a person, but also the end of an important relationship, an illness or injury that changes your life, loss of a job which was your identity, or missing important rites of passage. Even positive events like graduation may trigger grief as you enter the "real world."

Right now, many people are experiencing loss due to the tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic. Families have lost loved ones to COVID-19, and the loss is made even more heartbreaking because those grieving are often isolated from the people who form their usual social support system. Millions who have lost jobs may have lost not only a potentially life-altering source of financial safety, but also sense of purpose, an identity, a community, a passion.

Even for those who are more fortunate, whose lives and jobs are intact, there may still be a profound sense of loss.

Even for those who are more fortunate, whose lives and jobs are intact, there may still be a profound sense of loss. I know people who are canceling weddings, family reunions, and anticipated travel or educational opportunities. And thinking back to my own Senior Week and graduation, I feel a wrench in my heart when I realize how many high school and college students will be missing out on all the celebrations that go with this momentous rite of passage.

As we all try to navigate these unprecedented times, here are nine important things to know about handling grief and loss. They won’t take away the pain, but I hope they help you navigate your way through it.

There’s no right way to grieve

You wouldn’t tell anyone else how to grieve; don’t try to control your grief either, especially with the first or most profound grief you’ve experienced.

Likewise, let go of any "shoulds" that pop into your head.

I should have prevented my mother’s suffering.

I shouldn’t feel this bad about [fill in the blank] when other people are losing their lives.

I should get over it.

Withholding judgment is especially important when it comes to crying. Some individuals feel better after a good cry and can let the tears flow easily. Many others want to cry but can’t. Still others will grieve internally, never showing grief through tears. So, don’t try to force yourself or someone else to cry. On the flip side, don’t tell someone to "be strong" if their tears flow freely.

There’s no stopwatch on grief

The conventional wisdom used to hold that the grieving process took about a year. After the loss, you were supposed to experience each season and holiday, and then all was expected to be fine. Thankfully, that’s not expected anymore.

The truth is, grief takes as long as grief takes.

The truth is, grief takes as long as grief takes. And grief may not even begin with the loss itself. Indeed, a phenomenon known as anticipatory grief roars to life before the loss; for example, when your spouse is diagnosed with an illness that's not yet severe but likely will be, or there are travel restrictions that will prevent you from seeing your significant other for an indefinite amount of time.

The stages of grief aren’t set in stone

Psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously introduced the five stages of grief in 1969. Since then, they’ve become part of the common lexicon of loss. What are they? All together now: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

However, it’s little-known that Dr. Kübler-Ross’s stages were based on interviews with individuals with terminal illness—these were supposed to be the stages the dying went through, not the bereaved.

Now, this is not to say the stages are wrong—indeed, time and experience have generalized the five stages to loss of all kinds. The point is, to paraphrase Dr. Kubler-Ross herself, that while many people recognize their experience in the stages, they’re not meant as a formula for healing. Instead, you may experience some or all of the stages in any given order, or even none at all.

There's a difference between getting support and feeling supported

This is different from the common advice to "get support." Conventional wisdom says that when grief strikes, we’re supposed to reach out to everyone we’ve ever known for that elusive concept of "support."

As long as you feel supported, and not alone or abandoned, whatever number of people you choose to share with is sufficient.

However, especially for the introverts among us, you may just need support from a few close people who really get you. As long as you feel supported, and not alone or abandoned, whatever number of people you choose to share with is sufficient. You don’t have to broadcast your loss to the world.

"If onlys" are common, but probably not helpful

If only we had more personal protective equipment.

If only we had gone to the doctor sooner.

If only we'd been more careful.

The words "if only" are a red flag for guilt and blame, two emotions that will eat away at your already broken heart. Gently let them go. "If onlys" imply that you were in control. While there may have been a tiny slice of the pie under your control, remember the vast majority of the situation was not.

In grief, you are equally fragile and strong—treat yourself as such

Let’s look at this from both angles. First, in grief, you are fragile, so take good care of yourself. Don’t buy into the myth that unless you feel tortured, you’re not truly grieving. Don’t equate misery with loyalty. Instead, rest, eat, exercise. Treat yourself with great gentleness and care.

Don’t equate misery with loyalty.

But you are also strong. And being strong doesn't mean you have to be an unmoving, unfeeling rock. Think of strength as being like a rubber band: flexible and resilient. You can handle sobbing, or feeling like you’re about to explode, or pain so deep you think you’ll die yourself. In short, you can handle strong emotion. It’s awful, but with the help of loved ones who hold you up, you’ll find strength you didn’t know you had.

Remembering is healing

Look at pictures, reminisce, and remember good times. Talk to people who knew your loved one or are familiar with your lost circumstances. You may even hear a new story, like how your late father used to serenade your mother. Or you may learn something new, like how your friend of twenty years could ride a unicycle or hated raisins.

Just as love doesn’t stop, your relationship with a person (or a place or idea) doesn’t stop when they're gone.

Things will and will not ever be normal again

You can’t go back, but you can move forward—there will be a new normal. Grieving takes time. Don’t believe anyone who says "You should be over it by now."

Triggers are normal. Anniversaries of the loss, visiting a bakery you and a deceased loved one frequented together, or even weather patterns that remind you of an event or person can trigger a wave of grief ... even years after the fact. Milestones and celebrations like weddings, holidays, or graduations may be bittersweet and also spark fresh grief.

If only he could see you in your wedding dress; he’d be so proud.

I wish mom could have seen you graduate from college.

But as long as you hold memories, those people are with you. That's true even if it's not the same as having them close, and even when it's not what you'd prefer.

It’s okay to feel positive emotions

If you've lost a loved one who suffered, you’ll probably feel some relief or freedom when they die. You may be happy the suffering is over. If the person was cruel to you or you otherwise had a complicated relationship, you may even be glad they’re dead.

Bottom line: feel what you feel. Whatever your brain comes up with is what you need.

Grief comes in waves. The waves will get gentler and further apart as time passes, but when reminders pop up, the waves will intensify again. It’s hard, but try to surf the wave, by which I mean watch and acknowledge your grief. Name it. Allow yourself to feel it. You’ll get better at surfing as time goes on and you get to know the patterns of the seasons and the years.

Feel what you feel. Whatever your brain comes up with is what you need.

In the meantime, a great book to help you cope with grief is the 1978 classic When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Rabbi Harold Kushner. Drawn from personal experience, he offers comfort and hope to anyone dealing with loss or sorrow. In addition, for validation after a sudden loss, read Sheryl Sandberg's powerful essay on her Facebook page marking the 30 days since her husband's tragic death.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Jade Wu, PhD Savvy Psychologist

Dr. Jade Wu was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast between 2019 and 2021. She is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine.