How to Manage Feelings of Grief and Loss

July 10, 2020

It is a time of great uncertainty. For many, feelings of grief and loss are becoming more constant and complex as they play witness to current events.

“I think grief is quite layered at the moment,” explained Dr. Claire Fialkov, professor of Clinical Psychology. “What we think of as grief and loss is becoming so intertwined with the larger context of what’s happening across the country.”

It can be difficult to navigate these feelings, especially if the feelings are new or unfamiliar. Fialkov and other William James College faculty members offer advice on managing grief and loss.

Remember that Grief is Complex

The experience of grief and loss vary by person and by situation. “You can’t compare loss,” explained Fialkov. “Everyone has their own and everyone has their own way of navigating through it.”

Dr. Kate King, assistant professor of Clinical Psychology and faculty in the geropsychology concentration, agreed. In a recent episode of her podcast, The Well Helper, King explained, “There [are] many different aspects to the grief experience and it really does show up differently for different people.”

Grief is often talked about in an emotional context, but she emphasized that it also has physical, cognitive, perceptual, behavioral components. Even for a person who has experienced loss before, complexities that are not normally present mean current experiences with grief may feel different than previous ones.

“Don’t assume the same things you’ve done in the past to grieve will work this time around,” said King. “Start with those things, but you may need something different.”

Know that you are Not Alone

Feelings of grief during this time may not only relate to personal loss, but instead to loss related to events or actions in the world.

Dr. Carolyn Rabin, associate professor of Clinical Psychology and director of the Health Psychology Concentration, explained, “It’s reasonable to experience some additional stress during such a challenging time when there is so much uncertainty.”

It is important to remember that no matter where the feelings of grief are coming from, you are not alone. People around the world are experiencing painful emotions connected to current events.

“Our grief, while it won’t go away, can be soothed by compassionate witnessing and by grieving in community,” said Dr. Jodie Kliman, professor of Clinical Psychology. Kliman suggested talking about feelings of grief, loss and sadness with someone who is a caring listener. “Knowing you don’t have to be alone with your feelings and that others have those feelings as well can help you manage your grief,” she said. 

Similarly, King emphasized the importance of this sense of a common humanity where grief is experienced by so many people. “We really have an opportunity to see each other and help each other going through whatever kind of grief we are experiencing,” she said.

Give Yourself Time

In any instance of grief and loss, and especially in a time where there is increased stress, uncertainty and even anger, working through grief will take time.

“Grief tends to be like a wave,” said Fialkov. “You can be fine one minute, but not the next. Don’t think you’re doing something wrong if you’re still feeling it. It just changes.”

King described the grief process as a spiral, as many people bounce between Kubler’s well-known stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) rather than moving through them in a straight line.

“I really want to debunk this idea that there’s some kind of appropriate time period for a person to be grieving,” said King, emphasizing “it’s very important that we don’t try to hurry people through their grief responses.”

Engage in Self-Care

Taking time to care for yourself as you work through the loss of a loved one or other feelings of grief is important. Paying attention to getting adequate sleep is especially beneficial for overall well-being. Both King and Rabin emphasized the importance of mindfulness strategies or other relaxation techniques to help manage intrusive or overwhelming thoughts and feelings.

“Seek out some resources that can guide you through mindfulness strategies as these strategies are a great way to learn to acknowledge and accept the stressful thoughts and feelings you experience,” suggested Rabin.

King added that exercises like counting backwards, deep breathing, taking a walk, or guided meditation can be helpful in those moments.

Take Action

For many, channeling grief and sadness into another focus or action can help manage these feelings. Fialkov encouraged thinking about your character strengths and how you want to be as a person which, she said, is more powerful in some ways than just thinking about joy and gratitude. She encouraged asking oneself the questions: “What strengths of yours do you want to use more of?” and “What strengths can you elevate in yourself and others?”

Kliman suggested taking concrete actions can also be beneficial for coping with grief. Things like planning a memorial service for a lost loved one, donating to or volunteering with an organization that serves communities most affected by COVID-19, or speaking out on racial injustice might offer helpful ways to take action.

“For some of us, feelings of grief and loss will be commingled with anger and even rage,” explained Kliman. “Channeling that very understandable anger into action and solidarity can help you with those feelings and can possibly help others.”

Seek Professional Support

If feelings of grief or sadness become too overwhelming or intense, it is important to seek professional mental health support. King identified some factors to pay attention to in yourself or others who may be experiencing grief during this time. She noted that people might experience extremely intense or incapacitating feelings for an extended period of time, have a severe decrease in appetite, or neglect self-care such as bathing.

“We need to watch this closely and really know the person we’re talking to and know ourselves and what our own risk factors are to try to get support,” explained King.