Emotional Health,  Mental Health

Healthy Ways to Process Grief

Dr. Caroline Leaf – In this podcast (episode #360) and blog, I am going to talk about grief and answer some of your questions about dealing with and managing grief.

Since grief is inescapable and can come about for all sorts of reasons, it’s important to accept that it’s an intrinsic part of being human, instead of trying to avoid or suppress the emotion. Below are some of the main questions I have received over the years, and some answers and tips to help you better deal with and manage grief:

-Why is grief such a difficult feeling to process?

Dealing with loss and the grief that comes with this feeling often means facing something that is both final and unchangeable, which makes grief very hard to manage. And, contrary to popular opinion, time doesn’t just “heal” this feeling of loss. Rather, time helps to create the space necessary to come to terms with the inevitability of the loss.

In many cases, feelings of loss and grief are compounded by a sense of regret or even guilt, which can also be very hard to process.

-Why isn’t grief linear?

The five stages of grief model, otherwise known as the Kübler-Ross model, suggests that people experience grief through a series of five emotions: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Although this model has gained popularity, it is not supported by empirical studies—many people argue that this model is incomplete and unhelpful for people trying to manage their grief.

Research shows that grief doesn’t unfold along predictable lines and differs greatly based on a person’s makeup and circumstances. People naturally move back and forth through different stages and expressions of grief. Consequently, it can be harmful to force people to try to fit their unique experiences into a set pattern of grief.

We all experience grief in waves and cope in different ways. We should not judge ourselves if we feel great one day and terrible the next.

-What are some healthy ways to process grief? 

  1. As mentioned above, we all experience grief in waves and cope in different ways, so you shouldn’t judge yourself if you feel great one day and bad the next day.
  2. Remind yourself that there is no one way of experiencing grief, and there is no one way of getting through grief.
  3. Remind yourself that grief is a part of life, and that it isn’t shameful to ask for help or need support.
  4. Don’t just assume that you must talk about and express your grief openly as soon as possible or you won’t get through it. This has been shown through extensive research to not to work as well as was previously believed.
  5. You may find a temporary distraction helpful when dealing with grief—it can give you time and space to deal with grief in your own way in your own time.
  6. Deep, meaningful connections can really help us manage and process our grief. Never feel ashamed of asking for help.
  7. We should all try to be there for someone who is grieving, so long as we DO NOT try to force them to get what they are feeling out or “get over it”. In these situations, it is far better to ask the person what they need instead of basing our words and actions off what we think they need. Remember, we are not experts on anyone else’s feelings! Therefore it’s important to acknowledge a person’s unique grief experience, which will help them activate the resilience they need to process and move through their grief in a way that works for them.
  8. You do you! No one should be pressured into trying to feel more deeply or be more expressive than suits their unique style and time frame.
  9. If you are grieving, I recommend acknowledging your grief, and then decompressing until you feel ready to face your grief. When ready, work on embracing, processing and reconceptualizing your feelings and experiences in organized cycles of 63 days, which is the time it takes to rewire new thoughts. Some people may need to do many of these cycles, and that’s okay! In the case of grief, people begin to feel stronger when they develop new ways of thinking about their loss and adjusting, so take all the time you need to get to this place! To do these 63 day cycles, I recommend using my Neurocycle mind-management technique, which I discuss in detail in my latest book, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, and app Neurocycle. The Neurocycle is a way to harness your thinking power through mind-management that I have developed and researched over the past three decades. First, calm the brain down by breathing deeply. I recommend breathing in for 5 counts and out for 11 counts, and repeating this technique 3 times (for around 45 seconds). Then, GATHER awareness of the emotional and physical warning signals your body is sending you, such as tension in your shoulders, which can be a sign of fear of sleep. Embrace these signals; don’t judge them or try to suppress them. (Spend around 30 to 45 seconds doing this). Next, REFLECT on what these signals are pointing to. Ask, answer and discuss why you are feeling the way you do. Use specific sentences, like “I feel this sadness because …”. What are the details associated with this thought? What other thoughts are coming up that are associated with this thought? After reflecting, WRITE down what you feel and why. This will help you gain clarity into your thinking and behavior. Then, RECHECK what you have written, looking for your grief triggers and thought patterns you may have developed. For example, if you are grieving the end of a romantic relationship and feel sad, you might unconsciously think, “I could’ve done more to stop the breakup”. Why do you feel this way? What triggered this thought? How do you know this to be true? Or are you making an assumption based on how you feel now about something that happened the past? What is your thought “antidote”? How will you reconceptualize this way of thinking and feeling? What could you think, feel and choose instead?Lastly, take action to practice this new way of thinking. I call this step the ACTIVE REACH. This can be anything from a positive statement that validates your feelings to an action you do when you catch yourself ruminating on your grief. Based on the example above, you could practice saying, “I know the relationship was over, and that is okay. It is also okay to grieve the end of this relationship”.

-How can someone feel/process their grief without becoming consumed or immobilized by it?

Recounting your grief (again and again) is not necessarily required for your psychological health. There is a substantial body of research suggesting that the constant expression of feelings is not always the best way to manage grief and may even lead to more sorrow. In fact, when you are sad and grieving, your mind tends to access other sad memories stored in your brain, and you can get stuck in a cycle of negativity that will potentially drag you down. Similarly, wired-in neural networks of memories can be activated even when there isn’t a direct relationship to what you are going through, so ruminating can lead to all sorts of mental issues, setting off a cycle of pessimism that can affect your concentration, decision-making and motivation, which can make your problems can seem overwhelming. When this happens, you can become immobilized or consumed in your grief.

However, there is a natural cycle of remission we can tap into, which is where healthy distractions can come in handy. Your ability to distract yourself until you are ready to process your grief, as briefly mentioned above, can be a good way to help you recover without feeling stuck or immobilized.

Don’t try to rush the process if you don’t feel strong enough to work through everything. Yes, you don’t want to ignore your grief or avoid processing it, but you do want to get to a point where you are able to process everything that has happened without becoming immobilized, which usually involves having a support system in place and building up your own mental resilience.

 -What can happen if a person doesn’t process their grief or ignores it? 

This is often referred to as delayed grief. Although there is not much research on the effects of delayed grief, we do know that suppressing how we feel in the long term can end up making our mental health worse, as I discuss in detail in my latest book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess.

However, grieving is a complex process that we need to be allowed to move through in our own idiosyncratic ways. We don’t want to conceal our intense sadness from ourselves or others, but we do need to be allowed to process these feelings in our own way.

-What are examples of things people might grieve besides death? Love, loss of childhood, etc.? Why is it important to recognize these types of grief too, outside of death-related grief?

There are many things that we can grieve over, including being bullied, feeling lonely, the loss of time, the loss of friends, breakups, the loss of connections when moving cities, countries or schools, illness or injury, the loss of a happy childhood due to traumatic experiences and so on.

It is important to recognize that grief is related to loss, even when there may not have been a death. Some people may not even realize that the deep sorrow they are feeling is actually grief!

Experiencing a loss is a very hard emotional process, and recognizing it as grief can allow people to make more sense of what they are feeling and experiencing. In fact, recognizing different types of grief can help assuage feelings of guilt associated with loss. For example, if someone is feeling down from something like a breakup and is feeling guilty about being sad, helping them understand that they may be grieving can help them identify their pain and start the process of working through it. No matter what type of loss someone has experienced, they should understand that their grief is valid.

-Can you explain how the pandemic has added another layer of grief to life?

Besides the obvious impact of massive uncertainty and loneliness, many adults, teenagers and children have had to develop a whole new way of life, which has resulted in feelings of loss and grief for what could have been.

Whatever we experience with the mind changes the brain (through the process of neuroplasticity) and body, right down to the level of the telomeres on our chromosomes, which shows up in how we function and feel mentally and physically. We do not live in a vacuum.

There have been major changes in the mind, brain and body from the pandemic, and we need to help adults, adolescents and children manage these changes because unmanaged toxic stress from major adverse circumstances like the pandemic can result in physical and mental ill-health.

However, if we constantly focus on the problem, it can get worse. As I always say, whatever we think about the most grows. We also need to focus on the solution, and I recommend doing this in a “ratio” of 1:3—one part “this is the problem/what has happened” and 3 parts of “what I can do about it”.

It’s also important to not only focus on our feelings, because feelings are only one part of the mind—the other two parts are thinking and choosing. When we just focus on how we feel, we can get stuck because we are going against the natural functioning of the mind, which is to think, feel AND choose.

When we consciously keep the balance between our thinking, feeling and choosing through self-regulation (or mind management), this can help us prevent overthinking and ruminating on the negative, which, in turn, helps us develop cognitive resilience and allow for the natural remission of grief to happen.

We need to guide ourselves and our children to think about the pandemic by saying to ourselves, “This has happened, now what are we as individuals and community going to do about it?” This is healthier than the constant focus on how terrible things are and how there is a massive mental health crisis amongst children and young adults. Yes, we need to acknowledge that there is a major problem, but also that all is not lost. We should not just pathologize distress and take away the hope for recovery. We need to help ourselves and our children process through life issues.

This is actually a great lesson to teach our children while they are still young. When you learn to not judge yourself for your grief and how you process it, you’re more likely to realize that asking for support from friends, family, and professionals (like a therapist) isn’t a sign of weakness—it just means you are human!

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