By Meredith Begley
One of life’s most difficult experiences is losing a loved one. It would be somewhat easier if grief followed a linear path, with stages that neatly fit into boxes. But big feelings can emerge all throughout the grieving process.
While emotions can be consuming, they are not permanent states. Experts across Memorial Sloan Kettering share insights into the grieving process and ideas to keep in mind when you feel overwhelmed.
1. It won’t feel like this forever.
MSK bereavement counselor Kimarie Knowles likens grief to waves cresting and then crashing at the shore. “Part of what people find helpful is riding the wave,” she says. “Understand it’s coming up, try to find support, take care of yourself, and allow it to go.”
2. You can handle it, even when you feel like you can’t.
It’s human nature to want to avoid painful experiences. When we lose someone important to us, we may feel like we won’t be able to cope with the pain of grief. But “we only learn about our capacity to handle things by moving through them,” says Wendy Lichtenthal, Director of MSK’s Bereavement Clinic. When we try to stifle or avoid our feelings, they can come on that much stronger when something triggers them, she says. Making space to experience painful emotions allows us to practice our resilience and grow our own internal resources.
3. Be gentle with yourself.
“Grief is exhausting,” says Reverend Jill Bowden, Director of Chaplaincy Services at MSK. She suggests caring for your body during periods of intensive stress. Carve out time for naps, eat nourishing foods, and drink plenty of water. Alcohol and sugar may seem like quick fixes, but they can actually have the opposite effect.
4. Think in cycles, not lines.
If you reach a point where you’re feeling good only to feel bad again, it’s not a sign that you’ve relapsed or gotten worse. It’s how grief works, and it’s actually forward movement. “People will say, ‘I was walking down the street and all of a sudden I started to cry, and yet, and I had been feeling calm,’ ” says MSK bereavement counselor Susan Glaser. “I try to reframe that. Grief is a series of loops. You can circle back to where you were some time ago.”
5. Your feelings are normal.
“The pain of grief itself is hard enough to tolerate,” says Ms. Knowles. “What can make it more challenging is when you or other people around you tell you what you should or shouldn’t do.” Allow yourself to feel whatever it is you feel: anger, sadness, even relief. The emotions that accompany grief are all valid, adds Dr. Lichtenthal. “Everyone comes to their loss experience with their own story, their own unique context and meaning,” Dr. Lichtenthal says. “Whatever they are feeling at a given moment, it always makes sense.”
6. Grief can beget meaning.
There’s no getting over the loss of a loved one. Instead, says Ms. Glaser, you can find ways to incorporate the loss into your life as you move forward. Grief is a natural response to loving someone. Though we all have past experiences that may influence how we see ourselves, grief provides an opportunity to reflect on what matters most to us.
Dr. Lichtenthal highlights the importance of connecting to what gives you a sense of meaning to help co-exist with grief. She explains that these sources of meaning are a reason to step out into life each day, despite the pain you might be experiencing. Among these touchstones might be a reflection about the person you want to be in the face of life’s challenges. Considering the choices you have in how you face suffering can be a powerful exercise.
7. You’re not alone.
At MSK, support is here for as long as you need it. “What we want people to know is that we’re still here after a loved one dies,” Dr. Lichtenthal says. MSK provides specialized care for grieving family members and friends, in both group and individual settings.