How to deal with grief
Words: Michael Donlevy
Psychologists recognise that people go through several stages when they’re coping with grief. They don’t always agree on the make-up, but those stages can include shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger, depression and, finally, acceptance and hope. What psychologists do tend to agree on is that some of these can be more damaging to both physical and mental health than others.
In many cases, guilt is followed by anger in people coping with grief. You might turn that anger outwards, to other people, but it can also turn inwards. ‘You can become passive-aggressive, silent and withdrawn, which can leave you disconnected and isolated,’ says John-Paul Davies, a psychotherapist and life coach. ‘Anger is a surface emotion, and beneath it there’s usually a sense of anxiety, of things not being fair, and a loss of love. It’s easy to get stuck in this phase of bereavement. At this point you need support. You also have to tell yourself it’s OK – don’t get angry at being angry. You have to have empathy for yourself.’
Enjoying life again
It’s OK to cry when you’re coping with grief. ‘For therapists, tears are movement,’ says Davies. ‘It’s good for us to see sorrow. It means you’re moving past the anger.’ Depression is a real risk, however, because you can be left with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, particularly if you’ve lost a partner. ‘In therapy, depression is sometimes labelled “anger without enthusiasm”,’ says Davies.
Physical activity can help, says Jonathan Hoban, psychotherapist and author of Walk With Your Wolf (Yellow Kite, £14.99). ‘I’ve always found walking the best way to deal with symptoms of grief, as it gives us the space and time to process our thoughts. We often feel those who’ve died walking beside us in our memories. Boxing, running and any exercise that helps channel anger also helps.’
Staying active is also important for physical wellbeing. A 2018 study at Rice University in the United States found people who had lost a spouse with ‘elevated grief symptoms’ suffered up to 17 per cent higher levels of bodily inflammation, which is linked to depression, heart attack, stroke and premature death. You really can die of a broken heart.
You also need to stop the clocks. ‘There’s no right or wrong way to grieve,’ says Hoban. ‘It takes time, so don’t shame yourself by saying, “Why aren’t I crying?” The shock, denial, anger and sadness we experience are processed over a very long period of time.’
How to start talking about your grief
Share experiences ‘If possible, speak to people who have been through it themselves,’ says Davies. ‘It can be difficult for others to understand. Many of us would rather say nothing than say the wrong thing.’
Talk to your HR department ‘If grief is affecting your work, speak to someone from HR,’ says Davies. ‘Most people will empathise with you. In my experience [people are] generally pleasantly surprised by the response they get.’
Don’t be afraid of counselling Counselling can be particularly effective if you find you’re struggling to talk about your grief with friends and family. If you’re not able to access face-to-face counselling services, you can get help online through services like betterhelp.com.