The Messy Truth About Healthy Grieving

Kayce Hodos 

Most people who walk into my office seeking help with their grief want the pain to just stop, or want to go back to feeling like themselves again. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix or one-size-fits-all timeline for grieving. My work involves a lot of reassurance that clients are not crazy; they're just grieving.

Everyone knows that losing a loved one (or losing a job, moving, having a baby, and every other major life change in between) isn’t easy, and many people have read about the stages of grief. But not everyone is aware of the fact that grieving is supposed to be a messy and confusing experience. Much of my job as a loss and grief therapist is allowing my clients to feel their emotional pain and express these complex feelings in a safe, judgment-free space.

I’d like to share five truths that everyone who’s experienced grief should keep in mind as they move through their journey:

1. There are no words that will make you feel better. So the following kinds of statements are not helpful:

  • “He or she is better off / no longer suffering / in a better place, etc.”
  • “I know how you feel.”
  • “God / the universe works in mysterious ways.”
  • “He or she wouldn't want us to be sad.”
  • “You’ll get over it.”

Instead, inform people that a more helpful thing for them to say could be, “What you are going through must be horrible, and I cannot imagine your pain. I don’t really know what to say, but please let me know if you need a shoulder to cry on or would like me to listen.” This response allows you to feel whatever you feel, and empowers you to ask for what you need.

2. You may want to just feel like the old you again, but you aren't that person anymore. Your process will involve adjusting to and redefining who you are post-loss. It’s scary to have strange, new emotions, but living your life without who or what you lost can be a major transition, so take your time. Be kind and patient with yourself.

3. Regardless of what you've heard or learned, crying does not equal weakness or abnormality. Crying (or screaming, weeping loudly, etc.) is a healthy way to express the natural emotions that accompany grief, including sadness, anger, shock, disappointment, and frustration. Let it out. And if you haven’t cried or wailed or shrieked, that’s ok, too. Your grief will look like your grief.

4. Although your employer may provide a week of bereavement leave (or - more realistically - a few days), reconciling your grief will take as long as it takes. However, it is typically helpful to get back to your usual routine in terms of work, exercise, social life, etc. Going to the gym (or doing any of your usual activities) may be the last thing you feel like doing, so you may need to push yourself a little. Try to recall the activities and people you enjoyed before your loss, and then take baby steps getting back to your routine. Maybe you used to go to yoga three days a week or run four miles a day; but now, as you move through your grief, it can feel overwhelming to jump back into the old schedule. Try taking a walk around your neighborhood, having coffee with a trusted friend, or even simply visiting the supermarket for some fresh food. It will feel strange, because it can seem like the world has moved on without you. Remember that you are moving forward, too, even though you don't see any evidence of it yet.

5. Grieving is hard work, even for people who have healthy coping skills. It’s significantly more stressful for folks who are prone to depression and anxiety, or who don’t have much family or social support. Regardless of your typical outlook, you may find that you’re more exhausted, less productive, more irritable, or less organized than usual. Think about how stress typically affects you. Grief is an intense stressor, so you will probably exhibit a more intense version of your usual stress response.

If you’re struggling to feel supported by your friends and family, or you would just like a little extra help moving forward, contact a therapist in your community. Your primary care physician can provide recommendations. And, above all, focus on taking care of yourself; no one else knows you like you do!

Kayce Hodos is a licensed professional counselor in private practice in Raleigh, NC. She specializes in loss and grief as it applies to bereavement and major life changes. You can visit her website, or follow her on Facebook and Twitter.