How to deal with strong feelings of grief

There are many kinds of losses. There are the ones that are heartbreaking, such as losing a loved one. Or the ones that affect your daily way of life, such as losing independence and health. The types of losses may be different, but the emotions surrounding all of them can be intense.

Grief is the name we give to those feelings of loss. “I like to think of grief as love with nowhere to go,” says Holly Schiff, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Greenwich, Connecticut, who specializes in grief. “It’s a normal response and natural reaction to a major loss.”

Grief is complicated though. There are many other feelings and reactions that can come into play. It can include anguish over the death of a loved one. Or grief may involve remorse or regret for something you’ve done — or haven’t done.1

Whatever the reason for the grief, getting through those intense feelings is possible. Here are some healthy ways to cope with a loss and get to a place of healing.

Recognize the symptoms of grieving

People experience grief differently. But some of the more common feelings and symptoms include:2

  • Emotional numbness

  • Anxiety

  • Sadness

  • Anger

  • Loss of appetite

  • Exhaustion

  • Guilt

  • Shock

  • Denial

  • Loss of sleep or sleeping too much

Expect to go through stages

Grief may come in stages, and each stage brings up different emotions. Recognizing this and allowing yourself to experience emotions as they arise is key for healing, Schiff explains.

There are 5 classic stages of grief:3

  • Denial. This is when people refuse to believe or avoid discussing the loss, to cope with the shock. “Because you’re living in a ‘preferable’ reality rather than actual reality, denial is the stage that initially helps us survive the loss,” says Schiff.
  • Anger. Once denial fades, feeling mad is often next. People may lash out at close friends and family and look to blame others. “Anger is a necessary stage of grief, so it’s important you truly feel it,” Schiff says. So try not to shield yourself from these angry feelings, but accept them as part of the grieving process. 
  • Bargaining. People may make deals with themselves or a higher power as a way to control grief or try to get their life back to how it was, explains Schiff. For instance, you might keep going over what you could have done differently to prevent a parent’s illness. They may also feel guilty and hold themselves responsible, Schiff adds.
  • Depression. This can hit when people start facing the reality of the loss. They may be so sad that they don’t feel like getting out of bed, Schiff notes. They may withdraw from friends and family.
  • Acceptance. This doesn’t mean being okay with what happened, says Schiff. Instead, it’s when people eventually learn to live with the loss they’ve experienced. “In this stage, your emotions will begin to stabilize, and you may find you are able to come to terms with your new reality,” Schiff says. Just be aware, that not everyone reaches this stage, and that’s okay.

These stages are fluid. Not everyone goes through all of them — or in that order. People may skip one stage and get stuck on another. Or they may circle back to a stage once they hit acceptance. All of this is a natural part of the grieving process that many people go through.3

Reach out for support

“Grief is a powerful and common human experience that is often misunderstood,” says Elizabeth Uslander, M.S.W., M.T.S., co-founder of Empowered Endings, which offers grief counseling in San Diego. Because it’s such a painful, confusing time, there’s no need to go through grief alone, she says.

There are many people to turn to for help, including friends and family. Or reach out to grief support groups, in person and online. There are also grief counselors who can help with difficult emotions or support you in feeling less alone as you move through it, suggests Uslander.   

Have a coping plan

Grief can come in waves. And it can be triggered when people are in settings such as work or a social gathering. So, what’s the best way to deal with those feelings?

If it’s helpful, step away. Support yourself however you need to in the moment — whether it’s crying, talking to someone or doing some deep breathing, says Uslander. Or head outside and go for a walk, suggest Schiff.

The important thing is to let out feelings in a healthy way, says Uslander. It may help to share stories with a group or a friend. If a person is more private, they can try journaling or drawing, even if they haven’t done either for years (or ever). Other ideas include:

  • Taking photos
  • Picking up knitting
  • Listening to music
  • Getting physically active
  • Praying
  • Meditating

Practice self-care

Self-care is often the last thing on a person’s mind when they feel sad. But it may help make the grieving process easier, Schiff explains. Since self-care is different for everyone, choose to  do what sounds most appealing. That could be anything from taking up a new hobby or enrolling in a cooking class, or just simply finding time to prop your feet up and get lost in a good book.

Expect things to get better

Grief may eventually get less intense with the passage of time. For most people, that takes anywhere from months to a couple of years.2 Just remember,  powerful feelings can come and go. Sometimes there may be a trigger, such as an anniversary. But other times, it can show up as feeling sad or blue for no apparent reason.

If grief feels all-consuming or you can’t get through the day, reach out to a therapist. It can seem hard to believe at first, but it’s possible to  learn how to work through the pain of  grief and find ways to experience joy again.

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