Strategies to Cope with Grief

17 tips from an expert on how to cope with the emotional and psychological reactions that you experience when grieving

A young girl looking outside from the balcony
UNICEF Armenia/2021/Galstyan
08 June 2021

1. Understand That Not Everyone Will Know How To Help You

Unfortunately, because there is a lot of misinformation out there about dealing with loss, a lot of people simply won’t know how to help you. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to get their support, just don’t be hurt or too disappointed when they are not able to give you what you need. Some of the difficulties encountered by people around you include: not knowing what to say to you, being uncomfortable discussing feelings, generally, let alone grief, feeling a need to change the subject, feeling that keeping busy is the best way to deal with your pain, feeling they can talk you out of your pain on an intellectual level, not even being able to use the word “death”, or suggesting that you need to simply keep your faith in God.


2. Take Responsibility For Your Recovery

In our society, we have come to believe that everyone else or events (outside of our control) are responsible for what we feel. We often make statements like “he made me so angry” or “I can’t believe she did that to me, she ruined my day.” The same lack of responsibility can apply to the grieving process. However, by making others responsible for our feelings, they also become responsible for ending them, making the process out of our control. Therefore, if a loss is responsible for our pain, we also feel little control over recovering from it because we have no way to replace the loss. Instead, it is essential that we take responsibility for our feelings, including the pain of a loss. Therefore, in this way, what we do to recover can make a significant difference.


3. Accept That Your Life Will Likely Change

It is important to remember that we are forever changed by the death of someone we are very close to. Our life will be forever affected, but the good news is that grief can also produce significant psychological and spiritual growth, depending on how we handle it. We can heal from the loss and the more severe pain will fade, but it will forever leave an emotional scar. Grieving is considered by many as a lifelong process. It affects your life direction and even your identity if the loss is significant. Also, in death, you develop a new type of relationship with your loved one, not based on their physical being but more on their memory and spirit.


4. Talk About How You Feel

More important than anything else when we grieve is to be able to be open about your feelings to someone else you trust and value (or more people if we can). Healing will not and cannot occur if you keep all of your feelings inside. This may be very different for anyone who is not used to talking about emotion, but is equally as beneficial. The expression just needs to be honest. Talk about what you miss, what you don’t miss, what kind of person they were, your loss of shared hopes and dreams for the future, your loneliness, anger and sadness.


5. Develop A Line Graph Of Your Significant Loss Experiences

Throughout your lifetime you have likely experienced a number of events that are considered losses. Take some time to write these out on a line that is based on the time in your life they occurred.

For example: Dog died

(1990) Moved to Edmonton

(1994) Friend died

(1998) Grandmother died

(2003) Breakup with girlfriend

(2008) Mother’s death


Once you are done the graph, take some time to think about what you learned about loss from each of the events on the graph. It might also be helpful to share this learning with a supportive friend, family member or counselor. This will help you in understanding your reactions to the most recent loss and challenge any unhelpful beliefs or misinformation you acquired.


6. Write Your Loved One A Letter

Part of the reason we can get stuck in our grief is because the relationship we had with our loved one is in some way emotionally incomplete. To try and complete the relationship, it can be very helpful to communicate unacknowledged aspects of the relationship through a letter. These might include things that we have done or said, or didn’t do or say, that we regret; those things that we need to forgive others for; and emotional statements such as “I was proud of you” or “I love you.” By expressing these kinds of statements, we can finally bring some emotional completion to the relationship. This may require really analyzing the relationship for what feels emotionally incomplete and allowing the writing of the letter to be an emotional experience, not just an intellectual exercise. The letter needs to be completely honest and written as if your loved one were still alive and available to talk to.

A schoolboy sitting on the ground, thinking.
UNICEF Armenia/2020/Galstyan

7. Participate In Grief Rituals

There are a number of rituals that can help you in the grieving process including the funeral or memorial service, wakes and prayer services. There are other more unique rituals that you may decide to develop such as visiting the cemetery or lighting candles on special days. These can all be healthy aspects of your grief. However, some rituals can be too rigid or extensive and, in fact, be unhealthy expressions of the loss, such as keeping their room exactly as it was at the time of the death. These kinds of rituals may keep you too stuck in the past and not able to engage in life in the present.


8. Find Comfort In Your Spiritual/Religious Practices

One of the great benefits of having spiritual or religious beliefs is that they can provide one with great comfort in dealing with any kind of adversity, particularly when it comes to issues such as death. Depending upon your beliefs, you may strongly feel that your loved one is going to a better place or will transcend the realities of their physical presence on earth. This could in turn mean that there is the opportunity to be reunited some day with your loved one. As well, just the acts of going to church, praying, talking to a clergy member, or meditating can provide considerable comfort in dealing with your grief.


9. Focus Your Energy On Self-Care Activities

To cope with anything that is highly emotional, particularly grief, it is essential that you focus on basic self-care activities. These include getting adequate sleep, ensuring that your diet is healthy and balanced, exercising regularly, and building fun activities into your day. When people are grieving, self-care is often neglected because people are feeling depressed and don’t have the energy or will to take care of themselves. Unfortunately, this will make your suffering even worse, since how we feel physically greatly affects how we feel emotionally.

10. Reduce Some Of Your Expectations For Yourself

After a loss, it is very helpful to re-evaluate the expectations you place on yourself, in terms of a variety of life activities. If you are working, consider reducing your work hours for awhile. If you are taking five courses, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to take four instead. If you are used to doing a lot of volunteering, maybe this semester you give yourself more time for self-care. How much you reduce your load will be a function of how much emotional distress you are experiencing. If your connection with the person you’re grieving was very limited, then you may not need this kind of accommodation.


11. Hold Off On Making Major Life Decisions Or Changes

When you’re grieving and in a lot of emotional pain, it tends to be a bad time to make major life changes or decisions. Our ability to see issues or situations clearly is often compromised, given all the potential feels, symptoms, or reactions we may be experiencing. Letting things settle down first, if possible, can avoid potential choices that you may later regret.

A young girl posing for the camera
UNICEF Armenia/2020/Grigoryan

12. Allow Yourself Any Potential Happiness

Although the overriding feeling of grief usually involves sadness, as the days, weeks and months progress, you may have moments or periods of happiness again. Don’t feel guilty when you do. You don’t need to feel bad all the time to honor the deceased. In fact, there is a very good chance that they would want you to start to enjoy life again. Returning feelings of happiness are your natural gift and indicate that you are slowly adapting to the loss in a healthy way.


13. Understand The Likely Impact Of Anniversaries, Birthdays, Holidays, and Milestones

Major events such as anniversaries, birthdays or holidays have a way of intensifying our feelings and memories of our loved ones who have died. Memories of past celebrations naturally have a way of reminding us even more vividly of what we have lost. Since these tend to be days where we have spent time in the past with our loved ones, we realize even more what we are missing and will miss in the future. Don’t be surprised if your feelings intensify and use it as an opportunity to celebrate your past connection. Maybe you need to have a ceremony or visit their grave site. Whatever you feel like you need to do that day, do it.


14. Honor Your Loved One In Some Creative Or Meaningful Way

Expressing yourself in a creative way may be a very important part of your healing journey. The type of expression this could take might vary significantly based on what you feel might be personally meaningful. It might involve creating some type of artwork, whether this be a picture or sculpture of some kind. You also might want to meet with friends and family and talk as a group about all of the positive memories you have of the deceased.


15. Spend Some Time On Your Own If You Need It

Alone time may be an essential part of your healing journey. Death has a way of getting us to reflect on all the things we know and value. It gets you to question your own mortality and sense of life meaning and life goals. This process may require some real reflection on your part, which sometimes can only be done on your own.


16. Be Patient With Your Grief

Realize that dealing with a loss is neither easy nor entirely predictable, and the length of the grieving process is hard to estimate. Depending on the many factors previously outlined in this handout, the length of the grief you experience could be weeks, months or years. Trying to speed through the process is unlikely to be helpful and may ultimately lead to unresolved grief. Know that if you allow yourself to truly feel the pain, the pain is rarely endless and its intensity will usually go down over time. Trying to avoid the pain, however, will not be a useful strategy.


17. Seek Professional Help

If your grief feels like it is just too much for you to handle, don’t be afraid to ask for some professional assistance or support. This might be through your school counselor or a psychologist. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness, and anyone can struggle with the overwhelming experience of grief.


UNICEF assessed the extent of MHPSS services in the country and is pleased to present you the list. When in doubt, make the call and find help.


This is a translation of an article that was written by Dr. Kim Maertz for Counselling & Clinical Services, University of Alberta