Navigating Loss & Grief
I’m a Christmas person, always have been. In the best years, I’m a sucker for every tacky lawn display, I start listening to carols the moment Halloween passes, and I’m not above changing my pillow covers for a more reindeer-forward look. But not every year is one of those years. I have experienced holidays after the death of a parent, a divorce, a job loss, the end of a cherished relationship, and sometimes more than one in the same season. When that happens, the holidays feel as much like a burden as a reward.
If you’re in a happy mental state when the holidays roll around, the joyful sheen on seemingly everything can expand on that happiness. But if you’re wrestling with loss, it can have the opposite effect: isolating you and even deepening your grief.
So how do you get by when “the most wonderful time of the year” isn’t at all?
Accept Grief as It Is
When my mom died, I thought I had grieved her loss and moved on by the time the first Christmas rolled around. I had stopped instinctively calling her on Saturday mornings and I hadn’t dreamed of her in months. Christmas morning came and I found myself in a fog as my daughter opened her presents. My ex-husband and I ate cinnamon rolls and played Christmas music, FaceTiming with his family. But a cloud settled over me that I couldn’t shake. Despite the cold outside, I donned my puffy coat, wrapped a scarf around my face, and headed out for a walk, leaving them both behind.
I might as well have been sleepwalking. I clearly remember the moment I realized I had walked two miles, all the way to the far end of my town, without seeing a thing. My first thoughts were confused — was I sick? What was the matter with me? It honestly took me a while to realize that I was grieving. Later, when I told this story to others who had lost their parents, none of them were surprised. Everyone had their own stories of when they just couldn’t function.
Grief takes so many forms; beyond the expected tears, it might look like spacing out, withdrawing from others, anger, lack of sleep, loss of appetite, irritability, or numbness. It can manifest in an infinite variety of behaviors, yet we still don’t always see it for what it is. Sometimes, that’s because we’re trying not to.
It may help you to realize that grief is good. Loss creates serious, powerful emotions that call for catharsis. Letting the pain flow out of you may not make it all go away but it minimizes the load you carry in your system to a level that (eventually) makes life manageable.
Don’t Put Grief on the Clock
Some people are better at acknowledging their sadness, while others try hard just keep their feelings at bay — or, failing that, to keep the mourning short. It often feels like there is a hurry-up culture around loss, as even many well-meant people urge others to “get over it” or “move on” after a certain point. But grief is a physical thing, not just a mental state; your body is going to dictate how soon (or not soon) you recover.
That’s a tough lesson to keep learning. As someone whose personal brand is optimism, I wrestle with waiting out grief, and sometimes act like it’s a moral duty to bounce back quickly from things. I tell myself I’m over a loss and that I’m back up to speed…right until a surprise wave of grief hits me. (Though, really, it shouldn’t be a surprise). I know I’m not alone in this: it’s easy to feel embarrassed for not mastering grief speedily enough — but grief has never ever been about efficiency.
That’s why one of the most important tasks may also be the hardest: letting each grief take its natural course, however long it needs, and learning to deal with the fact that life will be impacted as this all plays out. It is crucial to accept that you don’t always get to control the ebb and flow of grief. But you must allow it to play out.
To quote Robert Frost, “the best way out is through.”
Stop Making Comparisons
One of the easiest grieving pitfalls is the comparison trap. You find yourself saying “I know it could be worse” or naming the person who has had a more terrible experience/year/life than you. Here’s the thing: While it is valuable to show empathy for the suffering of others, this does not actually provide much help when it comes to facing your own grief.
Knowing that someone else has lost two loved ones while you have lost only one doesn’t change the fact that you are grieving that one. Understanding that lots of people get their hearts broken won’t keep your heart from aching at memories of the boyfriend you loved. There will always be somebody somewhere who has it worse than you — but guess what? You’re not responsible for them. Your grief is yours, as singular as your DNA.
I burst into tears while FaceTiming a friend and apologized immediately, saying I knew that there were worse situations. She raised an eyebrow and said, “Oh? So, you’re not grieving?” She said this in a way that made her point clear: I obviously was — and I needed to. The comparison game offered me nothing.
It’s not just scope that shouldn’t be compared. Don’t diminish the validity of your feelings by measuring your grief experience against how well someone else copes with loss. Your tools and resources are your own; seek out the coping and healing strategies that work for you, while letting other people deal in their way.
Give Grief its Own Space
Grief can be disruptive in opposing ways: you can let it consume too much of your time and energy, or you can bottle it up so continually that eventually something breaks, creating new problems. One strategy for dealing with both scenarios is to allow specific space for grief.
What might that look like? If there are times of day or certain activities that you know are likely to tap into your loss, dedicate those times to fully having your feelings instead of avoiding them. Or choose a time of day when you’re away from work and when no one else (say, kids or family members) is depending on you; use that window of time to let yourself have a good cry. If you have a friend who has offered to listen, take them up on it, and let all the messy, wet emotions fly. Set aside a half hour of private time — perhaps in bed or on a walk — to think about not just the loss but your grief itself, meditating on where you’re at and how you’re doing.
Knowing that you have a dedicated outlet can make it easier to be present in other parts of your life. When it feels like a struggle to focus fully on tasks at hand, remind yourself that you have made space for grief later. To help stay on task, I have a mantra I use when my mind won’t stop spinning over something lost: “[x] can’t have this moment” (filling in the blank with whatever it is I’m brooding about). I say this to myself and cut off the spiral of internal dialogue, forcing me to redirect my mental energy to something else.
This technique allows you name the loss but also serves a reminder that it can wait for a little bit. Grief doesn’t need to occupy every moment, nor does it need to disappear instantly.
Frame Grief as Gratitude
This year, I’m mourning a couple of things at once, and what I keep coming back to is how much my grieving reflects the value of what was lost. It seems counterintuitive, right? If you lose something, why feel grateful?
Being grateful for the time before loss helps protect the worth of those experiences. You don’t want to let the loss so color everything that it drains the joy even from happy memories and tarnishes your recollections of something once good. That’s often true in relationship loss, where its easy to start backdating failures, but it can also happen with the death of a loved one, especially if there are lingering regrets or if shame is involved.
On the flip side, grief often doesn’t diminish past memories; it heightens them, perhaps even embellishing upon the truth. The grief may feel more profound because you know what you’ve lost and can’t imagine living in the space of that absence. It’s hard to feel grateful in such a void.
In either situation, the goal of gratitude is to separate out past experience from present feelings. You need to remind yourself that the original experiences happened and are worth your gratitude. Whatever was good, whatever brought you joy — let those things stand on their own. Honor them by remembering what they meant to you in their own time, not just in retrospect. The goal is to preserve them as whole and complete as they happened; this saves them in your memory bank like a fund of gratitude from which to draw upon in the future.
Think of it this way: If you had an experience worth grieving, it is also worth being grateful for.
Allow Yourself Joy
One of the best things you can do when grieving is to embrace moments that feel good (or even just ok). But that can be hard.
It’s easy to keep your grief too close to you, to make the grief everything for a while, as a way of honoring the past and keeping it alive. You may find yourself saying things like “how can I be happy when this has happened?” or feeling disloyal to someone you’ve lost if you let yourself have fun. Both impulses are understandable and yet they limit you.
Any moment of delight, normalcy, or calm is a moment closer to surviving loss and being on the other side. Having a good laugh doesn’t mean all tears are over; going to a movie or having a nice dinner doesn’t mean life is back to normal. They are simply ways to feel more alive, to keep going even in the face of sad days.
You need these moments and, when you have them, you should take time to acknowledge their goodness. Name the feeling to yourself: It felt good to laugh. It was great to see my friends. I relaxed for a while. These affirmations are talismans of your journey toward the future.
Give Yourself the Gift of Vision
One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself in dark times is the notion of a future that is not so dark. Actively imagine what a happier you would look like. Picture yourself as joyful, busy, active, fulfilled, loved — whatever is missing now. Envision yourself far enough away from this moment that no outward signs of grief are visible.
You don’t need to have a plan to get there. You don’t have to know what it will take to become the you of your vision. You need only to allow yourself to see it — to trust that it can be possible.
This is not about filling a void with something/someone else, nor is about returning to the person you used to be before the loss. It’s about opening your heart to a new future that looks different and still hopeful. It’s about saying, “My life has happy days ahead” and letting your body lean toward those days.
Previously Published on Medium