Understanding how to cope with the grief that occurs when a loved one passes away can be a challenging time for family and friends. It is natural to experience pain, anger and frustration. The overwhelming types of emotions encountered after a death may be difficult to process. As a result, it is common to seek strategies and outlets for coping with grief.

Learning to cope with loss is personal. Sorting through the feelings can be a very slow process. It may feel as if the sadness will never go away. There are certain processes that we go through in order to better cope with the death of a loved one. It is common to seek the assistance and guidance of individuals or organizations that can help us form coping strategies.

Coping Strategies Help Us Process Feelings

Grief is an expected reaction to loss. The more important the relationship with the person, the more intense the grief will be. Learning to cope with the grief usually involves a conscious effort to work through the personal loss and to minimize the effect of stress on our bodies. The strategies that we use to succeed in this process are called coping mechanisms.

There are both positive and negative strategies for coping with grief. Negative strategies would include many forms of denial, escape, or avoidance. The positive strategies can include proactive anticipation, supporting of friends and loved ones, and keeping healthy. Even the use of humor can be a positive mechanism for maneuvering through painful situations.

Strategies usually are formed to either address the problem (lack of energy, loss of concentration, loss of weight) or the emotion (moodiness, anger, blame).
Those who attempt to handle the problem usually follow a problem-solving approach:

  • analyze the problem
  • determine a desired solution to the problem
  • apply what is already known to the new problem
  • seek the advice and counsel from those who have been through the problem
  • create manageable steps to reach the solution
  • evaluate progress

Strategies that focus on handling the emotions that come as a result of grief try to make the results of the emotion as clear as possible and then determine a logical strategy for redirecting the emotion.
Those who prefer handling problems by addressing their emotions often follow this strategy:

  • define the emotion felt (“I feel angry because of the loss of my father.”)
  • crystalize the behavior identified with the emotion (“When I am angry, I lose my temper, I argue with people, and I yell.”)
  • identify the people to whom the behavior is focused (“When I lose my temper, it is often with the children. When I argue it is with anyone who disagrees with me. When I yell it is most often with my spouse.”)
  • point out the trigger that kicks the behavior into gear (“I lose my temper with the children when they say something that makes me feel disrespected.”)
  • clarify the desired behavior (“Instead of losing my temper, I want to calmly talk to them about what I want them to do.”)
  • select an accountability partner (“I want my wife to help me by watching how I respond and suggesting ways that I could better deal with the children.”)

Five Strategies to Make Coping Effective and Efficient

  1. Be positive. Understand that grieving is a process. Attitude can often change the outcome of the daily struggles. Remember that the feelings will not last forever.
  2. Communicate. A natural tendency for many is to keep the feelings and frustrations bottled up. Find a trusted family member or friend and share your emotions and struggles on a regular basis.
  3. Develop a regiment of self-control and discipline. When we are struggling with feelings and emotions on the inside, it is easy to neglect the physical things on the outside. Discipline yourself to get plenty of sleep. Physicians still stress that most adults need at least seven hours of sleep a night. Assure that rest can happen by allowing time before bed to slow down or eliminate harsh stimulation. Listen to soothing music instead of watching television. Map out a healthy exercise routine. Even daily walks around the parking lot at work or taking the stairs instead of the elevator is a start that will help increase the body’s metabolism and adrenaline. Plan for your meals to be healthier. Fast food, fatty foods and highly processed foods take a toll on both your physical and emotional strength. Make a point to fix more meals at home and eat more vegetables and fruits.
  4. Make connections with people. A key to progressing through grief is the social support network of family and friends that we cultivate. Do not allow yourself to burrow into your home for more than one day at a time. Find ways to connect with people, even in a superficial way.
  5. Deal effectively with both mistakes and successes. Learn from your mistakes and figure out ways to apply them to future decisions. Celebrate your successes in order to build your confidence and motivation.

Special Circumstances Present More Challenges in Learning to Cope

Sometimes coping strategies are altered when the circumstances of the death are unique. Grieving the loss of someone who dies peacefully from natural causes is different than the loss of someone who has had a long, painful illness. The suffering touches not only the individual, but all the family who provide daily support.

The loss of a life because of a suicide causes intense grief, but often guilt and unanswered questions. Death during a holiday season can cause an annual vivid reminder of the absence of the loved one at family gatherings. A sudden, unexpected loss causes different challenges than the loss following a long-term illness.

Losing a child creates a myriad of special circumstances which need to be processed. Unfulfilled hopes and dreams fall upon the parent who always expected that their child would outlive them. A stillbirth or a miscarriage creates different kinds of grief and poses even more challenges to find successful coping strategies.

Ultimately grief is a process which works differently for every individual. When strategies to assist that process of learning to cope can be found, the bereaved may find hope and strength to return to a more normal, happier life.