Grief can affect us at any time in our lives, often without warning. And with the holiday season on the horizon, feelings of loss are often intensified as the holidays serve as a reminder of happier times. Ahead of National Grief Awareness Week (2nd–8th December), British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) members share their best strategies for coping with grief and how to help others who are grieving.
“Loss comes in many forms,” says BACP-registered psychotherapist and counsellor Baljit Kamal. “People deal with grief over setbacks in life, such as the end of a friendship, romantic relationship, a home, employment, or the diagnosis of an illness. But for many of us, the most profound and intense grief we will ever experience is the death of a loved one.”
Baljit also explains that the intense emotions experienced in grief can change from minute to minute.
“For many people, it can feel like an emotional roller coaster where you might find yourself laughing at a fond memory and crying the next. You may also find that you struggle with day-to-day activities or attending social events,” says Baljit. “Another important factor to take into consideration is the source of death, as this will have a huge impact on what your grief journey will look like. For instance, if it was related to a sudden or unexpected event.”
Here, BACP members offer their top nine ways to cope with grief and loss:
1. Accept that there is no right or wrong way to grieve
“There is no right or wrong way to grieve a loss; every individual processes grief and loss differently,” says BACP-accredited psychotherapist Bhavna Raithatha. “Some may feel crushed, others may feel neutral, yet others may feel a sense of relief, especially if they had a difficult relationship with the deceased, such as an abuser.
“Other people may feel numb for a period of time, and this is natural as it is the mind’s way of protecting us and allowing us to deal with the practicalities of organising a funeral, etc. It is normal for grief work to begin months or years after a death or loss. There is no prescribed way to feel or react to a loss; everyone deals with death differently.”
2. Take your time
“Remember that grief is a process. Losing someone is difficult, regardless of our relationship with them. How they died will affect how we feel and respond,” continues Bhavna. “It is normal to want to “do” something to take back a sense of control. But it’s important to use this time to nurture yourself. It is absolutely OK if, on some days, all you can do is get out of bed and make a cup of tea.”
“Grief does not always unfold in an orderly, predictable stage, nor is there any time frame,” adds Baljit. “You cannot force a sprained hand to heal faster than it needs to, and the same applies to emotional healing. Practice self-compassion as you navigate your way through your grief journey.”
3. Basic self-care
“Dealing with grief can have a significant impact on your emotional and physical health,” says Baljit. “Be as consistent as possible in maintaining fundamental health routines, such as eating, drinking, and resting. You may also find it helps to walk in nature, spend time with pets or animals, or explore something creative.”
4. Practise mindfulness
“It helps to be mindful about how you feel,” says Bhavna. “For example, if you are feeling more frustrated, angry, tearful, lost, numb, and overwhelmed, recognise this and don’t make any major decisions, such as buying a house or getting into a new relationship. Wait for a little while until your feelings have settled down.”
“Every thought that you have has a physical component, and every physical signal will give you a thought,” adds Baljit. “Grief feels like fear, making us anxious. It sends your system into high alert. So, anything that you can do to balance and regulate your nervous system will help you in your healing process.”
5. Stay connected
“It’s imperative to stay connected when you’re coping with grief, as isolation can make the grieving process much harder to process,” continues Baljit. “It can be comforting to share stories and memories with someone you trust and who is a good support system.”
“Staying connected can be incredibly hard for the bereaved”, adds Bhavna. “Many people find reaching out for support overwhelming because they are exhausted from the shock of grief. If you’re not ready for company just yet, try journaling about your feelings or writing to the loved one you’ve lost. This can be very helpful in releasing thoughts and feelings you may not be able to share with anyone else yet.”
6. Acknowledge and remember
“Most cultures have ceremonies and gatherings where family and communities meet to acknowledge the loss, share memories, and support each other,” says Baljit. “Some families make an altar or develop symbolic ways to acknowledge the loss. Others may keep mementos such as photographs, memory boxes, and jewellery. Whatever you decide to do, it is important that this holds relevance and meaning for you.”
7. Accept change
“Bereavement almost always brings lots of changes to your life,” says Baljit. “One significant change is the shift within the family structure. Remember to be patient as you navigate through these changes and adaptations.”
8. Be informed
“Grief education will help you understand what to expect in your grief journey,” continues Baljit. “Being informed can help you prepare for physical and cognitive symptoms such as poor concentration and fatigue. The more you understand the processes of grieving, the less daunting this can be.”
9. Seek professional support
“Many people struggle with complex emotional tasks such as talking to children about death or caregiving while juggling endless tasks,” continues Baljit. “This can be a very dark and lonely place, so some people find that joining a local bereavement support group offers a great source of support. Others find solace in seeking the support of a professional therapist to talk through their feelings.”
When someone you care about is grieving after a loss, it can also be difficult to know how to console them.
“You do not need to have answers or give advice,” says Baljit Kamal. “The most important thing you can offer a grieving person is your genuine and caring approach.”
Here are BACP therapists’ top tips to help others who are grieving:
1. Check in with them
“People are often unsure what to say to a bereaved person and sometimes stay away in order to avoid any awkwardness,” says Bhavna. “This can actually increase a sense of loss and isolation, especially among older people.
“It’s important to check in with them. Simply ask how they are, make them a sandwich, help them with chores, or offer to do their shopping. Grieving people are often overwhelmed, so lightening their burden can help them more than you’d imagine.”
2. Be willing to sit in silence
“The society we live in is so virtually connected but so socially disconnected from one another,” says Baljit. “Often, comfort for the bereaved comes from simply being in your company. This can be as simple as eye contact, a reassuring hug, or sitting in solidarity.”
“It’s OK to just sit together and not say anything,” adds Bhavna. “Although this may feel awkward at first, it is very normal and often exactly what they need.”
3. Switch up the conversation
“You don’t have to talk about death all the time,” continues Bhavna. “It’s OK to talk about the weather or watch some TV together. Light-hearted conversation helps the bereaved feel normal.”
4. Listen compassionately
“A sympathetic ear is a wonderful gift,” says Baljit. “The bereaved need to feel that their loss is acknowledged and heard. Often, people work through grief by telling their story over and over again, and this may mean listening even when the same story is told with little variation.”
5. Stay in touch
“You don’t “get over” the death of a loved one,” adds Baljit. “The pain may lessen in intensity over time, but the sadness may never completely go away. The bereaved may need you more after the first few weeks and months, when others may stop calling. If it helps, put reminders on your calendar. Most bereaved people find it difficult to reach out and need others to take the initiative.”
6. Consider individual circumstances
“Grief is universal; however, different cultures have different traditions,” says Baljit. “Consider personal circumstances that might affect the grief journey, such as their relationship with the deceased, any health conditions they might have, or are they neurodiverse or from a marginalised group? Does this restrict their access to support?”
“Death is a very normal part of life. The important thing to remember is that how we respond to grief is a very personal matter regardless of customs and rules, and people should deal with grief in whatever way feels appropriate as long as they are not at risk of harm to themselves or others,” says Bhavna.
“Different cultures deal with grief differently, so it is important to be mindful of this, as friends and colleagues may need more space or be unavailable for a period of time because of family demands on their time. If in doubt, ask them how they could best be supported.”
7. Acknowledge milestone events
“Certain times and days of the year will be particularly hard,” says Baljit. “Holidays, family milestones, birthdays, and anniversaries often reawaken grief. Be sensitive on these occasions, and ask them what they plan to do on these days. Let them know that you’re there, and be realistic about what type of support you can offer.”