Finding a Way to Cope with Grief: Experts Weigh In

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Coping with grief is a process
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We all have our own ways of coping with grief — some mostly healthy, others less so. In that emotionally compromised state it can be challenging to discern which coping mechanisms will help you heal and which will only prolong the pain, so we reached out to two experts who are well-equipped to help guide us through this journey together.

Seeking therapy

According to Paula M. Peterson, a licensed clinical social worker and family therapist, grief therapy is a helpful tool when introduced at the right time. “It usually is recommended in three to six months when a griever is able to ‘hear’ and absorb the suggestions or ideas,” she says. “Concentration is not easy — just as reading, remembering will pretty much go out the window the first couple of months.”

Marisa Striano, certified Equus life coach and grief counselor, adds that if you do begin therapy, consider group therapy as a viable option. “Group therapy is the best way through grief,” she says. “Grief can be very isolating, and grievers need to stay with people who understand what they are going through.”

Asking loved ones for advice

This coping strategy sounds great on paper, but there are some issues worth keeping in mind. Peterson’s concern is that advice from friends and family tends to build up into a daunting to-do list. “The best help is if the griever can talk and spit it all out, and that can take many times of getting together and repeating and repeating,” she explains. “A good family member or friend is a patient listener without giving advice.”

Striano echoes that advice from loved ones is often both given and received differently than from strangers, which is one of the reasons she’s a proponent of group therapy. “It is better to find advice in a group of people who understand your grief but do not know you personally,” she notes.

Distancing yourself from loved ones & work

On the flip side of the last coping mechanism, this one is often portrayed negatively, but putting a little space between yourself and outside distractors can be incredibly helpful under the right circumstances. “If it feels ‘too much,’ excuse yourself,” Peterson states. “Of course, we have to work, but we need time alone to allow feelings to come out, and the work space is often not conducive for that. It is hard to compartmentalize emotions from one place to another.”

Striano agrees that if you feel you need a little space, you should take it, but she warns that we must be wary of the temptation to distance ourselves too much or too long.  “It is tricky,” she says, “because they can end up isolating themselves which is never good when in grief.

Stocking up on your favorite comfort food

While Striano says that self-soothing with something like ice cream is a good idea, it may be wise to limit yourself to a single container, as Peterson finds that, “Food is not helpful — it is only a distractor and only satisfies for a short period of time.” She also notes that those who grieve experience a loss of appetite known as the “death diet,” so perhaps if you are craving something, you should indulge just a little.

Searching for medical grief remedies

According to Peterson, “If a griever is really depressed, an antidepressant can help and get someone over the edge. However, it is not the answer, only a tool.” It should be noted that antidepressants must be prescribed by a doctor, and Striano warns against any over-the-counter medicines claiming to remedy grief symptoms.

Getting a gym membership

You might want to hold off on purchasing a new gym membership as a way of making yourself feel “normal” again, as Peterson points out that, “The most one can do regarding exercise is walking, and if the person is an out-and-out athlete, the endorphins will boost the mood.” So unless you’re sure you can make full use of the gym, just go for a walk. “It’s about balance between taking care of oneself in a sensible way,” she adds. Striano concurs that getting into focus on your body is a great way to get out of your own head.

Pouring yourself into a hobby

It’s not a good idea to rush to a distraction before you’ve processed the feelings surrounding your grief. “Hobbies are fine but later on when one can focus better,” Peterson says. Once you’re in that later stage, Striano adds, “If this makes (you) feel better, then yes,” go learn to weave baskets or collect vintage stamps or what have you!

Bingeing sad/emotional media

While it’s not ideal to avoid dealing with your feelings when grieving, it also may not be wise to try forcing it with sad movies or music. “Balance, balance, balance — (even) laughter can resort to tears when one is very emotional,” Peterson explains.

The way Striano sees it, using media to trigger an emotional response works as a last resort. “Sometimes grief can be a handbag, and we can carry it with us for the day,” she explains. “Sometimes it feels like luggage with wheels, it is cumbersome but manageable. Then there are the days when grief feels like a steamer trunk that is so heavy it cannot be moved. That is when bingeing movies that make you cry is helpful.”

Adopting a pet or buying something frivolous

Striano wisely believes that a little retail therapy is good “only if this doesn’t harm (you) financially.” As for adopting a new pet, she’s much more on-board, “Puppies are pure joy and unconditionally loving! Also, the griever can take care of a soul that needs them. Puppies do not judge and they are great for drying tears.”

Peterson holds a more critical view of each of these coping strategies. “Adopting a pet or buying something frivolous and fun is a bandaid,” she warns. “One needs to go through the pain of grieving, not jump over it. That takes time and care of oneself.”

Creating a to-do list toward recovery

While healing does take place throughout the grieving process, Striano is quick to note that there is unfortunately no such thing as full grief recovery. “Grief recovery doesn’t exist. Coping through grief is the language that is used,” she says. “Grief stays for the duration of the surviving person’s life. Grievers carry their loss with them every day no matter how long ago they lost someone.”

As for assembling a to-do list, Peterson says, “Writing a to-do list will be helpful when memory is not serving the griever and life feels confusing.” She adds, “The most important thing to do is be kind and caring to yourself and share with safe, loving listeners. This is important work and needs to be done, not just passed over.” 

Those seeking grief support can look to East End organizations such as the Northwell Health Hospice Care Network (hospicecarenetwork.org), Cope Foundation (copefoundation.org), East End Hospice (eeh.org), The Neighborhood House (tnh-hope.org) and Marisa’s (marisastriano.com).

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