How to grieve a death or other loss

I am writing this article because I have found many folks would benefit from learning a bit more about how to cope with a significant loss in their lives. I’ll start by telling you something you may not know.

Men, generally speaking, favor what’s called instrumental grieving, which means grieving cognitively or physically. They tend to go inward by reflecting, thinking about all aspects of the loss, and attempt to problem-solve to adapt to the new normal. They may also grieve behaviorally such as planting a tree or building something to memorialize the deceased, etc.

Women generally favor what’s called intuitive grieving, in other words by feeling waves of emotion: they explore and process their feelings, working through them much more like an “open book.” Intuitive grievers are typically good candidates for support groups.

However research clearly shows just the opposite: men respond much better to intuitive, emotional ways of mourning and women respond much better to instrumental, problem-solving interventions. So the way men and women tend to want to mourn are often the opposite of the way that would serve them best!

How we cope is important. Coping is what we do with a problem to bring about relief and resolution. Drawing upon William Worden’s work I will break down coping for loss into two categories:  Active and Avoidant emotional coping.

Active coping is the most effective set of strategies for handling problems and managing stress. What are some of these strategies?

    • Redefinition is at the top of the list. This is the ability to find something positive or redemptive in a bad situation. In multiple studies, those who are able to reframe problems and fine something positive are those who have the least emotional distress
    • Humor is very effective. Using humor requires an amount of distancing from the problem that is especially helpful in the short-term
    • Venting of emotions can be useful. However, venting is best when it involves positive as well as negative feelings and isn’t the kind that blows others out the door
    • The ability to accept support is very important. Accepting the support of others is a choice of the mourner that may enhance feelings of power and strength, as well as esteem
    • Grief journaling is a powerful tool I recommend to everyone. I have written an entire article on it

Avoidant emotional coping is probably the least effective strategy for coping with grief. It might possibly make someone feel better in the short-term, but is not really effective at solving problems. Avoidant coping includes:

    • Blame, both self and others
    • Distraction:  useful in the short-term, but not if it persists
    • Denial
    • Social withdrawal
    • Substance use and abuse

It’s important to know that you can modify how you cope! It will likely take support from others, or perhaps even a professional, but you can be in control of how you cope with losses, even powerful ones.

If you have lost someone it’s very likely you will complete the mourning process on your own, given time. However using your time actively coping will result in less stress, and possibly a quicker resolution. If however, the person you’ve lost also was abusive in some way or the death was particularly traumatic, it may result in what we call “complicated grief” or “prolonged grief.” In these cases it is a good idea to seek out professional help, such as a certified grief counselor.


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