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When someone we love dies, experiencing feelings of sadness, anger, confusion, regret, guilt and sometimes even relief, is common and natural. The Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) curriculum adds that bereavement grief, which occurs with the death of a loved one, can have some of the same symptoms as major depression, like intense sadness and withdrawal from daily activities.

We all experience loss, and learning how to process that loss is a vital component to fostering resilience and overcoming adversity. According to the American Psychological Association, most people can recover from loss on their own over time with the help of social supports and healthy habits, and feelings of sadness typically become less intense as time passes.

However, the grieving process is unique to everyone, and while some may prefer to process grief individually, others benefit from family support or professional help. As a First Aider, it’s important to meet people where they’re at and respect their individual needs. Here are a few ways to help yourself or a loved one process grief.

Individually

The stress of a major loss can deplete your energy and emotional reserves quickly. While it may be tempting to suppress negative feelings, according to Help Guide, you have to acknowledge the pain in order to heal. In fact, avoiding feelings of sadness can prolong the grieving process and lead to other challenges like depression, anxiety or substance use. One way to do this may be to partake in a private mourning ritual, which unlike public rituals such as memorial services, are personal and speak only to you. If you’re not sure how to begin, try these suggestions from Healthline.com.

Self-care is also crucial to the grieving process, especially if you prefer to be alone. Consider these self-care ideas to get started:

  •     • Stick to a daily routine.
  •     • Exercise regularly.
  •     • Eat well.
  •     • Restrict or avoid alcohol.
  •     • Practice mindfulness meditation.
  •     • Try to maintain the hobbies and activities that bring you joy.
  •     • Express your feelings (e.g., talk about them with a loved one, write them down in a journal, or volunteer for a cause related to your loss).

Mayo Clinic also recommends planning ahead for special dates. Holidays, anniversaries and special occasions can be painful reminders of your loved one. Find new ways to celebrate, positively reminisce or acknowledge your loved one that provide you comfort and hope.

With the support of others

The MHFA curriculum tells us that strong relationships and social networks support recovery. To process grief with the help of others, consider these outlets:

  •     • Join a support group. Knowing that you are not alone in a struggle and that other people have felt the same way can make a tremendous difference in your healing journey.
  •     • Tap into your faith community. Religious and spiritual practices can serve as important protective factors. If you follow faith-based practices or traditions, you may find comfort in times of loss by reaching out to a spiritual leader for guidance.
  •     • Socialize. Try to stay connected with people you enjoy being around, as they can offer valuable support. Often, people want to help but don’t know how, so don’t be afraid to tell them what you need and never underestimate the power of laughing with a close friend or loved one.

When grieving someone who died by suicide, be mindful and respectful with your language and encourage those around you to do the same. Use this chart from MHFA for guidance.

With professional support

Therapy for grief, or grief counseling, helps individuals process and cope with loss. A mental health professional can help you process the feelings you’re experiencing at your own pace and learn new ways to cope in a safe space. Most therapists offer grief counseling and often use approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which challenges negative thought patterns, or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), which helps you stay focused on the present moment and accept thoughts and feelings without judgment.

Professional support may be particularly helpful when it comes to dealing with complicated grief or prolonged grief disorder, which is when the pain of a loss is more intense or lasts longer than a culture may consider typical. A person experiencing complicated grief may feel their loss constantly and be unable to resume daily life and relationships.

If you or a loved one wants to seek professional help, here’s a guide from MHFA on how to start the process.

Grieving the loss of a loved one takes time, but research shows that it can also be the catalyst for a renewed sense of meaning that offers purpose and direction to life.

While you may have heard of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief model, research suggests that most people do not go through these stages as progressive steps, so don’t get discouraged if your journey looks different. Each person processes grief differently — try to give yourself grace and remember that healing is not linear. Your progress still matters, and it deserves to be celebrated.

You can #BeTheDifference in someone’s healing journey by getting certified in Mental Health First Aid and learning to recognize and respond to signs and symptoms of a mental health challenge or crisis. Find an upcoming course today!

References

Holland, K. (2022, June 27). The stages of grief: What do you need to know? Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/stages-of-grief.

Lindberg, S. (2022, Oct. 16). Understanding therapy for grief and how it can help. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/therapy-for-grief.

Mayo Clinic. (2021, June 19). Complicated grief. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/complicated-grief/symptoms-causes/syc-20360374.

Mental Health First Aid. (2020). Mental Health First Aid USA. National Council for Behavioral Health d/b/a National Council for Mental Wellbeing.

Nordal, K. C. (2020, Jan. 1). Grief: Coping with the loss of your loved one. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/families/grief.

Psychology Today. (2022, March 21). Acceptance and commitment therapy. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapy-types/acceptance-and-commitment-therapy.

Psychology Today. (n.d.). Cognitive behavioral therapy. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/cognitive-behavioral-therapy.

Sauteraud, A. (2018, June). The “stages of grief” do not exist. Journal de Thérapie Comportementale et Cognitive. 28(2), 93-95. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jtcc.2018.02.001.

Slugocki, L. A. (2019, April 18). I don’t need to cry in public to prove my grief — private rituals are just as powerful. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/if-you-grieve-in-private-science-says-youre-doing-it-right.

Smith, M., Robinson, L., & Segal, J. (2022, Oct. 7). Coping with grief and loss. HelpGuide. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/grief/coping-with-grief-and-loss.htm.

Villines, Z. (2022, Feb. 17). Complicated grief and prolonged grief disorder. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/complicated-grief.

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