Grieving after the loss of a loved one doesn’t necessarily follow a set timetable. But even so, you may feel that your grief isn’t getting any easier to handle.

It may help to understand how variable the grieving process can be and when it might be time to consider grief counseling, says Mary-Frances O’Connor, PhD, of the Grief, Loss and Social Stress (GLASS) Lab at University of Arizona.

Know that your brain needs time to process the loss. To know how to cope with loss, you first have to understand bonding.

Example: When you fall in love with the person who will become your life partner, a bond is encoded in your brain. Part of that bond is, I will always be there for you, and you will always be there for me. That belief, which is so important when the person is living, gets in the way of accepting that he/she is really gone.

While your loved one isn’t physically present anymore, your brain still maintains that attachment to him/her, perhaps even leading you to think that you see your loved one in a crowd or pick up the phone to call him before remembering that you can’t.


Not everyone goes through every stage of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. And even those who do may not go through them at the same pace or in the same order.


You’re not going crazy—it’s just that your brain is still adapting. And you won’t feel this way forever. Over time, the brain can create new pathways to learn what life is like after experiencing a loss.

Put the “five stages of grief” in perspective. Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was the first to identify that grief is more than just sadness. It also includes denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But over time, Kübler-Ross’s stages came to be used like a prescription to get through grief, leaving some people feeling as though they are not grieving properly or that they aren’t done grieving unless they have gone through all the stages. We now know that not everyone goes through every stage or goes through them in a straight line.

Make the distinction between grief and grieving. Grief happens in the moment, that wave of emotions that we experience as the loss occurs.

Grieving is the way grief changes over time, becoming less intense, less frequent, more familiar—you never “get over it,” but you can embrace grieving and not be overwhelmed by it. Over time, we get better at comforting ourselves and better at understanding how this loss fits into the story of our life. It becomes one part of your whole landscape instead of the focal point…just one of all the human emotions that we have, including the positive ones.

Create a toolkit of coping strategies. Some days you might just want to hide away, look at photos of your loved one and not talk to anyone—and that is okay.

It’s also perfectly appropriate to practice avoidance on occasion and think, For the next 45 minutes, I’m going to pretend this hasn’t happened and focus on cheering at my granddaughter’s soccer game or presenting my annual budget at the office meeting. But the trouble comes if ignoring your feelings is your only coping mechanism.

Other times, it can help to go out with friends or express your grief through journaling, art or another creative outlet. Because grieving is physically stressful—your heart rate and blood pressure go up, and stress hormones kick in—using stress-­management techniques also is a good strategy. Practice meditation, go for a run, have a massage or take a soothing bath.

Tap into support. Most cities have grief support groups of one type or another. Look into a local nonprofit hospice organization—they tend to provide support not only for families of people who died in hospice but also for those within the greater community.

Respond to signs that you might need professional help. These signs include feeling grief that keeps you from having other enjoyable parts of your life or that gets in the way of work, spending time with your family or being creative. Getting help is a very individual decision, but there are red flags that mean you need it now—if you feel that life is not worth living…are thinking of harming yourself…or rely on substances to get through the day. Avoiding conversations about your loved one or taking a circuitous route to avoid driving past the hospital where he/she died are more subtle signs that you haven’t yet incorporated what has happened into your ongoing life and may need assistance from a therapist to do so.

Unending Grief

If you don’t feel that grieving is getting any easier over time and it has been more than a year since the loss, you may have a condition called prolonged grief. This is when you aren’t adjusting to the acute feelings of grief…have an intense yearning for the person, feelings of anger or bitterness…or simply can’t believe the loss happened.

Columbia University, a pioneer in the development of treatment of prolonged grief, has a resource page at where you can take a self-assessment test and search for a therapist in a national database.

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