How To Grieve

After a loved one passes, it can be hard to know what’s a “normal” way to feel. You may feel sad, angry, or something else entirely. The important thing to remember is that with grief, there is no normal – everyone is unique and feelings about a loved one passing can vary greatly. That’s ok. 

Here at Tulip we’ve worked with thousands of families as they navigate the end of life journey, so we know about the wide range of emotions that may come up for you. To help support you, we’ve compiled some thoughts about grieving from experts. 

The 5 stages of grief?

You may have heard already about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s On Death and Dying, which was published in 1969 and first introduced the concept of “5 Stages of Grief”. Not everyone may feel all of these stages (or you may feel each one in the course of a single day, or a single hour), but they can provide a framework for thinking through the different emotions that may attend a loss. The 5 stages as outlined by Kübler-Ross are:

  1. Denial (characterized by statements such as “This can’t be true”)
  2. Anger (characterized by statements such as “This is so unfair!”)
  3. Bargaining (characterized by statements such as “If this doesn’t happen I’ll do ____”)
  4. Depression (characterized by statements such as “Why go on?”)
  5. Acceptance (characterized by statements such as “I’m sad, but it’s going to be OK”)

In Kübler-Ross’s 2004 book On Grief and Grieving she clarified that the 5 stages of grief are a way to think about loss, not necessarily a linear map to follow: : “They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grieving is as individual as our lives.”

As you grieve your loss, remember that your experience is personal, unique, and valid – whatever it is you’re feeling. Talking with friends, family, and experts (including doctors, therapists, and support groups) can also be incredibly helpful for processing your feelings. And if your emotions aren’t matching up with the 5 stages – it’s OK. 

The rollercoaster of grief

If your response to grief doesn’t follow the 5 stages, don’t worry. Dr. Joy Berger, end-of-life expert, author, and CEO of Composing Life, recommends that you “Scratch the 5 stages of grief! Here’s why: grief is more like the seasons of the year, the cycles of the moon, or the passing of day into night. When we speak about grief we’re often speaking about accepting our loss – and these moments of accepting the reality of our loss may have to happen again, and again, and again, and that’s ok.”

As you navigate life after losing a loved one, you might consider this thought from the Hospice Foundation of America: “Each person’s loss is unique; we cannot time and plot our reactions. Grief can be thought of as a roller coaster. It is full of ups and downs, highs and lows, times that we may think we are doing better and times that we are sure we are not. Our sense of progress may feel very uneven.”

Dr. Berger also noted that while different people grieve differently, you can generally identify as either an intuitive or an instrumental griever – each with their own wants and needs. “Intuitive grievers,” says Dr. Berger, “Are more expressive and communicative. This person may cry freely in front of others, and expects other people to listen to them.” On the other hand, “Instrumental grievers are much more focused on doing – maybe arranging the memorial service, or organizing donations. They more be withdrawn and analytical but that doesn’t mean they are cold or unfeeling.” 

While they take different approaches, Dr. Berger notes that there are some effective ways for the two grief styles to communicate: “The intuitive should try and quiet themselves and try to understand that the instrumental may be expressing themselves in actions, not words. They can say to the instrumental, ‘I’m here for you when you’re ready’. For the instrumental, I recommend that they find a way to voice what it is they’re feeling, even if it’s only to ask for space for processing.” 

Regardless of how your process your emotions, here are some suggestions for taking care of yourself: 

  • Be patient. After a loss, it may be hard to focus on tasks, conversations, or daily routines. This is ok – be patient with yourself and give yourself some slack. 
  • Find your team. Ask for help from family and friends in the period of time after a loss. They can provide another set of hands with end of life arrangements (for a checklist on What Comes Next reference the Tulip resource here), and provide emotional support. 
  • Take care of yourself. After a loss it can be hard to remember to take care of yourself. Exercise (whether that’s a trip to the gym with a good friend, or one of your favorite walks), home cooked meals, and a healthy amount of sleep are all great ways to make sure you’re focusing enough on yourself.

End of life caregiving, arrangements, and processing grief are hard. As you work through this journey, reach out to those around you for support and comfort and remember, you’re not alone.

Sources: Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On Death and Dying, HelpGuide.org, Hospice Foundation of America, Dr. Joy Berger.