6 Choices You Can Make When You Are Grieving

Coping With Loss By Focusing On What You Can Control


When something painful happens that is outside our control, like the death of a loved one, a terrible accident, or a global pandemic, we often start to rethink our understanding of the world and how we function in it. If we live in such an unpredictable and often unfair place, how can we control what happens to the people we love? Grief is a humbling, challenging teacher in reminding us that there are many things we simply can’t control. But after experiencing loss, remembering what choices you can make is an important tool. It helps ground your two feet on the ground, so that you can start to move one step forward at a time. Here are some choices you can make when you are grieving.

1. What You Ask From Your Support System. It takes time to know what you need from others when you are grieving, so don’t feel like you need to have a list of requests in the first week after a loss. But the people in your support system want to help, and even more, they want to know what kind of help you want. Pay attention to your grief to notice where you can ask for extra support. Maybe you are too exhausted to prepare food in the evenings and have started eating less. Ask a friend to cook dinner with you, or drop something off if you aren’t up for company. You might notice how hard it is to go to work with colleagues who have never met your loved one, so ask a family member to look at old photos or tell stories that provide an opportunity to talk about them. You don’t just have to say thank you for casseroles or decline invitations to the movies over and over. You can choose how the people who care for you support you by asking for what you need from them.

2. How You Spend Grief-Heavy Moments. When grief overwhelms you with full-body sobs, utter exhaustion, or numbness you can’t break through, you can choose what you need in that moment. It might be a walk outside, a nap, a good-cry, or a phone call to someone who understands. Try to make a list of things that might feel healing when you’re in a calmer headspace. In the moment, it can be difficult to come up with an option that feels right. But if you have a short list of coping strategies that have helped you feel through it, your brain doesn’t have to work as hard. Grief will also hit you at inconvenient times—in the middle of the work day, while you’re stuck in traffic, at a friend’s baby shower. If you can’t excuse yourself to give yourself a few minutes of what you need, try to breathe and focus on what you will do—listen to a playlist, go for a run, turn on your favorite basketball reruns—when you are able to step away. 

3. Where You Turn For Different Needs. Grief is different for everyone, and it also takes different forms within everyone. Sometimes you need a distraction and a laugh, other times you feel like you need to punch a wall. The same person or activity probably won’t meet all those different needs. Think about the things that feel good for different sides of your grief. Maybe you watch the same comedy special on Netflix every time you need to laugh, but you call the same childhood friend every time you need to vent about the complicated, less perfect parts of your deceased mom. Identifying what you need is a choice, and so is seeking out the balm for it. 

4. How You Commemorate Important Days. Some families visit the cemetery every anniversary of their loved one’s death, while others decide not to have a burial in the first place. Anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays all bring up a complicated range of emotions that might inspire you to commemorate the occasion. You may bake your dad’s favorite dessert every year on his birthday, or light a candle at the holiday table in honor of the people who are not there. You might not want to do anything special at all. But as significant grief days come up, think about if and how you want to spend them. It’s your choice to throw a giant party, or to do nothing at all. 

5. What You Do To Take Care Of Your Physical Grief. Grief is physical as much as it is emotional. You might feel exhausted or hyperactive, struggle with headaches that you never used to have, or find yourself getting sick every couple of weeks. Be gentle with your grieving body. You get a choice in how you care for it. That might be exercising when you’re able, drinking tea or taking a sleep aid before bed, or taking an afternoon off work to have a nap. Meditation and breathing exercises can be beneficial for all parts of grief, including chest pain and muscle fatigue. Taking care of your physical grief might mean eating cookies for breakfast or ordering more takeout meals than you had in your life before, too. You can listen to your body and give it what it’s asking for, as long as you’re not harming yourself. If those feelings are coming up, it’s a good time to speak to a professional. But in the same way you would rest and eat a bowl of soup when you’re sick, you can take care of your body as it grieves. 

6. How You Memorialize Your Loss. How you remember your loved one and the legacy they left is a choice that is up to you. You might create an altar of photos and candles in your home to memorialize your loved one, or donate to a meaningful cause in honor of them. Remember that loss and grief are not exclusive to death, either. You can throw a party with your friends to celebrate quitting a toxic job or set aside time to share special memories of a home you and your kids are moving away from. You might write letters to your loved ones, cook their favorite meals, or collect all their favorite jokes in a journal. There is no rush and no right way to commemorate your loss; the choice is up to you. 

Loss often unmoors us from our expectations about how life is supposed to be. As you face the difficult journey of grief and are forced to accept the things that none of us can control, remember that there are still many areas where you can make a choice. Focusing on what you can control is one way to start healing from the disorientation of loss.

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