The Four R's of Handling Grief
Apply these four tools when coping with the death of a loved one.
Posted May 31, 2020
With over 100,000 COVID-related deaths in the U.S., and more still coming, grief is finding its way into many of our intimate personal lives. Whether it is the death of a loved one or trying to support others in their grief, a large number of us will be impacted. I am a psychologist specializing in geropsychology, which makes grief an ordinary part of my professional life. Below are four key principles I have developed as a guide through these painful times.
When we are grieving, it is easy to lose track of our daily routines. After a particularly painful loss, many of us stop our ordinary self-care activities. Some people will lose their appetite, give up on exercise, have sleep issues, and stop engaging in other day-to-day activities. People will often find their way out of this period on their own, but it can be useful to remember that the simple routines of life can be grounding during hard times. When so much of life might be changed forever, it can be useful to have the simple habits of a healthy dinner or a daily walk to rely on. Try to keep up at least a few of your routines and you might find they help carry you through your darkest days.
Keeping up healthy routines is also a way of maintaining a stable mental and physical foundation so that we are best prepared to cope when a tidal wave of intense grief comes over us. It is difficult to sustain such intense emotions all the time, and it is hard on our bodies as well. Dipping back into ordinary life can provided important distraction, downtime, sustenance, and rest to keep us going. For many of us, grief is a marathon rather than a sprint. We need to take care of ourselves so we can weather the journey ahead.
We humans are meaning-making animals, and rituals help us understand and emotionally process the events of our lives. We have rituals for positive events, like weddings and graduation ceremonies. We have rituals for painful events, like funerals and memorial services. They demarcate important times of transition and transformation, and the loss of someone close is just such a time.
Many rituals are connected to our religious or cultural backgrounds, but they do not have to be. I encourage people who have experienced losses to create rituals of their own that speak to the unique individual relationship you had with the deceased. It might be pouring an extra cup of tea for your deceased loved one at breakfast. It might be doing an annual charity fundraiser to help find a cure for the condition that took your loved one away. You might create ceremonies for their birthday, or daily routines like lighting a candle or talking to their picture before bedtime.
A good ritual appeals to your deeper values or beliefs, involves something unique and specific to your loved one, and has a clear beginning and ending. They may be public or private, simple or complex. They might rely on existing structures, like a beloved prayer, or something completely creative and delightfully weird that only you and the deceased would understand.
Rituals help create the space for us to emotionally process our loss. We might spend some of this time feeling sad, angry, or lonely, and that is fine. The ritual creates a container for such experiences and often helps keep these feelings from consuming the rest of our days.
There is so much that you likely cherished about the person you have lost, and it’s good to have ways to keep their memory alive. This might be telling stories about them among friends and family who also knew the person, having a good laugh or a good cry together as you remember them. You might want to write down the stories they loved to tell and make note of your favorite stories involving them. People can often get very creative in this domain, creating memory boxes, scrapbooks, and other keepsakes that help you carry the person in your heart going forward.
As with rituals, activities involving remembrance might bring up strong emotions. We can hold these feelings with kindness and compassion, along with the knowledge that feeling our emotions is an important part of mourning and that they won’t stay so intense forever.
When we focus on restoration, we are looking at the ways we can rebuild our day-to-day lives in the physical absence of the person who is no longer with us. While our loved ones will always be in our heart, they aren’t there in our world the same way they used to be. There may be secondary losses as a result—nobody to call when you need someone to support you, nobody to take your walks with. There may be practical losses—nobody to cook dinner, mow the lawn, or contribute to household finances. The time will come when you might need to clean out a closet or donate someone’s belongings. Doing these things—learning new skills, finding new supports, rebuilding, making the needed changes to continue living on in their absence—are all part of restoration.
Restoration is an important part of recovery from a loss, even though it is not directly focused on processing your emotions. That said, being in action might help some people process their feelings more than crying or reminiscence does. Restoration-focused activities that move our lives forward tend to also move us to a new place psychologically. For some, putting the pieces of the future together can also be calming. There is so much that may be scary or unknown about what life will look like now. Beginning to rebuild something new might help reduce the fear that comes with all that uncertainty.
When practicing these four R's, it’s important to remember that there is no single healthy way through grief. There is no specific timeline for when you should be “over it,” and I encourage people not even to think about being “over it” at all. You will carry your loved one with you forever, and that is a beautiful reminder of how much you loved them. That said, we don’t have to be actively mourning and consumed by our grief forever. I hope these tools provide a helpful framework that might help you find your way forward after a painful loss.
Note: This post is for educational purposes and should not be construed as medical advice. If you find that time is passing and you seem to be feeling worse instead of better, if you feel overwhelmed, depressed, can’t get back to daily life, have intrusive unpleasant experiences, or just want help coping, please seek appropriate mental health treatment.