Coping With Grief

“Though people don’t often associate them with grief, laughing and smiling are also healthy responses to loss and can be protective,” explains Dr. George Bonanno, who studies how people cope with loss and trauma at Columbia University. He has found that people who express flexibility in their emotions often cope well with loss and are healthier over time.

“It’s not about whether you should express or suppress emotion, but that you can do this when the situation calls for it,” he says. For instance, a person with emotional flexibility can show positive feelings, like joy, when sharing a happy memory of the person they lost and then switch to expressing sadness or anger when recalling more negative memories, like an argument with that person.

Types of Grief

About 10% of bereaved people experience complicated grief, a condition that makes it harder for some people to adapt to the loss of a loved one. People with this prolonged, intense grief tend to get caught up in certain kinds of thinking, says Shear, who studies complicated grief. They may think the death did not have to happen or happen in the way that it did. They also might judge their grief—questioning if it’s too little or too much—and focus on avoiding reminders of the loss.

“It can be very discouraging to experience complicated grief, but it’s important not to be judgmental about your grief and not to let other people judge you,” Shear explains.

Shear and her research team created and tested a specialized therapy for complicated grief in three NIH-funded studies. The therapy aimed to help people identify the thoughts, feelings, and actions that can get in the way of adapting to loss. They also focused on strengthening one’s natural process of adapting to loss. The studies showed that 70% of people taking part in the therapy reported improved symptoms. In comparison, only 30% of people who received the standard treatment for depression had improved symptoms.

You may begin to feel the loss of your loved one even before their death. This is called anticipatory grief. It’s common among people who are long-term caregivers. You might feel sad about the changes you are going through and the losses you are going to have. Some studies have found that when patients, doctors, and family members directly address the prospect of death before the loss happens, it helps survivors cope after the death.

Life Beyond Loss

NIH-funded scientists continue to study different aspects of the grieving process. They hope their findings will suggest new ways to help people cope with the loss of a loved one.

Although the death of a loved one can feel overwhelming, many people make it through the grieving process with the support of family and friends. Take care of yourself, accept offers of help from those around you, and be sure to get counseling if you need it.

“We believe grief is a form of love and it needs to find a place in your life after you lose someone close,” Shear says. “If you are having trouble moving forward in your own life, you may need professional help. Please don’t lose hope. We have some good ways to help you.”

How do you deal with grief? How do you help your patients deal with grief? Share in the comments section below.


  1. I found that it helps to cope with my grief when I am able to help someone else who is experiencing a loss similar to one I experienced many years ago in the loss of a child. The hole in my heart is always there, no matter how many years have passed; however, it hurts less when I can share insights with others through the GriefShare ministry that our church sponsors twice a year. The 13 week Christian based classes have helped many people in my community get through some very difficult situations. The support system that is built into the program helps both facilitators like myself and participants with materials, emails, and coaches to help with questions. Anyone interested in starting such a ministry can check them out on

  2. I have been a hospice nurse for over 13 years now, of course there are patients and families that I remember and miss but I don’t experience the grief the families do. I have experienced grief in many other ways though and it sometimes catches me off-guard. I went through a long time of depression and after clawing and fighting my way back to a “new normal” I realized the loss I had experienced when I cried during one of the inservices we had at work. Then I lost my Mom 3 years ago, my beloved dog 7 months ago and more recently my 33yo nephew, there are situations when I am reminded of one and when the tears start flowing I can’t remember which one I started crying for….
    I find healing and comfort in being productive which for me is work, exercise, having a christian faith and listening to music (since I live away from my family). My husband and son are great support too.

  3. As the comment above states how grief can be experienced with life changes. For me personally, I am a school nurse and my school is closing. I have had the pleasure of taking care of 64 special needs children, and I look at each one of them now and wonder who will care for them. Will they be loved as only I can love them. The loss I am feeling at times is overwhelming because I won’t be there for them as I was. I would love to think I will keep in touch with a few and my co-workers, but the reality is I have to find another job, move to a new environment, bond with new people and children. I feel guilty for being the first to find a job, knowing how stressful the entire process is. Am I rambling? This is my grief. I love this place, these people, these children and I am losing all of it. I know life goes on, and I know I will adjust – I know I will be okay. I also know that I will feel all of this until I am through grieving the loss of the most amazing position I have ever held – while hoping my new school will fill my heart.

  4. Grief may also be experienced when a life style has to be changed due to person’s inability to continue the work or due to illness or injury that prevent the person to return to that life style. This can affect a person as if it is a death! Adjustments to new work situations or total life style can be affected as to how well the person goes through the grieving process. So people become bitter and reject the changes or slowly accepting the change and finding a new normal for them. The amount of support can sometimes make a difference is how well people adjust to their “new normal”. This form of grief is overlooked in many cases. It may be a person has retired and is at loose ends as to where they fit in or how much of a productive person they are at this stage of their life. People are always telling them how lucky they are that they are retired but the person may not feel that way at all. Many may truly enjoy retirement but there are those that feel they have been discarded as no longer useful or productive, “has beens”. It is important to be sensitive to those who are experiencing these types of grief also, recognizing their pain.

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