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Heritage of Motherhood (1904) by Gertrude Käsebier. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

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Guide

How to express your grief

The initial shock might be over. But you need time and space to ‘ride the wave’ of grief if you are to find a sense of peace

Heritage of Motherhood (1904) by Gertrude Käsebier. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

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Sue Morris

is a senior psychologist and director of bereavement services at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. She is also a member of Robert’s Program on Sudden Unexpected Death in Pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital. She is the author of Overcoming Grief (2nd ed, 2018) and An Introduction to Coping with Grief (2nd ed, 2017).

Edited by Matt Huston

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Need to know

Mia speaks of an overwhelming sense of sadness since her husband’s sudden death a few months ago. She says that her pain is indescribable, like nothing she’s ever experienced before. Even though she has a loving family and many friends, she is at a loss to know what she can do to ease the pain. Jack, whose young son died from a brain tumour, is trying to stay strong for his family but confides that he is ‘barely keeping it together’. He needs someone outside of his family to talk to about his tremendous loss. Chris’s father has just died, and he is extremely worried about his elderly mother, who has never lived alone. Not only does he feel the weight of his own grief, but that of his mother’s grief as well. He comes seeking guidance.

Even though Mia, Jack and Chris’s circumstances are very different, they each need a safe place to express their deep sorrow, as well as guidance and support. Mia discovers that it’s helpful to have a regular outlet in grief counselling where she can talk about her husband and the story of his death. He had been driving home from work when a car swerved and hit his car head-on. For Mia, part of expressing her grief is having a safe space to grapple with difficult questions – the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘if onlys’. Jack needs a place where he can let out his hurt and anger; he has been struggling with not being able to protect his son from cancer and the unfairness of his son’s death at such a young age. He finds that he benefits from being able to cry and speak openly about his loss. Similarly, Chris needs to make time for his grief, and joins a bereavement support group for adults who have lost a parent. Being able to talk with others who have experienced the same type of loss lessens his sense of isolation.

As you can see from these fictionalised stories – which, along with others in this Guide, are based on the experiences of various people I’ve met as a clinician – finding ways to express grief and access support can help bereaved individuals to feel a little less alone and overwhelmed. If you have recently lost a significant person in your life, this Guide will help you understand why expressing grief is important, and outline various possible ways of doing so.

Grief is a normal response to loss

While grief can feel excruciatingly painful and isolating at times, it is important to understand that it’s a completely normal response to loss. No two people will grieve in the same way, but the experience is typically characterised by profound sadness and a yearning or longing to be with the person who died. Many people assume that grief is linear – that you will just get ‘better and better’ as each day passes. This assumption is inaccurate and can lead people down the wrong path. Instead, grief tends to follow a wave-like pattern, which for most people eases over time, although intense or ‘rogue’ waves can hit and catch you off guard, months or even years later.

While no one can take away your pain or ‘fix’ you, there are things you can do to help yourself feel a little less overwhelmed and more in control of your grief. Finding ways to express your grief, to let out thoughts and feelings associated with it, is one important aspect of beginning to move forward. It can be helpful to think about grieving as giving you the time and emotional space to develop a new or different relationship with your loved one that is based on memory, legacy and meaning. Expressing your grief – which can include telling the story of your loved one’s death, sharing your thoughts and feelings about your loss, and reflecting on how the person influenced or shaped your life – is a key part of developing this relationship.

Why is it important to express your grief?

People typically grieve in a way that is fairly consistent with their personality. If you are someone who tends to talk about things that worry or concern you, you will probably want to talk with others about your loss. If you’re someone who tends to keep worries or concerns to yourself, you will probably keep your grief somewhat to yourself.

Irrespective of your personality, it is important to find constructive ways to express your grief, with others and/or privately. Otherwise, grief can build up over time – a bit like a pressure cooker – and eventually spill over into other aspects of your life, which can impact not only your mood and your day-to-day functioning, but also your physical health. You might be consumed by what happened or have lingering questions that keep you awake at night. You might find it increasingly difficult to be around others or to feel productive at work. Or you might question what it all means. Some people turn to alcohol or other substances as a way to numb their pain, while others withdraw from family and friends. We know from research that bereaved individuals are at increased risk of physical and mental health issues, which is why accessing support and finding outlets to express your grief are essential.

In my work as a clinical psychologist who specialises in bereavement, my goal is to help people learn to ride the wave of grief. I recommend that my clients, especially those in the early months of their bereavement, carve out ‘grief time’ in their week, and try some of the suggestions outlined in the next section. While expressing your grief might sound like a daunting task, you’ll see that there is more than one approach to doing so, and finding ways that work for you can help. As time goes on and you begin to adjust to the physical absence of your loved one, you will likely find that you don’t need to express your grief as often, even though it can continue to be helpful. The rest of this Guide offers ideas on where to start.

What to do

I encourage people who are grieving to think about creating a ‘toolbox’ of strategies to help them find meaningful ways to let their grief out, in much the same way as you’d lift the lid of a saucepan of boiling water to let out the steam. The following suggestions can help you start to build your toolbox.

Give yourself permission to grieve

One of the first steps in expressing your grief is to give yourself permission to do so. Too often, people expect recently bereaved individuals to ‘get back to normal’ quickly after someone dies. This expectation, however, is unrealistic and inaccurate. It has a lot to do with the fact that many of us live in fast-paced societies in which grief is largely hidden. Consider how differently a person with a broken leg would be viewed: it is obvious that their leg is broken, and everyone knows it will take time and rehabilitation for them to be able to walk again.

For the person who is grieving, life is forever changed when someone they love dies, and adapting to change takes time and effort. It is important, therefore, to not only tell yourself that it is acceptable for you to grieve and to cry, but also to advocate for what you need. You might have to learn to ask for help, which can be hard, and also learn to say ‘no’ to requests that might seem too much right now. Expressing to others what you need or what you can or can’t do helps set clear expectations about your progress. Just as you would give yourself the time and space to rest and heal after breaking your leg, you should do the same with grief.

Find opportunities to tell your story

Even though everyone’s story of grief is unique, being able to share your story with others can help lessen some of the pain you’re feeling. Most people feel better when they can share a problem with a trusted person, as it helps release pent-up emotions and stress while providing an opportunity to receive support and empathy.

What you feel like talking about might change over time. At first, you might want to talk about the circumstances surrounding the death, or the challenges you are currently facing as a result of your loss. You may be experiencing very strong emotions that can be difficult to bear, including anger, regret or guilt. If left unaddressed, these can fester and become barriers to healthy grieving. Being able to express these emotions in a safe way can be helpful. It is possible that you aren’t someone who usually likes talking about personal matters. However, it is important to ask yourself whether you think talking might help you right now. Some people turn to friends or family, while others seek out individual counselling or a bereavement support group. Consider the story of Tom, who lost his fiancée to leukaemia:

I had just turned 30 and my whole world was shattered. I remember meeting with a psychologist, soon after, who invited me to join a group for young adults who had lost their partners to cancer. This group was a lifesaver as I could talk about my fiancée and share the trauma of what we’d been through. Sometimes I needed to talk about our life before her diagnosis and the life we planned, and other times I needed to talk about the treatment. Being able to share my story in the group helped me feel less alone, and I looked forward to each meeting.

If you think speaking with someone could be helpful, finding a person who can listen is the first step. This could be a close and loyal friend or family member. If someone you trust asks how they can help, you could say something like: ‘I think talking to you about what happened when Joe died would be helpful.’

Keep in mind that you might want to have several people you can turn to. Indeed, having a ‘support team’ with whom you can regularly connect is an important potential ‘tool’ in your toolbox. Grief can feel isolating and lonely. So, to the extent possible, surround yourself with friends and family who are empathic and who can both tolerate your sadness and really listen to what you are saying. Conversely, try to limit contact with those who want to ‘fix’ you, as grief is something that cannot be simply fixed. You might be told that you have to be ‘strong for the children’, or that your loved one is now in a ‘better place’. These comments, though they may be intended to help, often leave bereaved people feeling misunderstood and even more isolated.

Ask yourself, who’s on my team? Your team might include trusted friends, family members, colleagues, your family doctor, or those from a faith or spiritual group. You might also benefit from joining a bereavement support group (like Tom) or seeing a counsellor who specialises in grief, especially if you do not have the support of friends or family. Attending a group or meeting with a counsellor can also be particularly helpful a bit further down the track, if you are worried that ongoing conversations about your loss might start to feel like a burden on friends or family.

Look for occasions to remember your loved one with others

Having a space in which you can remember and honour your loved one in the company of other people helps you (and others) to maintain a connection with that person and allows you to express how important they were, and continue to be, in your life. Some people support a cause in their loved one’s memory or develop new traditions throughout the year – often corresponding to significant events, such as birthdays or holidays. Ideas include:

  • offering a toast in the person’s memory at significant events (for instance, at Thanksgiving dinner, if you’re in the US);
  • going to their favourite restaurant to celebrate their birthday each year;
  • inviting friends and relatives to share memories or stories of the deceased, and compiling them to be shared;
  • putting together a recipe book that includes their favourite recipes and inviting others to contribute;
  • buying (or making) a special holiday ornament that reflects their personality or interests in some way and sharing this with others; and
  • dedicating and planting a tree in their memory.

Here’s another example: each year, Grace and others walk as a group to support the cancer institute where her mother received treatment. They have T-shirts printed in her favourite colour, with a team logo and name, and they use the occasion to not only raise money for research but to come together to reminisce about her and all she meant to them.

Express your grief through creative outlets

There are many creative means to express your grief that you can use on your own or with others. One advantage of creative expression is that it can allow you to tap into your feelings about a loss in ways that words alone might not. I often say to my clients that the English language seems inadequate for describing the depth of the pain of grief.

As an example of expressing your grief through creative outlets, you might consider making a playlist of your loved one’s favourite songs and listening to it as a way to help you maintain a connection with them. Many people also find that creating a photobook is a helpful way to express their grief. There are a number of websites that allow you to create one online and have it printed. Not only does looking through photos of the person who has died allow you to reminisce on your own, it gives you another way to communicate some of your loved one’s story to others. You could display it on a coffee table or print copies for other family members.

Other ideas include:

  • writing a song or a poem about your loved one;
  • making a compilation of videos that include them;
  • writing them a letter on significant dates;
  • writing a letter about the things you didn’t get a chance to say;
  • keeping a record of your thoughts and feelings about the person in a journal;
  • drawing or painting a picture that reminds you of them; and
  • making a memory quilt using items of their clothing, such as T-shirts.

Practise daily self-care

Given how burdensome grief can be, it is important to pay attention to how you take care of yourself. Many people underestimate how physically stressful grief is. And if your loved one was ill for some time, you might have pushed your own health and wellness needs onto the backburner. Finding ways to care for yourself can also be important for expressing your grief, as it allows you to slow down and attend to both the emotional and physical stress that you might be experiencing. Forms of self-care after a loss could include:

  • carving out time to grieve – it’s helpful to allocate space in your schedule to allow yourself time to try some of the suggestions outlined in this Guide;
  • spending time outdoors in nature, as this can create space for reflection and reminiscing;
  • checking in with your doctor – doing so provides an opportunity to discuss your loss within the context of your physical and mental health;
  • going for a massage or acupuncture, which allows for the release of muscle tension and pent-up emotion; and
  • practising mindfulness meditation – there are a number of apps available that can help with coping after a loss.

Put the person’s impact on your life into words

It’s not uncommon for recently bereaved people to worry about forgetting their loved one in some way – for instance, that they will forget the sound of the person’s voice, or specific occasions they shared together. Being proactive in maintaining a connection with the person, one now based on memory and legacy, can help alleviate such concerns. In this context, ‘legacy’ refers to the impact that the person had on your life.

Reminiscing and reflecting on how they influenced you as a person is something you can do privately, in your own time. Doing so gives you the opportunity to organise your thoughts about how important they were to you, which you might then choose to share with others over the months and years ahead.

One simple way to prompt this kind of reflection is to look through photos that capture experiences you shared, or to re-read letters, cards or notes that they sent you. Doing so can help you access meaningful memories. You can then write down the thoughts and feelings that come up for you – or make an audio recording of your reflections and memories.

You could also consider writing down answers to the following questions about how the person impacted your life:

  • What did you learn from your loved one?
  • What values did they impart to you?
  • What did they love about life?
  • What would you say to them now if you could?

Mia found it cathartic to write a letter to her husband telling him what she would have said if she’d known that it would be the last time she saw him on the day he died. In a sense, writing gave her a way to say ‘goodbye’ to him. Jack listed all the things his young son loved doing – being outdoors, playing with his dog, and giggling with his brother and sister. Jack is able to reflect on the importance of continuing to do these things with his other children. Chris focuses on what he learned from his father and his values. He expresses that his father had a strong work ethic, was always optimistic in his outlook, and was a loyal husband – all values that Chris tries to emulate in his own life.

Key points – How to express your grief

  1. Grief is a normal response to loss. It typically involves profound sadness and a longing to be with the person who died. No one can simply ‘fix’ it, but there are things that can help you feel a little less overwhelmed.
  2. It is important to express your grief. Giving expression to your thoughts and feelings about a loss can help you develop a new relationship with the person who died and avoid an unhealthy build-up of grief.
  3. Give yourself permission to grieve. Remind yourself that it’s OK to grieve and to cry – and to express to others what you need while you are grieving.
  4. Find opportunities to tell your story. You might talk about the death itself, the emotions you’re feeling, the challenges you are facing, or other aspects of your grief experience. What you want to discuss can change over time.
  5. Look for occasions to remember your loved one with others. This could range from making a toast at special events to collecting stories from family and friends. Remembering together allows you to express how important the person was and is to you.
  6. Express your grief through creative outlets. Activities such as compiling photos or songs, creative writing or making visual art can provide another means for expression that you can use with others or on your own.
  7. Practise daily self-care. Carve out time in your schedule for addressing your grief, spend time outdoors, and engage in other activities that allow you to slow down and attend to stress.
  8. Put the person’s impact on your life into words. Write down or make a recording of your thoughts in response to reminders of the person who died, or after considering who the person was and what you learned from them.

Learn more

Navigating other people’s expectations

It is impossible to anticipate all the questions that people might ask you after the death of a loved one. People may ask about the death itself and how you are coping, and make comments about your ‘progress’. You are also likely to receive a lot of advice from family, friends and even strangers about what you should or shouldn’t be doing.

The best way to navigate the expectations of others and prepare for difficult conversations is to make a plan ahead of time. Doing this can help you feel a little more in control. Perhaps the question that people are most often asked soon after the death of a loved one is: ‘How are you doing?’ It helps to think about what you will say. Common examples include: ‘I am taking it day by day,’ ‘I have my good and bad days,’ ‘It’s really hard, but I am doing the best I can,’ ‘It comes in waves,’ or ‘It’s up and down.’ All of these responses set a clear expectation that grief is hard and it is not linear.

There are also some potentially challenging situations that you might encounter early on after a loss:

  • returning to work;
  • attending a social gathering for the first time; and
  • attending a wedding if you are a recently bereaved spouse.

Again, making a plan ahead of time is key. When returning to work or attending a social event, it’s best to start with a relatively easy situation first and build up to more difficult situations. You might want to consider sending an email to colleagues before returning to work to let them know your plans and share some information. For example, Jack might ask his HR director to send an email to his immediate team a few days before his return to work: ‘Jack wanted to thank you all for your support at this very difficult time. He is returning to work on Friday for a few hours and is very happy for you to stop by his office to say hello.’ Giving colleagues advance warning helps them prepare, as often they don’t know what to say or what to expect. Jack might also go to work for only a few hours on his first day back, which gives him the opportunity to ease in slowly and get some of the ‘hellos’ out of the way.

Similarly, with social events, consider the size of the event, the distance from your home, how comfortable you feel with the people who will be there, and whether you will go alone or with a friend. You might first go to a small gathering with a few people. You might decide to only stop in for an hour and not stay the whole time. Regardless of the situation, plan ahead what you will say when you are asked how you are doing, and consider having an ‘exit strategy’ if things feel too much. An exit strategy can be particularly helpful for large functions or other situations that could be overwhelming.

For instance, when Paula finds out that she has to attend a niece’s wedding soon after her husband has died, she brainstorms possible exit strategies ahead of time. She knows the first dance will probably be triggering, so she decides that, at that time, she will go for a walk outside into the garden. She also decides to drive herself and let the bride’s parents know that she will probably leave on the early side. Even though she ultimately stays longer than she expected to, having thought through these plans before the wedding has helped her feel more in control.

When to seek professional help

It’s important to seek professional help if you feel overwhelmed or think that you are getting worse. Too often people shy away from seeking help as they think that doing so is a sign of weakness, or that they ‘should’ be able to manage on their own.

Here are some of the common warning signs that might indicate that you would benefit from speaking to a doctor or grief counsellor:

  • feeling increasingly depressed or hopeless about the future;
  • feeling as though you have been ‘stuck’ for some time;
  • withdrawing from your family and friends;
  • avoiding people or places that remind you of your loved one;
  • thinking that life isn’t worth living;
  • thinking about suicide or harming yourself;
  • feeling anxious and panicky;
  • feeling as though your mind is racing;
  • experiencing difficulty sleeping or eating;
  • using alcohol or other substances to numb your pain; and
  • having difficulty going to work or university/college.

Remember that the death of a loved one is a very stressful life event and that no one should have to grieve alone. Even if the person died some time ago, it’s never too late to seek help and to express what you are going through to a trained professional who can provide support and guidance.

Links & books

In the book It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand (2017), the psychotherapist Megan Devine offers a refreshing look at grief as an experience to be honoured, not a problem to be solved.

My book An Introduction to Coping With Grief (2nd ed, 2017) is an easy-to-read self-help guide for recently bereaved people. It provides practical strategies based on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help you adjust to life without your loved one.

In the book Overcoming Grief: A Self-Help Guide Using Cognitive Behavioural Techniques (2nd ed, 2018), I give an in-depth description of the CBT strategies that can help people begin to take control of their grief. It’s relatively long, so it’s a book you might want to take your time with and read a chapter at a time.

In her book The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss (2022), the neuroscientist and psychologist Mary-Frances O’Connor offers fascinating insights from her research about how the brain responds following a significant loss – and what helps people adjust to a loved one’s absence. You can also read the Psyche article on this subject that O’Connor co-authored.

The book Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations for Working Through Grief (1994) by Martha Whitmore Hickman is an oldie but a goodie. Many of my clients find comfort in the meditations that she offers based on a variety of different sources.

In her 2018 TED talk ‘We Don’t “Move On” from Grief. We Move Forward With It’ (2018), the writer Nora McInerny shares her experience of grief following several losses in her life, including the death of her husband when she was in her early 30s.

On his podcast All There Is With Anderson Cooper, the news anchor interviews people following significant losses in their lives. Each story is different and provides insight into how people grieve the ones they love, and how they continue to live.

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7 February 2024