Chris Navalta, 41, still remembers the haze of grief that engulfed him soon after his nephew, Robby, was shot in broad daylight in 2014.
“I felt numb. I felt like things were a blur and that there’s a void that can never be filled again.”
In his memory, the days that ensued can be recalled only in dream-like fragments. “I’ve dealt with death in the past,” the San Francisco resident says. “But never in this way where I was just talking to someone just a few weeks ago, and now he’s gone.”
“I didn’t want to medicate myself, and I didn’t want to do anything to make the pain go away,” he says. “Because the reality is, the pain will never go away.”
For Chris, navigating the aftermath of loss has been one of the most challenging experiences he’s had to face. But it’s also one that anyone who has lost a loved one can easily recognize. To grieve is to be upended entirely—to have the world you knew be demolished in an instant, and to wonder whether you can ever feel “whole” again.
“People describe [grief] as a series of ocean waves of different sizes at different times, or as a spiral staircase where you repeatedly grow and fall back.”
—Sara Stanizai, licensed therapist
How then, can a person cope—much less heal—from these deep emotional wounds?
While there are no easy answers when it comes to heartache, according to psychologists, it is possible to deepen our understanding of grief and find the right resources to help us process our pain. The first thing to keep in mind, however, is this:
Grief isn’t a checklist.
You can’t quantify loss, despite what popular culture will have us believe. “There is no set pattern,” says Javanne Golob, a licensed clinical social worker from Venice, California. “Grief moves and shifts over time,” she says, and since we each love differently, we will all grieve differently.
As such, not everyone falls neatly into the “Five Stages of Grief”: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. For someone struggling to accept a loved one’s passing, for example, emotional checklists like these are not only inaccurate, they perpetuate harmful stereotypes that can make a person feel like a failure for simply not “getting over it.”
It’s because of this confusion that the model’s originator, Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, said later in life that the stages aren’t linear or predictable; she ended up regretting presenting them in such a way.
Thankfully, many practitioners today are taking a more holistic view of grief and understanding that those five stages don’t always occur for everyone.
And because grief is not linear for some, it may not always show up as sadness, says Golob. “Sometimes it’s anger. Sometimes it’s joy or fear. It’s all okay.”
“People describe it as a series of ocean waves of different sizes at different times,” says Sara Stanizai, a licensed therapist in Long Beach, California, “or as a spiral staircase where you repeatedly grow and fall back.”
Heartsickness affects both your mind and body.
“I have lost many extended family members—aunts, uncles, grandmas and grandpas, and even friends, but my daughter’s death was the hardest,” says Ashley Jones, who lost her 21-month-old daughter to a terminal genetic condition in 2011.
She recalls the toll bereavement took on her: “From the physical pain to the emotional hurt, spiritual self-questioning, and complete exhaustion—I wasn’t prepared for the depth of grief of losing a child,” said the Chattanooga resident and founder of Love Not Lost, a non-profit dedicated to helping others going through grief.
As it turns out, this kind of deep psychological trauma not only affects a person’s emotional wellbeing, it also weakens your health.
Experiencing a stressor similar to the one Ashley went through has been found to cause detrimental physical and mental health effects. Past research has shown that a major loss, such as the passing of a spouse or a child, increases the risk of fatality from heart disease and contributes to a variety of psychiatric disorders. These poor health outcomes are even higher for those who continue to show elevated grief symptoms six months after the loss.
And these effects don’t discriminate by age. One 2014 study published in the journal Immunity & Ageing found that the elderly are especially susceptible to infectious diseases after losing a loved one. Another more recent study revealed that adolescents who lose a family member or friend at such a young age are profoundly affected in their development, social functioning, and physical and mental health.
“It’s important for me to be aware of my grief and to not mask it—not to my friends and not to myself,” says Chris, who has found a harmful stereotype in expecting people to grieve and then quickly move on after a loss. “It’s not like I want things to be back to normal,” he explains. “I’m now dealing with a new normal, and the way I handle my grief may not work for others—I just know that it works for me.”
More harmful still is the myth that time heals all wounds, Golob says; as we’ve noted before, healing isn’t linear. Some days you might feel warm and nostalgic when thinking about your loved one, and other days you may feel heavy and dark. This doesn’t mean you aren’t handling the loss well, she emphasizes, it just means that we can’t predict what will happen, and we need to be compassionate toward ourselves when the pain arrives.
Similarly, if you find joy in a certain day or activity, it doesn’t mean you don’t miss the person who is gone. “Having fun and enjoying your life is not betrayal,” she explains. “Think of it like waves crashing on the sand, there will be ebb and flow. Some days you will lean in, and some days you might need to opt out.”
Overall, learning how to cope comes down to realizing this simple truth:
There is no perfect recipe for grieving.
There are, however, healthy ways of processing it, according to Golob.
Track how your loss has impacted you.
Pay attention to how this loss may be affecting you. You are going to react in a way that is unique. Everyone handles loss differently. Comparison is not the goal here.
Ask yourself what expectations you have of grieving and notice if you have any judgments about the way you are handling the grief. Not everyone cries all the time; not everyone talks openly about their experience; not everyone wants to take time off work.
Become aware of how substances impact you.
People who are struggling with a significant loss or other mental health issues may see their symptoms increase with substance use. While you may have had a healthy relationship with a substance before, you may notice that your relationship with it may change during the grieving period. Track how you feel when under the influence and during the withdrawal period.
Drinking can be a common coping method; remember that it is a depressant and can increase symptoms of depression like sadness or hopelessness. On the other side of the spectrum, caffeine is a stimulant and can increase anxiety and stress.
Form a deeper relationship with your grief.
Golob advises asking yourself the following questions: What are my triggers? What are my strengths, my positive coping skills? What is making my pain increase?
Pay attention to how you feel throughout the day. Track your grief on a scale of 1-10 in the morning, afternoon, and evening. If you see a jump or a dip, explore what may have caused the change (e.g., a person asking about the loss or a long walk in nature at lunch).
Reach out to a professional if your grief is keeping you from being able to live the life you want. Chris says that regularly seeing a grief counselor has been helpful in processing his own loss.
- Take preventative measures to keep yourself well.
- Get enough sleep at night. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7 to 9 hours for adults and 8 to 10 for teenagers.
- Eat well for your body (that will look different for everyone). Track how you feel before and after meals.
- Exercise! According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise produces hormones that naturally ease anxiety and depressive feelings.
- Figure what is most helpful to you. What works for others may not work for you. You are unique.
- Talk to a friend, a family member, or a therapist. Psychologist and bereavement trauma specialist Sherry Cormier, PhD, explains that bearing the grief alone simply makes the pain worse. Cormier, who herself has experienced loss, says that what ultimately helped her was finding a new sense of community.“I believe that grief is healed predominantly through some kind of connections with other people.”
- Prioritize your self-care. Sometimes saying no to someone is saying yes to yourself.
- Make time to have fun and engage in enjoyable activities.
- Make sure you are being honest with yourself about how the grief is impacting you.
What People Who Have Dealt With Loss Want You to Know
“I made a list of things that made me feel comforted: a candle, wearing my Dad’s shirt, signing up for a kickboxing class. Then, when I was having really bad grief days, I could go to my list and pick from what felt best in that moment.”—Katie Huey, Colorado
“I went to as many grief support groups as I could find and made many new widow friends. I read books on grief. I go to Mass every day and have become very active in church activities and am still active in my caregiver support organization. I stay close to God and pray for healing.”—Terri Corcoran, Virginia
“Figure out a meaningful way to honor their memory. It could be having a memorial service. If they loved the outdoors, planting trees or a flower. Writing a poem, volunteering in a place they were connected with also are healthy ways to honor their memory and deal with grief.”—Iris Waichler, Chicago
“By keeping a gratitude journal and starting each day by jotting down at least three things you’re grateful for right now, we’re able to train our brains to see the light at the end of the tunnel as each day goes on.”—Julie Cegelski, California
You’ll never be the same, and that’s okay.
“It’s been four years since Robby left us, but I still have what I like to call ‘moments,’” says Chris, “where I could be doing something and then all of a sudden, I have this feeling of utter sadness and pain. I don’t know when it’s going to come, but I allow it to happen and I move forward.”
It’s okay for us to acknowledge that we’ll never stop grieving, says Cormier, who believes we don’t ever really “move on”—we move through grief. As Golob puts it, “If you love someone, the pain of their loss never completely goes away.” The intensity of the pain may subside, you may go days without thinking of them, but you’ll never be the same as you were before the experience of loss.
Cormier emphasizes, however, that even as we continue to recover and heal from loss, our grief will change us in unexpected and profound ways.
This has been true for Ashley, who says that helping others through her non-profit has allowed her to tap into a greater sense of humanity and purpose. But, she notes, there has been the realization that while she can’t change the past nor live in the future, she can choose things in the now that will help her have a better future.
“Life is short. We only get one shot,” she says. “Let’s make the most of it because there are no do-overs.”