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Helping Yourself Through Grief
Loss & Grief Overview
What To Do When A Loved One Dies
How To Deal With Grief
Moving Through Grief

Helping Yourself Through Grief

Grief is experienced whenever you lose something important to you. It is so powerful that people sometimes look for ways around it rather than experience it. This approach will not work. The best thing you can do for yourself is to work through grief and express your feelings. The following are specific ways to help yourself work through grief.

Basic Health Concerns

Grief is very tiring and it is important to continue your daily health routines.

Outside Support

Grief does not have to be as isolating as it seems.


Read books or articles on the process of grief so you can identify what you are feeling and have some ideas on how to help yourself.

Be Kind to Yourself

If you want some time alone, take it as often as needed.

Help for your family relationships

Good communication is necessary. People cannot read your mind. They may not know that a certain day is difficult, or they may not know how to help you.

Adapted from an article by Helen Fitzgerald, CDE, Training Director, American Hospice Foundation. Reproduced with permission.

Loss & Grief Overview


“Everyone can master a grief but he that has it.”
– William Shakespeare

When people are mourning, we think they’ve recently suffered the death of a loved one. But in fact, people mourn many things in addition to a loved one’s death:

Mourning can begin before a loss has happened. It can also be during or soon after a loss. It can be many years later. There’s no right or wrong time to start mourning. People begin according to their own needs and their own coping styles. Some people may grieve for a few weeks, a month or many months.

The grieving process includes physical changes. You might mistake these for symptoms of an illness such as:

Key Tips

Key Tip 1

Write about your grief. Write about the person or circumstance you’re mourning. Describe what you’ve lost. Describe how you feel about it. Express your sorrow and pain. Honor the person or object you’ve lost. You may never show your writing to anyone else, but that’s not what it’s for. It can help you through the healing process, even if you never look at it again.

It may help to create a journal or memory book. Gather pictures and other things that remind you of who or what you grieve for. These things can also help you talk about it, which you may want to do now and then. One of the signs of coping with your grief is being able to tell stories about the person you’ve lost. Then instead of feeling upset, you’re able to smile about fond memories.

Key Tip 2

Once you’re ready, take a day off from mourning. Let yourself enjoy the day without feeling guilty. It won’t mean that you’ve forgotten. It’s just that you’re just trying to get your life back together again. You can move on.

Key Tip 3

Turn your thoughts to the future again. Make plans, maybe just for tomorrow at first. Soon you’ll be able to think about what you want to do next week or next month. Think about setting new goals. Or pick up where you left off with old ones that still matter.


Grief is the deepest kind of suffering. It’s brought on by terrible loss, hardship or disaster. Mourning allows us to express some of our grief. It is a normal and important part of healthy living.

No two people will work through a loss in the same way. Researcher Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross describes a model of the grieving process that she thinks many people go through. It involves some or all of the following five stages. But not everyone goes through these stages in the same order:

Stage 1: Denial

Denial is often the first line of defense. During this stage, people may say or think things like “This isn’t happening to me” or “This is a nightmare; I want to wake up and have this all go away.” Thoughts like these act as buffers. They allow people time to collect themselves. Still, grieving people probably don’t fully understand what’s just happened. So if they don’t show strong emotions, it’s not a sign they don’t care. It’s a sign of not being able to believe what’s happening.

Stage 2: Anger

At this stage, grieving people look for someone or something to blame: A deceased husband’s job, boss, doctor or anyone else, as a wife tries to make sense of the loss. Grieving people are sure that the death shouldn’t have happened. Somebody is responsible (and perhaps that someone should be punished). Sometimes, someone is truly responsible, such as a drunken driver who kills someone. But sometimes it’s unfounded. (“If he’d had a better doctor, his lung cancer would have been cured.”) Sometimes, people blame God or fate. These are normal reactions. But in most cases they serve little or no useful purpose.

Stage 3: Bargaining and Guilt

We use this stage to “cut a deal.” We bargain with God, fate, doctors or whoever we think can reverse our grief. “Cure my wife’s cancer, and I’ll never cheat on my income taxes again,” a grieving husband will say. He pretends that he has the power do something, anything, to help his wife. Feeling guilt also gives us a sense that we actually have some control over the outcome. If we’re guilty of causing this tragedy, then we should be able to make things right again.

Stage 4: Depression

Once they have worked through the first three stages, people begin to feel grief deeply enough to become depressed. As difficult as this period can get, it’s a sign that mourners are coming to grips with reality. With support from others, they will be able to move on with their lives.

Stage 5: Acceptance

By this final stage, people are willing and able to accept their losses. Now they can begin to forgive themselves and anyone else they “blame,” rightly or wrongly, for the losses they’ve suffered. People who reach this stage often go back to one or more of the previous stages of grief as they continue to work through their losses.

For example, many people experience sudden grief attacks even years after their loss. They are struck with a sudden, vivid reminder of their deceased loved one. Having attacks doesn’t mean people have undone all the work it took to recover. Grief attacks usually end quickly, even though they can be deeply distressing.

People don’t always experience these five stages the same way. You may find that you experience the stages in a different order. You may find that you go through one or more stages more than once. There’s no typical time schedule for when the stages occur or for when the grieving process is completed.


My father died several months ago. All of us miss him terribly. But my mother seems unable to let go of her grief. She sits in his study for most of every day. She hardly ever goes out. She rarely talks to anyone unless she’s spoken to. Should we be getting her some help?

Because everyone grieves differently, there are no ironclad rules that separate normal from abnormal grief. And the sense of mourning can linger for a long time, even in people who are back to their usual daily routines. However, mourning can become obsessive. This may be the case with your mother. If she has any of these conditions, you should help her to see a professional:

We recently lost our grandmother. But I don’t think the rest of my family is grieving like I am. I’m really angry with them. Why can’t they honor her memory?

Many factors influence how we grieve, for how long, and how intensely. People in the same family won’t grieve in the same way just because they’re related. There are many factors that determine how we grieve:

Some people grieve more openly than others. So don’t assume that the rest of your family doesn’t care anymore. They’re all coping in their own ways, just as you are, with a very difficult loss.

Our son was killed in a car accident a month ago. It’s been very hard for us all. But we’re really worried about his younger sister. She keeps asking when he’s coming back. We try to explain why he can’t. Now she’s been carrying around a blanket and sucking her thumb. She stopped doing this two years ago. Should we get counseling for her?

Young children usually don’t understand death. They don’t grieve the same way adults do. Children sometimes fear that something they did brought on the death of someone close like a brother. If she’s said anything like this, don’t dismiss her concerns. Talk to her about them. You might even say that sometimes you’re afraid that you might feel the same way. But then you realize that death is something we can’t control or command.

Children often use baby talk or do other things that we thought they’d grown out of when someone they love dies. It’s probably a way of reaching out for more comfort and refuge at a time when they and their families are grieving.

Your daughter will probably continue to ask questions. She might talk about her brother’s death for some time to come. Be open to what she has to say. Speak honestly about what you’re feeling. Let her know that you understand her sorrow and fears. Above all, keep showing your love for her. Make sure she understands that you’re hurting, too. Then together you can start to heal.

My parents and I had a terrible time deciding whether or not to have a funeral for my sister. I was against it. I don’t believe in grieving publicly. Why do people want to have funerals?

Many people find funerals a key part of coping with the death of a loved one. The rituals of mourning seem to provide comfort. Having friends and family there can help those who are deeply grieving. But some people don’t want to mourn in public. That’s perfectly acceptable, too. Try to understand your parents’ wishes in this case. Losing a daughter is an especially difficult loss.

I know it’s important to attend funerals. It shows your support and honors the dead. But I always feel so uncomfortable. I never know what to say. Can you help?

When someone you care about is mourning, it’s hard to know what to do or say. But just by being there, you can help. You can listen carefully, acknowledge his loss, and respond genuinely. Don’t worry about what’s “right” to say. Even if you say something like “I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know that I think of you often and I care,” you can provide some real comfort.

You can talk about the deceased. You can remember how much you loved hearing about her love for racehorses. Or you can say how much he meant to you as you were growing up. Someone in mourning can draw real comfort from knowing how much their loved one meant to others.


Web Sites

Links to sites, articles and lists of books on terminal illness and grief are at:

Online support groups, memorials and resources can be found at:

Widows and widowers can find information about grief and bereavement at:

The Compassionate Friends provides support for bereaved parents and siblings; visit:


Rando, Therese A., How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies. Bantam, 1991.

Fitzgerald, Helen, and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, The Grieving Child: A Parent’s Guide. Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Kubler-Ross, Elizabeth, On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families. Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Davis, Deborah L., Ph.D., Empty Cradle, Broken Heart. Fulcrum Publishing, 1996.

Friedman, Rochelle, and Bonnie Gradstein, Surviving Pregnancy Loss: a Complete Sourcebook for Women and Their Families. Citadel Press, 1996.

Kluger-Bell, Kim, Unspeakable Losses: Understanding the Experience of Pregnancy Loss, Miscarriage and Abortion. W.W. Norton, 1998.

Sheehy, Gail, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. Bantam, 1977.

Akner, Lois and Catherine Whitney, How to Survive the Loss of a Parent: A Guide for Adults. Quill, 1994.

Fitzgerald, Helen, The Mourning Handbook: The Most Comprehensive Resource Offering Practical and Compassionate Advice on Coping With All Aspects of Death and Dying. Fireside, 1995.

What To Do When A Loved One Dies

It’s not something we like to think about. It’s not something we plan for. But we have to deal with it when it happens. What do we do when a loved one dies? What needs to be taken care of? What important decisions must you make? The loss of a friend or family member is always hard. These tips will help you get ready for what lies ahead. They will also help you handle everything you must do.

During the First Moments?

The first moments after death might be very hard. You want to see that your loved one’s wishes are met. You also should see to your own needs. You might want to say goodbye before the body is taken away.

Making Medical Decisions

Look Into Pre-Plans

Did your loved one already make plans for a funeral? Did they put their burial wishes in writing? You need to find the answers to the following questions:

Contact a Funeral Home or Provider

You do not have to use a funeral home. It is very common in the United States. Experienced funeral directors can be very helpful. Cremation services can also be set. You can get local referrals. You can also use the following:

The following information about the deceased is needed for a death certificate:

Handle Urgent Matters

You need to reach out to friends and family. You need to review your loved one’s day-to-day situation.

Make Funeral Plans

Funeral homes have different plans and services. Some funerals with a casket can cost from six thousand to ten thousand dollars. Most funeral providers suggest buying packages. Some laws say that funeral directors have to list out all information about their services.

Some decisions that need to be made about a service include:

For a copy of the free on-line publication “Funerals: A Consumer Guide,” contact the Federal Trade Commission at or call 1-877-382-4357.

Complete Required Paperwork

You need to stay organized. Keep track of all the paperwork. Let someone else be in charge of keeping the records if you are not good with organization. Make a list of those who should get thank-you notes in the months ahead.

Final To-Dos

Other important matters need to be taken care of.

Selling a Home

The will should tell you what should happen to the house. That includes everything in the house. Going through everything may be painful. It can also bring back happy memories.

Keep in mind these tips:

How To Deal With Grief

Grief is the normal response that comes from losing someone or something important to you. It is a natural part of life. Grief is a reaction to death. It can be a reaction to divorce. It can also be a reaction to job loss.

How Does Grief Feel?

You may feel empty after a death or a loss. You are in shock. You may notice physical changes such as trembling or nausea. You may have trouble breathing or dry mouth. Your muscles may be weak. You may have trouble sleeping and eating.

You may become angry – at a situation, a particular person, or just angry in general. Almost everyone in grief also experiences guilt. Guilt is often expressed as “I could have, I should have, and I wish I would have” statements.

People in grief may have strange dreams or nightmares, be absent-minded, withdraw socially, or lack the desire to return to work. While these feelings and behaviors are normal during grief, they will pass.

How Long Does Grief Last?

Grief lasts as long as it takes you to accept and learn to live with your loss. For some people, grief lasts a few months. For others, grieving may take years.

The length of time spent grieving is different for each person. There are many reasons for the differences, including personality, health, coping style, culture, family background, and life experiences. The time spent grieving also depends on your relationship with the person lost and how prepared you were for the loss.

How Will I Know When I’m Done Grieving?

Every person who experiences a death or other loss must complete a four-step grieving process:

The grieving process is over only when a person completes the four steps.

How Does Grief Differ from Depression?

Depression is more than a feeling of grief after losing someone or something you love. Clinical depression is a whole body disorder. It can take over the way you think and feel. Symptoms of depression include:

If you recently experienced a death or other loss, these feelings may be part of a normal grief reaction. But if these feelings persist with no lifting mood, ask for help.

Moving Through Grief

You Know You’re Getting Better When…

The grief process is so slow. It’s often a “one-step forward and two-steps backwards” motion. It is hard to see signs of improvement. The following are clues that will help you to see that you are beginning to work through your grief. You know you are getting better when: