Coping With Grief: 7 Things to Remember When Dealing with Loss

Close-up of two people holding hands

Grief can feel all-consuming, but those intense feelings don’t last forever.

One of life’s most difficult experiences is losing a loved one, and grief doesn’t necessarily follow a straight path through stages that neatly fit into boxes. Though each person’s grief is as unique as their fingerprints, experts have identified some thoughts and feelings common to the grieving process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Emotions around the loss of a loved one often surface unexpectedly; sometimes conflicting feelings can come up at the same time, and emotions may change from minute to minute or day to day on the so-called “grief roller coaster.”

The symptoms of grief are also wide-ranging. Most people experience it as sadness, but sometimes grief can feel like relief, especially if the dying process was long or the loved one was in pain. For some people, grief is a numbness; for others it feels like a physical ache.

We learn about our capacity to handle grief by moving through it, according to the team of bereavement experts at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK). They share the latest insights into the grieving process and ideas to keep in mind when you feel overwhelmed.


1. It won’t feel like this forever.

Part of what makes losing a loved one so painful is the feeling that the intense sadness will last forever. It’s a common fear, says MSK psychologist,Jessy Levin, PhD, MDH, co-director of bereavement services within the Caregivers Clinic at MSK (the nation’s first of its kind.) “While we never ‘move on’ from the people we love,” Dr. Levin says, resuming your normal activities is a good start to processing the loss. “It can feel awkward at first,” she admits. “But over time the focus can shift from grief to integrating the loss of your loved one into your day-to-day life.”

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2. You can handle it, even when you feel like you can’t.

Psychologist Amanda Balakirsky

Dr. Amanda Balakirsky

 Many people are resilient in grief, says MSK psychologist Amanda Balakirsky, PsyD, co-director of bereavement services, but the initial shock of the loss can often be difficult to cope with. She says it’s helpful, when possible, to “cope ahead” by developing a plan to ensure that you are well-supported in the event that your loved one passes.

Dr. Levin says that grief and pain often come in waves and can feel overwhelming. But she suggests that people treat the feeling of being crashed into by grief as they do waves crashing over them on the shore. “Allow the wave to come, but also allow it to go,” she says. “Your grief will ebb.” Make space for painful emotions, as they let us practice resilience.

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3. Be gentle with yourself.

Grief is exhausting. It has a way of touching all areas of life and can affect how you take care of yourself. Carve out time for naps, eat nourishing foods, and drink plenty of water. But above all, say the MSK bereavement experts, treat yourself with compassion. Try not to judge yourself or feel guilty. Give yourself a break as you navigate the loss of your loved one.

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4. Think in cycles, not lines.

Bereavement counselor Susan Glaser

Susan Glaser

If you reach a point where you’re feeling good only to feel bad again, it’s not a sign that you’ve relapsed or gotten worse. It’s how grief works, and it’s actually forward movement. “People will say, ‘I was walking down the street and all of a sudden I started to cry, and yet, I had been feeling calm,’ ” says MSK bereavement counselor Susan Glaser. “I try to reframe that. Grief is a series of loops: It’s possible to circle back to where you were and still keep moving onward.”

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5. Your feelings are understandable and reasonable.

Dr. Levin avoids using the word “normal” to describe emotions that arise during the grief process. She prefers the terms “understandable and reasonable,” saying “nothing is really normal once your world has been shaken up.” Allow yourself to feel whatever it is you feel: anger, sadness, even relief. The bottom line on feelings is simple, Dr. Levin says: “There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to mourn and grieve.”


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6. Grief can help you find meaning.

There’s no getting over the loss of a loved one. Instead, Ms. Glaser says, you can find ways to incorporate that loss into your life as you move forward. Grief is a natural response to loving someone. Though we all have past experiences that may influence how we see ourselves, grief provides an opportunity to reflect on what matters most to us.

Dr. Balakirsky highlights the importance of staying connected to the things that give you a reason to step out into life each day, the sources of meaning in your life. That can contribute to a sense of purpose and empower you to carve a path forward.

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7. You’re not alone.

Many family members appreciate the continuity of care brought about by seeing MSK professionals who specifically understand the cancer experience and how it can impact grief.

“At MSK, we recognize that you, as someone who loved a person who has died, are still part of their cancer process,” Dr. Levin says. “We’re here to hold your hand through the process and recognize that though the person you love is no longer in this world, you hold onto their memory and the pain of their loss.”