By Carrie Vittitoe

Dealing with grief isn’t like following a souffle recipe; there are no detailed must-follow steps that proceed in a specific order. When Elisabeth Kubler-Ross proposed the Grief Cycle model in 1969, she attempted to explain the myriad emotions encompassed in grief, not make people feel that they aren’t grieving correctly if their experience doesn’t match the model. Grief is truly a different experience for every person. It is influenced by many factors, including one’s personality, the type of relationship a person had with the deceased, and the type of death the deceased experienced.

Amy Sloboda, manager of the Grief Counseling Center of Hosparus, says “grief affects every domain of your life.” The physical, emotional, psychological, social, spiritual, and intellectual parts of our lives may suffer as a result of grief, or one particular area might be hit harder than the other areas. Because of the potential impact on so many domains, she recommends paying attention to the basics of life: eating, sleeping, and moving. Even though there will almost certainly be occasions when you don’t feel like doing any of these things, Amy says that eating as well as possible, getting enough sleep, and taking time to exercise are the foundations of coping.

What is Normal?
Disbelief and sadness are the two most common feelings associated with grief. Numbness or a dreamy sensation of shock may be your mind’s way of protecting you from reality for a time. Sadness can be the lingering black-hole feeling in the pit of your stomach, and it may show itself as full-on crying fits, occasional weeping, or anything in-between.

When a loved one dies, some individuals feel angry, although not everyone who experiences anger feels it about the same thing. Sometimes people are angry at God, while others are angry at the person who died. It is possible for people to feel angry at themselves for things left undone or unsaid. Sometimes anger is energy that just needs to go somewhere, which is another reason why it is important to stay active even when it feels difficult to do.

Amy says grief can manifest as anxiety, irritability, or even forgetfulness. The overwhelming responsibilities that often follow the death of a loved one, such as going through a house to dispose of possessions and sell the property, can cause a person to feel a sense of panic.

What to Expect From Yourself and Others
It might be better to think of grief as a swinging pendulum rather than specific stages that every person will go through as they process their loss, Amy says. There may be occasions in the grieving process when sadness, anger, or anxiety are felt more intensely than at other times. There may be grief triggers, such as certain smells, tastes, or music that bring on increased emotional response. Rather than having an expectation of what will happen, it may be better to accept whatever feelings you have as your normal.

Sometimes people have expectations not only for themselves, but for the other grieving members of their family, but, Amy says, “it is important to give each person his space and allow him to grieve in his own way,” even if it is very different from how you grieve. She says many women want to talk and process their loss, while men often process their grief by doing something. A man might take on a project as a means of working through his feelings, although there are plenty of men who attend and benefit from Hosparus’ men’s grief support group.

Whitney Bishop’s mother died as a result of suicide in 1968 when Bishop was 19-months-old, and it took her nearly a lifetime to grieve this loss. “My family was incapable of helping me. It wasn’t until I had my own children that I began that [grieving] process,” she says. Her family didn’t talk about her mother or acknowledge Whitney’s feelings, which caused her to doubt her own emotions. “It was a huge lesson for me and led me to validate my own feelings and those of my children,” she says. She had to give herself permission to grieve the way she needed to, which became a very liberating act. She realized that “when we are free to let go and explore what we want and need, then we are free to get closure.”

When family members grieve differently, it is important to find ways to compromise to help meet everyone’s needs. For example, at holiday gatherings following a death, some family members may want to talk about the deceased, while others feel very strongly that they do not wish to do this. Amy says that lighting a candle, setting out photos, or making favorite foods may be more subtle ways to help acknowledge the loss without upsetting anyone.

Just because a family experiences a death together doesn’t mean that the family is the best set of people with whom to grieve. Amy says individuals may need to find others they feel safe to grieve with. Hosparus offers sessions for families that help them learn how to communicate their grief, which may help some families avoid hurt feelings or arguments.

Two Ways to Cope
Volunteering is one way of working through grief because it gets you out of your own experience. Grief puts a dark cloud over life and can make you feel like you will never feel happiness or joy again, but sometimes giving back to others in your darkest time brings a touch of hope back to you.

Another suggestion is to try a new hobby or activity. While this might not be something you do immediately following a loss, Amy says it can provide a helpful shift that gets the mind focusing on other things. If you gardened or rode bikes with your loved one prior to her death, doing these activities might make you sad for a time. Shifting just a bit by taking a flower arrangement class or practicing yoga will keep you engaged and help you until gardening or bike riding is enjoyable again and the subject of happy memories.

Grief Out in the Open
Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, lost her husband suddenly in 2015 and recently published a book with psychologist Adam Grant titled Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. Going public with her loss and grieving process is increasing the public discussion and awareness of grief. Social media itself is beginning to alter how we relate to both death and grief. Death Cafe Louisville is a local Facebook group that strives to increase conversations about death, which may ultimately change the conversations we have about grief.

While grief can still be a very private experience for those who prefer it to be that way, it is increasingly easy to find communities of people who support those who need to share their grief with others.

This article and other tips for caregivers appears in the summer issue of Today’s Transitions.