Coping with Grief

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 03/2018

Grieving the death of a person close to you often involves very painful feelings. Waves of grief may come and go over months or years. Sometimes, it may feel like the pain will never end. But most people find that the intensity of grief lessens over the course of a year or more. As hard as it may seem, people find ways to adjust to life without the person they lost. Although working through grief can be a long and difficult process, there are things you can do to help yourself cope and adapt.

Ways to cope with loss

Just as each person’s experience of grief is unique, coping strategies work differently for each person. Think about the strategies you have used when faced with difficult situations in the past. Try using similar strategies to help you cope now. Here are some tips for coping with loss:

  • Allow yourself to experience the pain of loss. As much as it hurts, it is natural and healthy to grieve. Sometimes people feel guilty about the way they feel, thinking they should “get over it.” Let yourself grieve and fully experience your feelings, such as shock, sadness, anger, and loneliness. Don't judge yourself for any feelings you have, even if you think you shouldn’t have them. Let yourself react in ways that help you process and release intense emotions, even if it means crying or screaming. Some people set aside private time every day to think about their loved one and experience the feelings that arise. This approach is especially helpful for those who have difficulty showing their feelings to others.

  • Be patient. Allow your grief to unfold at a pace that is natural for you. Don't judge or criticize yourself for not coping as well or healing as quickly as you think you should. Each person needs to grieve in ways that feel right for them.

  • Talk with others. Talking about your loss and sadness with others may help you process and release your feelings. Let family and friends know that it can be helpful for you to share your feelings with them. Reassure them that you don’t expect them to have answers; you just hope that they can listen.

  • Engage in physical activity. Some people find that being physically active helps them cope with their feelings. Consider participating in activities you might enjoy, such as walking, running, or riding a bicycle. Exercise and activities like hitting a punching bag or hitting golf balls at a driving range may help release frustration or anger.

  • Give yourself a break from grieving. It is healthy to take breaks from grieving with pleasant activities and interactions with supportive family members and friends. People need a break from the pain of grieving. Part of adapting to a loss is to go back and forth between focusing on the loss and finding a way to be in the world without the person you lost. For example, you might choose to go to dinner with friends, take a relaxing bath, watch a movie, start a new hobby, or enjoy the outdoors. It is good for you to enjoy yourself and okay to laugh and feel happy, despite your loss.

  • Maintain a routine. Keeping a basic routine of daily activities can help you structure your time and keep you connected to familiar people and places. Some people find it helpful to avoid making major changes, such as getting a new job or moving, soon after a loss. This can help maintain a sense of normalcy and security and lessen additional stress.

  • Forgive yourself. Forgive yourself for the things you regret doing or saying to your loved one. Also forgive yourself for the things you regret not doing or saying. Processing the pain that comes with regrets and unfulfilled wishes can help you to focus more on the good memories.

  • Find ways to connect. You can continue connecting to the relationship you had with the person you lost. This could include thinking about advice he or she may have given you, looking at photos or videos, or recalling fond and meaningful memories.

  • Take care of yourself. It is important to attend to your physical needs during the period after a loss. Grieving is both emotionally and physically exhausting. Care for yourself by trying to get enough sleep at night, eating a healthy diet, and exercising.

  • Join a support group. Support groups offer you the chance to talk with others who have similar experiences. Group members can offer encouragement, comfort, guidance, and practical suggestions. And they can reassure you that your experiences are normal. You may want to join a general loss support group. Or you may prefer a group that is specific to your situation, such as a group for those who have lost a spouse to cancer.

Seeking support

After a loss, people often receive support from family and friends. Sometimes people do not have this support or they need a professional to help them learn more about the grieving process and cope with their loss. If you feel that you need more help coping with your grief, you may want to talk with a counselor. A counselor can help people work through the grief process in a one-on-one or group setting.

Grief therapy may be helpful for people experiencing very intense grief that lasts a long time and prevents them from participating in daily life.

It can help a person understand why he or she is having a difficult time and explore helpful ways to cope with the loss. A mental health professional, such as a psychologist or clinical social worker, provides grief therapy in an individual or group setting.

Because each person grieves differently, decisions about the need for grief therapy are made on a case-by-case basis. However, the following signs suggest that you may need additional help coping with your grief:

  • Ongoing difficulty with eating

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Inability to work or complete regular daily activities six months after your loss

  • Inability to care for yourself

  • Feelings of worthlessness

  • Thoughts of suicide

Finding help

To find help dealing with grief, talk with your primary health care provider to find out if he or she can provide a referral. You can also check with a local hospital or cancer treatment center, a community hospice service, your health insurance company, support organizations, or your employer’s employee assistance program.

Learn more about types of counseling and how to find a counselor.

More Information

Grief and Loss

Understanding Grief and Loss

Coping with Change After a Loss

How Survivors Can Cope With Grief After Cancer

Grieving for Your Old Life After Cancer

Additional Resources

National Cancer Institute: Grief, Bereavement, and Coping with Loss (PDQ®)

CancerCare: Grief and Loss