July 6, 2020

How to Cope With Grief and Loss — A Guide to Post-Traumatic Growth

We all know the stages of grief; denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. But not all of us are sure how to navigate our way through them.

I am no stranger to grief and loss. My experience of multiple unexpected bereavements and a maddeningly long infertility journey makes them all too familiar to me. Those experiences forced me to learn how to cope with grief and loss and how to navigate the dark territory in which we all inevitably find ourselves wandering lost sooner or later.

When you’re in the midst of grief, it seems all-encompassing, enveloping, and permanent. The idea that one day, life may no longer be like the suffocating sense of pain you feel in the moment seems impossible.

The anatomy of trauma

In their book Option B, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant explain the three P’s that hinder our recovery from trauma:

Personalization: The idea it was our fault that something awful happened.

Pervasiveness: The sense that whatever bad thing has happened has affected all aspects of our life.

Permanence: The feeling that the terrible fallout from whatever happened will last forever.

Anybody who has experienced trauma and grief will instantly recognize all three of these qualities. The good news is that they are not real; they exist only in our minds. We can overcome them and the trauma they relate to. In fact, this is an essential part of learning how to cope with grief and loss.

Humans have evolved to feel pain disproportionately. It is a survival mechanism that helps us avoid danger and stay safe. Big picture, this is a good thing, but such a trait can make us deeply affected by pain on an emotional level, which makes healing hard.

The path to post-traumatic growth

Trauma can lead to a loss of self-confidence. It first creates self-doubt in an area of our life related to our distress before creeping into other areas. Before we know it, we feel incapable of facing anything. This is pervasiveness at work.

Self-confidence is vital for happiness and success. When we lack it, our limiting beliefs take over, and we dwell on our flaws. We hesitate to take risks and avoid opportunities, which holds us back from experiencing life to the full. Primary loss triggers secondary losses.

We can break this cycle by acknowledging the things we do well rather than the things we’re struggling with. They don’t have to be grand or significant. Acknowledging even the smallest wins can help to turn the tide and bring back our confidence.

A simple way to implement this into your life is to write down moments of joy, things you are grateful for, and things you have done well. This helps you recognize and process the positive aspects of your life, which breaks the sense of pervasiveness and permanence that comes with grief. There’s a reason why journaling is often recommended as a self-healing tool.

Another behavior that can help you to cope with grief and loss is to engage in activities that put you in a flow state. It doesn’t matter what they are; whatever works for you is fine. Flow states help you engage with the moment and allow you to dissociate from your trauma. Little by little, they help you break the bonds of grief.

The effect of flow states can be subtle. While experiencing flow, we are too absorbed in the moment to recognize ourselves as being happy. But afterwards, we realize that we felt truly present and engaged in the world for the time we were in flow.

Once we have found a way to navigate the present, we need to have optimism for the future. Hope for a brighter tomorrow helps us overcome despair, and works as a counter to permanence.

Baby steps are required here.

Initially, it is impossible to look or think too far ahead. In the early stages of grief, we need to take it one day at a time. A brighter tomorrow literally means tomorrow only; no further. But as we learn how to cope with grief and loss and start to develop our resilience, we can contemplate our future over a longer timeline.

Healing through relationships

When we suffer loss, we crave human connection. We turn to loved ones. Recovering from trauma is an intense process, and we may end up demanding a lot from those around us. This can put a strain on the relationships we value most.

In Option B, the authors point out that there are three entities in a relationship; you, the other person, and the relationship. All three need attention.

While you can — and should — expect support from the people you are closest to, this often proves to be a short-term solution. Your friends may be there for you in the first few weeks or months, but healing can take a long time, and people have their own things to deal with.

Even those who love you the most can’t always be there for you when you need them long-term. And even if they can, they don’t always know what you need to cope with grief and loss.

It’s a harsh truth that is often ignored, but you may need to find a more sustainable solution than close friends or family.

An effective way to get the long-term support you need without over-burdening loved ones (which can create a sense of guilt) is to join a support community.

Ideally, you need to find a community of people who have experienced similar trauma to your own. Losing a parent with a long-term illness and unexpectedly losing a spouse are different kinds of loss, each with different impacts. It can be hard to understand how such events affect someone if they haven’t happened to you. But members of a support community will know what you are going through, which is why they are so useful. They can relate to your experience. They can feel your pain. They can give you what you need.

Support communities can be found locally and online. They are one of the best things you can do when seeking a way to cope with grief and find post-traumatic growth, so don’t hesitate to seek one out. Even if it feels selfish or strange to turn up uninvited asking strangers for their support, there is no need to be apprehensive. As the poet, Rumi, said, “All medicine wants is pain to heal.”

Support communities are wonderful medicine.

Building resilience in others

If trauma and misfortune are inevitable in life, the smart thing to do is learn how to cope with grief and loss in advance. Rather than wait until we experience adversity before we learn how to deal with it, we can build the skills and resilience we need ahead of time. That way, we save ourselves from having to figure things out when we are most vulnerable.

Our capacity to cope with difficult circumstances can be increased by developing the right mindset. And the earlier we do it, the better prepared we will be. What we learn in our formative years shapes us for years to come. This is why we should try to instill a resilient mindset and outlook in children if we have the chance.

Parents, guardians, teachers, and others in positions of responsibility for children have the privilege and power to build children’s capacity for dealing with hardship. According to Sandberg and Grant, Resilience can be developed in kids by teaching them four core beliefs:

  • They have done control over their lives
  • They can learn from failure
  • They matter as human beings
  • They have real strengths to rely on and share

People in such roles can take deliberate steps to instill these beliefs in the children they are responsible for. In doing so, they will build a long-term capacity for resilience that will benefit them throughout life.

For adults navigating how to cope with grief and loss, it is worth being mindful of these four beliefs for ourselves, as they can serve as a roadmap on the path to emotional recovery.

People who feel they have control over their lives see themselves as masters of their own fate. They view adverse events as challenges and opportunities, rather than something they can’t do anything about.

This allows us to hope for a brighter future. And hope is the starting point for recovery from emotional trauma; it helps us overcome despair and works as a counter to permanence.

Supporting other people with their grief

When we find ourselves playing a supporting role for somebody who is grieving, it can be difficult to know what to do. We tend to feel powerless, and our instinct can often be to try to fix things and solve the problem.

This may make sense form an outside perspective, but traumatic experiences can’t be fixed. You can’t erase the past. A person in the midst of grief doesn’t need a quick fix. They need empathy. They need someone to acknowledge their pain and let them know they are not alone.

We may think we’re being helpful trying to fix the past for someone or help them look on the bright side, but we’re not. In attempting to move them past their pain, we are de-legitimizing their experience.

If we’re honest, when we try to help someone in this way, we are often not doing it for their benefit; we are doing it for our own. Sitting with someone in pain can be an uncomfortable, overwhelming experience. Our desire to make the problem disappear is really a desire to make ourselves feel better, not the person whom we are supposedly trying to help.

The best thing you can do to support a grieving friend is to show empathy and acknowledge their pain. But don’t wallow in it. Let them know everything is going to be okay. Comfort them. Encourage them. Help them regain their self-confidence little by little.

This is a long process. Post-traumatic growth is a lot like the flowers returning after a long winter. It doesn’t happen all at once; it happens a bit at a time. You don’t need to help someone with everything they are dealing with. You just have to help them with what they are dealing with at the moment.

They may just need you to listen, or they may need you to reassure them about something. They may just need you to remind them of one little thing or make them laugh briefly.

And that is enough. You don’t need to solve the puzzle for someone, but maybe you can give them a piece of it.

If you are supporting someone, be patient. It won’t always be this way. Give them what you can and help them to get what they need from others.

If you are trying to figure out how to cope with grief and loss, know that you’re not alone and that things will get better, even if that’s hard to imagine right now. Seek support from as many people as possible, and if you know what you need, don’t hesitate to ask for it.