How To Get Through Unexpected Grief
Coping skills to help you deal with the loss of a loved one—and with those who may grieve differently
I was traveling for work when the call came in — my dad wasn’t going to make it through the night. The world fell away, like everything was loud and silent at the same time. Nothing would ever be the same.
I didn’t have time to get to the airport. I didn’t have time to see him one last time.
I didn’t have time.
My mind floated back to the conversation I had with my dad six weeks prior. He called to tell me he’d been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. It felt like my body had been invaded with a mix of anger, anxiety, fear, and call to service that I didn’t even know was possible. All I could do at that moment was cling to his every word.
But now, at this moment, there were no words left.
This is the unexpected moment I was prepared for, even though I would never be ready for it. I knew grief would strike me when my dad passed. I knew that there would be a period of my life that I wanted to shut the world out to process my emotions. But there was so much to the grieving process I didn’t expect.
I learned, though, by striving to understand more about grief and apply what I learned. This is what worked for me.
Grieving Isn’t Linear
When you think of losing a loved one, what comes to mind?
Images of the funeral, getting lost in memories, and the chair at the table that will now be empty.
There’s this idea that you’ll be upset for a while, maybe even a long while, but somehow, you’ll find the other side of your grief and be okay.
What I wasn’t prepared for were the waves of grief that would come in my moments of joy and success.
Losing someone you love isn’t something that you really get over. It hurts differently over time, but there are moments when grief will return full force, as fresh as the first moment, and you’ll wonder if it ever ends.
It does. It does get better. But it’s in how you process your grief that creates forward motion and will help you find your way back to steady faster.
Many of us have in common experiences of grief, although the specifics differ in individuals. There are three different major grief theories, and you may find that you relate to one more than the others.
The first is the stage theory, denoted by four feeling phases.
1. Shock and numbness
2. Yearning; searching; feelings of wanting things to be different
3. Disorganization; despair; confronting the reality
4. Reorganization; coming to terms; moving forward
The second is the task theory, which is about facing a particular challenge in front of you to get to the next part of the process.
1. Accept the reality of the loss
2. Dealing with the pain of grief
3. Adjusting to life without the deceased
4. Acquiring a lasting connection with the deceased, while moving ahead in life
The third theory is the most recent, and the one that most aligned with my experience. The dual-process model speaks to the two main coping methods associated with loss, and how those of us left behind can go back and forth between these two coping mechanisms over time.
1. Loss-oriented coping
2. Restoration-oriented coping
Loss-oriented coping is marked by the struggle of grief and resisting or avoiding changing things now that your loved one is gone. This can look like a widow holding onto all of her husband’s clothes, or a parent keeping their child’s room exactly as it was when their child was alive.
Restoration-oriented coping is where you may avoid or deny grief; you focus on how to move forward with life, and you begin birthing your new identity of who you are in this new reality.
It’s likely you’ll find yourself relating to different theories of grief at different points in your journey. However, the greatest strength in the dual-process model of grieving is how it can help you identify and relate with people who may be grieving differently than you, which can create less strain in existing relationships.
How Grieving Differently Affects Relationships
When you suffer a loss, it’s one of the times in your life you can feel the most alone or the most misunderstood. For the first few weeks, your house may be flooded with casserole dishes and your phone filled with condolence texts and voicemails. But soon, those dishes go away and the phone stops ringing — especially if you’re experiencing loss-oriented grieving for longer than it makes other people feel comfortable.
It’s not that no one cares about you (which I had to remind myself of), it’s that they don’t understand how to be there for you. And so, people avoid you.
This can be especially difficult between couples who have lost a child or siblings who have lost a parent and are grieving differently.
For example, if one spouse is expressing loss-coping mechanisms, such as struggling to get out of bed or spending time with their lost child’s belongings, it can appear as if they are grieving deeper than their spouse who may be experiencing restoration-coping, such as making sure the daily tasks are done and preparing to donate some of their child’s belongings.
To the loss-coping spouse, it could appear that their significant other is suffering less or cares less about the loss they’re experiencing. This is where arguing, distance, and relationship breakdown can occur, as one person may feel alone or abandoned in their grief and the other may feel misunderstood or villainized for trying to do the right thing.
All emotional processing is personal to each individual, but you can imagine where different coping mechanisms can lead to distress in relationships among those left behind.
You see this in sibling relationships as well. One sibling may be beside themselves while another is focused on moving forward. Neither of these coping mechanisms is wrong, but in not understanding the dual process method, it can be easy to misconstrue that way someone is handling their grief as either self-indulgent or cold.
If this is something you’re going through, being aware of this framework may be enough to help you find common ground with the people around you who are also grieving. However, don’t be reluctant to seek professional mental health support, especially in maintaining your current relationships and connections — so that everyone involved has a voice and a space to feel understood and supported.
How to Cope
Losing my dad was one of the toughest experiences of my life. It wasn’t just in the initial shock and despair, but in the unexpected moments that seem to come out of nowhere.
I could be having a perfectly great day, and then something will remind me that he’s not here. Some days, it can feel like a brand new loss all over again, and other days there can be joy in his remembrance.
This is where the dual-process model of grief helped me the most. It helped me understand that while I can move forward, it’s normal to have these unexpected moments of loss come surging back. There are powerful ways for me to handle those emotions to move forward.
Here are a few ways you can use both loss and restoration-coping mechanisms to get through those unexpected trials.
In unexpected moments of grief, loss-coping kicks in and it can be useful to have ideas in your back pocket for getting through it.
One of the larger components to loss-coping is maintaining the bond with the person you’ve lost (such as doing things that make you feel connected to or remind you of them). Here are a few examples that will help you through the loss-coping periods you experience.
1. Make time to honor the memory of the loved one you lost
When you think of honoring the memory of the person you lost, what comes to mind? Do you think about the things you used to do together and the inside jokes you shared? Or do you think about their values, aspirations, goals, and what was most important to them?
One of the things my dad loved most was family, and legacy was one of his highest values. That made his passing all the more difficult because there was so much left that I wanted him to see me do — get married, have children, build a successful business, and more. All of these landmark life moments were important to him, and it made me think about how I could honor his memory, even though he can’t experience these life events with me physically.
My dad’s passing was a line-in-the-sand moment for me about how I would live my life with a focus on legacy. I started a business that enabled me to help families around the world, with the intention of creating something I can hand over to my future children.
This helped me honor his memory in a way that I carry him with me every day.
Other times, honoring his memory looks like grabbing some snacks and watching one of our favorite movies or going to his favorite driving range. Sometimes that looks like doing something he would’ve done like volunteering at events in the community, watching his favorite sports team play (go Vols football!), reading Tom Clancy novels, helping out with family, or going hiking.
The key here is to tune into your loved one and what was special to them and to your relationship. It’s in those two places that you’ll find many ways to honor their memory.
Keep in mind, doing the same thing every time may not help you find relief. Sometimes you may need to switch it up and try something new. When that happens, it gives you the opportunity to express that relationship in a deeper way and can bring you some solace.
2. Save and maintain photos, movies, etc., safely
Heartbreak can happen whenever you feel like you’ve lost another piece of your loved one or something special that connected you to them. This happened to me when I switched phones and lost all of the voicemails I had from my dad.
In a tech-driven society, it’s easy for a tech snafu or housing disaster to take away the majority of your memorabilia quick. You want to make sure that you have backups of your photos, movies, voicemails, and other meaningful media so that if something does happen, you don’t have to experience that loss all over again.
You can do this through digital backups, having multiple physical copies made, and keeping some backups in a safety deposit box versus keeping everything in your home.
In moments where you’re struggling with your loss, rifle through the photos and videos that make you laugh or smile. This can help shift the focus of your grief from loss to gratitude.
3. Create a mental health day kit
There will be good days and days that are difficult. If there are days that you feel debilitated by your emotions unexpectedly, it’s good to have a coping kit ready to go. When strong feelings of grief arise, you may need to take a day to be by yourself or to process your emotions the way you need to — no matter how long it’s been since your loved one passed.
Fill your kit with the things you know most help you. That might be a sleeping mask, your favorite aromatherapy, pictures that consistently make you smile, your favorite snack, a takeout menu from your loved one’s favorite restaurant, or a movie or soundtrack that helps you process your emotions. The choices are unlimited.
Your kit can be digital, such as a Google Document filled with links to the things that help you cope, or it can be a physical box that you keep in your closet.
One of my favorite things has been to go through and hold some of my father’s things—his class ring, dog tags from when he was in the Army, or old photos—and think about the memories I’ve had with him.
Keep in mind that it can take a while for you to build your kit up. Different strategies will work on different days, and you may still be in the discovery phase of learning the things that help you get through. Regardless of where you are in the process, this mental health day or coping kit can help you be more prepared for those unexpected grief waves.
4. Create a network of support
Whether you have family and friends who understand what you’re going through, or you feel like no one gets it, it’s important to build a network of people who can support you through your grief. Whether this is an official bereavement group that you seek out or it’s a collective of individuals who you can simply call when you need to, support is vital.
In some instances, professional support with a therapist or other mental health professional can be healing as well.
Having other people in your corner can help you process your feelings and help you feel less alone. Make sure when you reach out to your support network that you tell them how they can best support you in that moment.
For example, if you need someone to just listen while you verbally process, let them know that you need someone to hear you speak.
If you need someone to tell you it will be okay, let them know you need some verbal reassurance that this painful moment will pass.
If you need advice because you don’t know what to do or you need someone to physically be with you, make sure you plainly communicate exactly what you need so your support network can help you in the way you need.
This will take all of the guesswork out of how they can be there for you, so you have the strongest support system available to you. This may take some adjusting and getting used to. Remember to be patient with your support network. They’re learning this process with you.
Grief is hard. There’s no way to sugar-coat that. But if you can manage to create coping practices that support you, even when grief strikes out of nowhere, you can find your way back to equilibrium faster.
Find your patience with the people who may be grieving differently than you are, and create a support network that you can communicate your needs with.
While losing someone you love is one of the most difficult things you can experience, life does press forward and you can find ways to hurt a little less along the way.