How To Take Care Of Yourself While Grieving The Death Of A Loved One

Written by Shoshana Berger

Image by Chelsea Victoria / Stocksy

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"Next to birth, death is one of our most profound experiences—shouldn't we talk about it, prepare for it, use what it can teach us about how to live?" So begins A Beginner's Guide to the End, a new book that provides insights on how to move through every part of the dying process as a patient or a loved one. In this excerpt, authors BJ Miller, M.D., and Shoshana Berger reflect on the stigmas surrounding heartache and grief, and how we can move through these emotions while honoring our own mental and physical health.

Grief can be isolating.

Rebecca Soffer, a cofounder of the Modern Loss website and community, was 30 when her mother was killed in a car accident. Soffer took two weeks off after her mother's death and had barely started to grieve before returning to her job as a television producer. Three years later, she received a call from someone asking her to arrange to get her father's body picked up; he'd had a fatal heart attack on a cruise ship while traveling abroad.

Stunned by the trauma of losing both parents within a few years of each other, she again dove back into work shortly thereafter. "Honestly, after each loss I felt like I was dying inside myself, and so few people knew what to do with me," she says. "Unless you're an incredibly empathic human being, if you haven't gone through profound loss yourself, it can really be difficult to effectively connect with someone moving through it. I felt like a pariah because this topic felt so taboo. If someone asked where my parents were, I'd say, 'In Philadelphia.' I didn't clarify that they were, in fact, underground there. It was just so much easier to be vague."

When she did come clean to people who asked about her family, it felt as though the space around her was getting sucked into a black hole. "There are few better ways to silence a conversation than to say, 'My mom just died,'" she says. "All I wanted was to feel like I could comfortably talk about my reality, not like people felt I might be contagious just because I'd used the word dead."

Taking care of yourself.

You never "get over" the death of a loved one—that's not the goal. Living on is. Here are a few ideas that may help:

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1. Take time off work.

Sadly, businesses are not required to offer paid bereavement leave, but many do provide three to five days off for the death of an immediate family member. Talk to your HR department about what's possible for you.

2. Seek out clergy, chaplains, and faith-based services.

Faith traditions have time-tested practices around death, dying, and mourning. Chaplains and clergy are trained to counsel those in bereavement. Hospital chaplains in particular are intimately familiar with supporting people of all faiths and of none. And many churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship have free programs and groups for grief support.

3. Contact your local hospice provider.

They are required to offer bereavement services to the community, whether or not your loved one was enrolled with their program. Despite the legal mandate, the funding for bereavement programs is paltry, so the services may not be robust, but they're a good place to start. Hospice agencies are terrific local resource centers as a rule and will often keep a list of psychotherapists and grief counselors in the community who may be of further help to you.

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4. Attend support groups or find them online.

Being with others who are working through grief can bring relief (no more pretending everything is OK). These are generally facilitated by mental health care professionals or other counselors. Less formal peer groups can be wonderfully helpful as well. The common thread is a safe place, real or virtual, where you can air your thoughts and feelings and be with others who are in a similar place. Here you are more likely to be seen and heard, not judged. Inquire with the hospice agency or your clinical team or hospital, or search for local groups online.

5. Try psychotherapy.

If you're prone to clinical depression or anxiety or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, don't mess around. It can be difficult to tease out grief from depression, so err on the safe side and get help. Therapy can work wonders, even if you're not depressed.

6. Ritualize.

American culture has largely lost touch with the grief rituals of the past and the wisdom behind them: hanging crepe in the windows, wearing black, wearing an armband, to name a few. These physical symbols buy some space for you and everyone around you. People are more forgiving and respectful; expectations of you adjust. With traditional rituals, you're tapping into a time-tested collective understanding of what you're going through.

With these tracks already laid, you get to step away from your swirling mind and follow an old pattern of action without the burden of thought. If, however, you don't want to follow tradition, you might gain an important but different power by creating your own ritual, a touchstone whose meaning you will always understand.

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7. Journal.

Each day before you go to bed, write down one thing you've managed to do (even if it was just waking up). Or just write about your experience. There's no need to keep what you write; just get it out and throw it away if you like. Writing, much like talking with other people, is a way to understand and process what you're going through, and it can also help you not take your thoughts too literally; your mind in grief might suggest all sorts of odd things to you.

8. Get fundamental.

Since grief is discombobulating, it pays to remember the basics of life. Try taking your shoes off, and feel the ground beneath you; take slow, deep breaths; drink water; eat good food (and really taste it); sleep.

9. Make some new "family rules."

If you've lost a central part of your nuclear family, it can shake the very foundation of the unit. Writing down some family rules in a place where everyone can see them is one way to introduce much-needed stability.

Things such as forgiveness, getting plenty of sleep, respecting one another's feelings, working together to get things done, and remembering to ask for help when you need it are great reminders that you are all in this together.

Excerpted from A Beginner's Guide to the End: Practical Advice for Living Life and Facing Death by BJ Miller, M.D., and Shoshana Berger with permission from the publisher.

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