4 Signs You Are Not Coping With Your Grief & Might Need A Therapist

Psychotherapist By Rachel Wright, LMFT
Rachel Wright, LMFT, is a psychotherapist, sex educator, and mental health expert based in Brooklyn. She has a master's degree in Clinical Psychology from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, and her work has been featured in SHAPE, Cosmopolitan, Women's Health, and elsewhere.
4 Signs You Are Not Coping With Your Grief & Might Need A Therapist

Grief, that natural emotional reaction we experience after someone close to us dies (or, occasionally, after other major life changes), can be so deeply painful and confusing. The unfortunate reality: As humans, we will all experience grief at one point or another. In fact, one in five Americans will lose someone close to them by the time they're 18 years old.

Making things even harder to deal with is the fact that we're told so many "shoulds" when it comes to coping with grief and loss—you should go to a support group, you should feel better within a year or so, or you should find a new hobby to distract yourself. But, as a licensed therapist, I've seen that all of these "shoulds" can end up keeping us trapped and scared and prevent us from processing our grief and moving forward in a healthy way.

Even though grief and loss are unavoidable, we haven't gotten "used to it" as a species, and so many of us struggle to cope—especially today, with Instagram feeds to scroll through and Facebook memories that pop up unprompted, sending us down a rabbit hole of what-ifs that's often pretty hard to crawl out of without some help. It's definitely not as simple as letting time heal your wounds.

About 10 to 15% of children and adults will have a severe reaction to a death requiring an intervention, like a therapist. And while it may be especially important to seek out therapy after losing someone to certain types of death (sudden, violent, or part of a traumatic event), the truth is, therapy can be helpful in assisting anyone through the grieving process to help minimize unnecessary suffering.

Here, I'm going to share four common signs that you're not coping with your loss in a healthy way and that you may want to seek the help of a therapist:

1. You're relying on alcohol or drugs to get through the day.

After a loss, it's not unusual to turn to not-so-healthy crutches like alcohol and drugs to numb feelings or sorrow and anger you'd rather not feel. In fact, in a 2012 study looking at alcohol use among men in the first three years of their bereavement compared to men who weren't grieving, researchers found that 20 percent more of the grieving men were abusing alcohol.

And while a drink here and there to mask the unpleasantness isn't horrible over the long term, it's easy to become reliant on these "quick fixes," which can lead to some pretty terrible things, like addiction, over time. Plus, masking your feelings will lead to an even stronger desire to numb them when they inevitably pop back up again. A good therapist will help you develop strategies to notice and acknowledge these feelings and find healthier ways to address them.


2. You're "faking it until you make it" on the daily.

One of my go-to resources for grief is Sarah Nannen, a life reclamation expert, coach for widows, and widow herself. She strongly disagrees with the idea that we should be "putting on a happy face, tucking our emotions away, and showing up for life, even when you're in pure emotional chaos and agony on the inside."

But this, of course, is what often happens since we've decided collectively as a society that the best way to deal with grief is to simply cope with it quickly and move on. This "masquerade of grief" or "grief hustle," as Nannen calls it, where you're literally going through the motions of life (going to work, paying the bills, feeding the kids), often prevents you from really feeling what you're feeling and processing it in a healthy way.

It's not that you should stay in bed all day until you feel good (being around people and doing things can help), but if you've been feeling like an actor in your own life as you try to maintain your old schedule, it may be time to seek the help of a professional.

3. You're suffering from panic attacks or other debilitating symptoms.

Cognitive dissonance is a big reason someone might experience mental health issues during the grieving process. Basically, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. When you're grieving, the contrast between your outer lived experience and your chaotic mental and emotional landscape can be in stark, which can deepen your sense of isolation and suffering.

This, in turn, keeps you physiologically locked in survival mode (when your sympathetic nervous system is in constant overdrive), making it harder for you to re-engage with life in a meaningful way and setting you up for a variety of mental health symptoms such as panic attacks, anxiety, and depression. If these issues are interfering with your day-to-day life, it's time to get support.

4. You're thinking about harming yourself.

Grief can trigger or amplify depression in certain people, which may lead to suicidal thoughts or actions. So, if you can't stop thinking about hurting yourself because the pain of losing your loved one is just too profound to feel, reach out for help immediately. Stop reading this and contact The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on their website or by phone at 800-273-8255.


How to find a therapist and get some much-needed relief.

If the points above sound familiar, it's an indicator that one of two things is going on: 1) you're not processing or feeling the feelings that come along with grief, loss, and bereavement, or 2) you've tried to feel the feelings, but they feel way too heavy to deal with on your own.

There is no shame in either one of these. Grieving in a healthy way includes processing your loss and moving forward in a way that feels appropriate for you. Forget what anyone has told you, there is no one-size-fits-all grief model. A therapist, or a grief/life coach, can help you navigate the emotions, logistics, thoughts, conversations—all of the things that feel like "too much"—and give you the support you need to live and thrive in this new version of yourself.

If you're ready to look for help, go to websites like PsychologyToday (where you can search for therapists and support groups) and GoodTherapy, both of which are great resources that allow you to filter by ZIP code, specialties (e.g., grief and anxiety), types of insurance accepted, and whether or not the therapist accepts sliding-scale payments.

Finally, I want you to know that you are not alone. I've seen patients make huge strides in processing their grief and learning how to experience joy again—even when they initially thought that was impossible. I'll leave you with one of my favorite lines from Nannen: "Our capacity for healing and powerful living is far deeper than what we've been led to believe...you don't have to 'cope' or forget. You get to live, thrive, and remember."


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