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Living With Grief: How to Survive a Significant Loss

by Dr. Ilona L. Tobin

One of the hardest things we’ll ever experience is the loss of someone—or something—dear to us. Grieving is a normal and natural response to this loss. While death is one of the most common losses, grief also comes with other big and small life changes, such as a serious illness, the end of a relationship, the loss of a job, relocating to an unfamiliar city, or other lifestyle changes.

Even if you aren’t currently grieving, it can be beneficial to think about the grief process. At its core, grief is a part of the experience of being alive…and human. And while grief isn’t pleasant, it can give us insight, compassion and strength that we wouldn’t otherwise have found.

Here are some ways to access those greater qualities, survive a significant loss or help someone experiencing grief.

1. Expect a process.
In stark contrast to how frequently TV characters talk about “getting closure,” in reality, grief is an ongoing experience. The goal of grieving isn’t to “get to the bottom of it” or to stop feeling a certain way. Instead, it’s a process of learning to live with your emotions every day and every moment. Even years later, reminders like a special day or the smell of a favorite meal may trigger a fresh wave of memories and feelings linked to the loss.

2. Acknowledge the loss.
“When a person is born we rejoice, and when they’re married we jubilate,” wrote Margaret Mead, “but when they die we try to pretend nothing has happened.” If someone in your life is grieving, do your best to acknowledge that something has happened. Avoid clichés. Don’t force a conversation if the person isn’t ready to talk. While it may feel awkward, a simple gesture like a hug or sitting together in silence can have meaning. An offer to help with a household task, such as running errands or making a meal, can also go a long way.

3. Do the grief work.
In our fast-paced world, we tend to expect things to be quick, direct and convenient. Living with grief isn’t any of these things. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, no series of steps to make it hurt less, no magical approach that shortens the time it takes to heal. Instead, living with grief requires us to feel our feelings, fully and completely. In the words of poet Emily Dickinson: “The best way out is through.”

4. Ask for help.
Lean on your support system. If you’re not sure how to ask for help, “I’m having a hard time…” is a good way to start. If you need help beyond what your friends and family can provide, seek the support of a grief group as well as your counselor or therapist.

As with any process, it takes time to learn new skills and ways to cope with grief. Be gentle with yourself as you experience strong feelings. That kindness toward yourself can be the important first step toward a broader healing that will have ramifications after the grief has subsided.

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Ilona Tobin has been a psychologist and a marriage and family therapist for more than 25 years in Birmingham, Michigan. For more information, please visit her listing on the Therapist Directory.

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