Grief support: what ways are there to cope with grief?

A separation, a death or a serious illness: we all grieve for different reasons. It is important to engage with this powerful emotion, whether you’re the person affected or the one supporting somebody else.

25.08.2022 Nina Merli 4 minutes

A difficult loss is generally followed by feelings of grief. We experience a sense of deep sadness, despair and helplessness.

Everyone deals with this differently. And the reasons for grief are also very individual: the death of a loved one, a separation, losing a job or another difficult event can all knock us off course. What can I do to overcome this grief? And how can I help someone I know who is grieving?

Why is grieving important?

Grief that is not processed can lead to mental and physical problems. It is often not until we go through a period of mourning that we realise how strongly our body and mind are connected. This is why it is important to face grief and to acknowledge it as a necessary healing process for the soul. And we must allow ourselves enough time and space to do so.

How is grief expressed?

People who are grieving can have a wide range of emotions. They feel sadness, despair, longing, dejection, shock, anger, but also relief. Grief can lead to depression. On a physical level, grief can show itself in the form of a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath or an empty feeling in the stomach. Intense fatigue, disturbed sleep or hair loss can also occur.

Phases of grief

For a long time, the grieving process was defined using a five-phase model with the following stages:

  • Denial: “This can’t be happening!” 
  • Anger: “Why me?” 
  • Bargaining: “How can I undo what’s happened?” 
  • Depression: “I don’t want to carry on, I can’t carry on.” 
  • Acceptance: “I accept the situation and am looking ahead.”

However, this model of the stages of grief is now deemed scientifically outdated. Experts tend to advise people not to use it as a guide. The prominent psychologist, grief researcher and author George Bonanno has rebutted the traditional phase model in various studies. He has used specific examples to illustrate that grief can not only be overcome – it can also trigger a positive change in those concerned.

Predefined stages of grieving run the risk of misleading the griever and relatives because their own mourning process may be completely different. In recent years, international research on grief has repeatedly stressed that grief is an individual experience and that external influences or expectations can interfere with the natural process of working through it.

Bonanno believes that grief occurs in waves. The bereaved are repeatedly overwhelmed by deep grief after someone they love dies, for example. In the time in between, positive feelings also occur, which help them to bear the loss and cope with the grief. The intensity of the grief diminishes over time, making the waves of grief more bearable until the grieving person regains their equilibrium and can go forward with life. The wave model offers an explanation for why mourners can experience bearable or “normal” moments and even laugh shortly after the funeral, only to grieve deeply again soon afterwards.

What’s the “right” way to cope with grief?

As is the case with most emotional problems, there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to grief. Each person grieves in their own individual way. Some find it helps to cry, while others show far fewer emotions – which doesn’t automatically mean that these people are feeling grief to any lesser degree than anyone else. Others bury themselves in their work or try to distract themselves by other means. Whether you’re the person grieving or supporting someone else, it helps to know that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve.

Talking helps

Not everyone who is grieving finds it easy to share their thoughts with others about it. But talking does help, because as the saying goes, “a problem shared is a problem halved”. It is advisable not to cut yourself off, and to talk to friends or family members: this helps mourners to understand themselves better. Showing your emotions is okay and you should not be ashamed of them.

Write a diary

Writing can be effective in getting through the grieving process. Keeping a diary can help to sort through your thoughts and express your feelings. You should definitely also write about the positive things you experience and record happy memories.

Accept all feelings

Grief can trigger highly conflicting behaviour or unexpected feelings: not everyone grieves according to the same formula.

How should relatives and friends of people in mourning behave?

Bettina Konetschnig, a life coach and grief counsellor, has experienced for herself how varied, intense and also unexpected grief can be through the death of her partner. When it comes to mourning, she considers phrases such as these to be no-gos: “It’s not all that bad, try to look forward.” “I’m sure you’ll find someone else.” Or: “Time heals all wounds.”

Konetschnig advises honesty instead: “It’s perfectly okay to tell someone who is grieving that you are unable to cope and don’t know how to handle the situation.”

Offer specific help

“Contact me if you need me.” Although this is a nice thing to say, Konetschnig says that specific suggestions are more helpful, as bereaved people often find it difficult to ask for help. (More on this in the video.)

Here are some suggestions:

  • Call and ask if you can help or drop by.
  • Offer to do the shopping or cook.
  • Suggest looking after the children.
  • Offer to do administrative tasks (especially if there has been a death).
  • Ask if financial help is needed.
  • For all your willingness to help: just listen too.
  • Accept if your offer is rejected.

Long-term support

When someone loses a loved one, their circle of acquaintances is greatly affected – especially in the first stages, until the funeral. But help is especially needed afterwards, when mourners have to get used to everyday life again. Grief has no time frame and cannot be reduced to a specific period.

Laughing together

It is important to cry together, but laughing is also allowed. Give those who are grieving a gift of beautiful memories or anecdotes about a loved one. Share your thoughts and feelings. Even in a phase of mourning, all feelings are legitimate. They can be experienced alongside each other.

Dealing with grief: stories from those affected

Bettina Konetschnig and Ewa Bolli’s partners both died of cancer. During this difficult time, the two friends were there for each other and supported each other. In the video, they share what helped them to cope with their grief and what they found essential.

Where is professional help available?

Moving beyond the grieving process can also prove difficult. Experts recommend that those affected who are still in a deep stage of the grieving process after six months should seek professional help. Family doctors, therapists, self-help groups or other specialist institutions can provide further help:

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How emotions arise, where our body holds them and why food is always good for the soul: find answers to these and other interesting facts in our “Ratgeber” edition on emotions. Order a free print edition or download the PDF here.

Please note: Ratgeber is not available in English, but in German, French and Italian.

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