A guide to getting through grief

A guide to getting through grief

Excerpted from the December 2011 issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter.

Losing a close friend or family member can be devastating. All the small details of daily life — getting out of bed, making meals, going to appointments, taking care of children, handling responsibilities at work — may seem monumentally hard or inconsequential. It is important for people to let the nonessentials slide and focus on ways to get through this difficult time.

Dr. Michael Hirsch, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and medical editor of Harvard Medical School’s Special Health Report Coping with Grief and Loss: A Guide to Healing, offers the following advice. Although some tips may seem basic, they are vital for enabling people who are grieving to work through the process.

Tend to the essentials

People who are grieving a loved one’s loss may neglect their own health and well-being. In spite of the emotional pain, it’s important that you attend to the basics — making the literal, eat-your-vegetables choices — to maintain your physical health.

Eat well. A well-balanced diet is essential as you withstand the stress of grieving. That means eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins, and drinking plenty of water and other healthy liquids. If your appetite is diminished, try eating small portions more frequently. A daily multivitamin can cover any missing nutrients.

Take necessary medications. Grief makes people more vulnerable to illness, so it’s important that you keep taking your regular medications.

Get enough sleep. Grief is exhausting. If you feel tired, nap to make up for a sleep deficit. Paradoxically, doing more exercise is likely to improve your energy. Watch your caffeine and alcohol intake, as these substances can interfere with sleep.

Exercise every day. A simple walk, a bike ride, yoga, or a harder workout can ease agitation, anger, and depression. Depending on your needs, exercise can provide you with a distraction when you need a break from grieving, or offer you some quiet time to focus on your loss.

Avoid risky behavior. In the wake of a profound loss, people often justify using dangerous coping strategies — such as drinking too much alcohol (more than one drink a day for women or two for men), using drugs, or engaging in impulsive or self-destructive behavior. The short-term relief of pain is likely not to be worth it if the pattern of dangerous behavior persists or intensifies, leading to further losses.

Delay big decisions. Grief can cloud thought processes, and people who make abrupt decisions may regret them later. Many experts suggest that you wait a year, if possible, before moving, changing jobs, clearing out keepsakes, and making other momentous decisions.

Practice self-care. People who are grieving should regularly ask, “What would help me most today?” The answer may vary from day to day and even from hour to hour. Sometimes you need to cry, or talk to a friend, or just take a break from grieving.

For more information on coping with grief and loss, view the full issue of the December 2011 Harvard Mental Health Letter.

Additional Resources



Saying Goodbye: How Families Can Find Renewal Through Loss

With advances in modern medicine, the nature of death and dying has undergone a dramatic shift. A diagnosis of a life-threatening disease is not always an immediate death sentence, and one can survive months or even years before succumbing to a terminal illness. Saying Goodbye explores what this means for those who may be left "living with death" for an extended period of time, guiding readers through this complex journey. Learn more »


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No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

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