When we’re young, everyone and everything seems to be permanent.
We have no concept of loss until that inevitable moment rears its head.
We lose a pet, a grandparent, a job, or a relationship. Suddenly your world gets turned upside down, and it’s hard to understand what to do next. You have to process a million different emotions and constantly yo-yo from being absolutely fine to bawling in the bathroom of a Wendy’s.
Yep, we’re talking about heavy stuff. But the reality is that these feelings are also unavoidable.
Loss is one of those universal emotions that everyone feels at one point or another. It doesn’t matter where you grew up, who your parents are, what your salary is, or how many friends you have. All of us lose something—and we all have to figure out how to be okay when we’re not okay.
That ☝️ is precisely what I’m going to talk about in this post: how to learn to cope with loss in a healthy way.
When you understand your own emotions and how to process them, you’ll be better equipped to deal with all of the hurdles life throws at you. Whether in your personal or professional life, learning to cope with loss will make you stronger, more compassionate, and, ultimately, a more resilient person.
But first, a story.
My own experience in dealing with loss
Early on in my life, I was pretty lucky. I had both sets of grandparents around from a young age. I didn’t have any pets except for a goldfish named Billy (who was so resilient he survived jumping from his bowl into a bowl of chili). My group of friends was good, and I had a pretty routine life.
Everything was great…until high school.
When I was in high school, I lost my grandmother somewhat unexpectedly. It was my first REAL encounter with grief and loss—and it was brutal.
I didn’t know how to respond. Being raised in a Chinese family, my parents’ response was to not talk about it and carry on like nothing ever happened.
For months, I tried to do just that: sweep it under the rug. And it would work…until it didn’t.
I would snap at my parents. I’d randomly get upset in school when someone said the slightest offhand remark. I started trying to control other parts of my life, like the number of calories I ate or the amount I exercised. I’d pour myself into hobbies, trying to figure out how to cope.
In short, I was a terror for one reason: I. Just. Didn’t. Know. How. To. Deal.
It wasn’t until a few months after that I actually talked to someone about it and realized that I couldn’t just run away from how I felt. I started journaling and letting myself feel my emotions rather than just trying to ignore them. Over time, it got better because I learned to deal with these deep feelings of loss in a healthy, mature way.
Since then, I’ve handled loss differently. I’ve learned not to ignore it but to accept it, manage it, and learn to let go. And this has been crucial because it turns out…
Loss is about more than losing someone you love
As humans, we feel a sense of loss for many things, not just when a loved one passes away. Loss can be over the end of a relationship or friendship, a job that you left or one where you became redundant, a missed opportunity you never took, or an experience you never had.
This feeling has been particularly prevalent in recent times for one reason: COVID.
Since 2020, we’ve ALL lost something or someone. Even though life has largely returned to normal for a good portion of us, I’d bet good money that most people haven’t properly processed our feelings of loss from the past three years.
From losing a graduation ceremony or traditional university experience to the loss of someone you cared about, loss hits us all in different ways—but one thing is for sure: it hits hard. The road to healing is long and winding; it all starts with knowing where you are on the path and where you’re going.
To do that, you have to get familiar with the five stages of grief.
The five stages of grief
This was single-handedly one of THE most helpful pieces of information I came across when learning about coping with loss. When I understood these stages, it became much easier to know why I felt the way I did. What’s more, when I had that self-awareness, I was in a better state to manage it.
Denial is our mind’s way of protecting ourselves from the immediate shock of what happened. It acts as a buffer, shielding us from the challenging situation because it’s just too much to process.
If you’ve ever said, “I just felt numb after XYZ happened,” you’ve experienced that state of denial that takes place immediately or soon after you’ve lost something. You may also wake up the next day and think it was a bad dream or hope someone will call you and say it’s all a big mistake.
The important thing to remember when you’re in this stage of denial is that it’s temporary. This response is your body’s way of helping to carry you through the first (and most challenging) moments when you’re just experiencing loss. Eventually, the denial will subside, and you’ll continue on to one of the next stages.
Stage 2: It’s all your fault! (AKA anger)
When you lose someone or something important, you may find that you get angry at strangers, the ones closest to you, or even the world at large. Anger is our way of redirecting the pain to another emotion that’s easier to process—or avoiding pain rather than confronting it. It’s also the first step in reconnecting us with the outside world after that initial state of denial and shock.
It’s tough for anyone to manage anger. On the flip side, people who know you’ve been through a loss will also understand if you get angry or behave out of character. However, left unchecked, anger can quickly spiral into resentment. So, you need to make sure that you communicate clearly and think rationally whenever possible to avoid causing irreparable damage to your property or relationships.
Stage 3: If only…(AKA bargaining)
“If only I had spotted this sooner…everything may have been different.”
That right there is a classic example of bargaining. In this stage of the grieving process, we may experience guilt over what happened. With nowhere to go and no way to undo what has been done, you might find yourself bargaining instead.
Sure, there’s nothing you can do about what has happened. However, this bargaining process is still essential as it helps us regain a sense of control when we feel like we have none.
Stage 4: Why bother…? (AKA depression)
Often referred to as the silent stage of grief, depression is that feeling of immense sadness following the more active anger and bargaining stages. Depression manifests itself in different ways, from fatigue to isolation or downright confusion.
For most of us, this can be the most challenging and overwhelming stage of the five—but it’s also the most necessary when facing the tremendous loss you’ve experienced.
Stage 5: I’m not okay, but I will be (AKA acceptance)
After your rollercoaster ride through the different stages of grief, you’ll inevitably land yourself in the last one: acceptance.
Acceptance doesn’t mean that you’ve completely gotten over the loss or that you’re going to be okay all day, every day. It simply means that you’re ready to acknowledge the loss you’ve experienced, readjust your life, and learn to live with it.
The five stages of grief are a valuable tool to help us understand how we cope with loss, but grief is by no means a linear journey.
You might find yourself bouncing from anger to bargaining to depression then back to anger again. It’s all part of the process of dealing with loss—and we all have to go through the four stages before finally arriving at the final stage: acceptance.
Trust the process. Even if it doesn’t feel like it, eventually you’ll emerge on the other side.
Likewise, there is no set time that we spend in each of these stages. It could be a few hours, days, weeks, months, or years. We all process our emotions differently, so don’t beat yourself up and think, “I should be done with being angry by now” or “Why haven’t I accepted this yet?”.
With that being said…there are some things you can do to help the process along.
Strategies to put in place to cope with loss
Loss is an overwhelming emotion, and it can feel even more overwhelming when you think about all the different stages you have to experience to finally make peace with what happened. But this doesn’t mean that you need to sit there and let it all happen to you.
The next time you’re faced with grief, here are four strategies to manage your emotions and navigate loss without completely losing yourself.
Have compassion for yourself
When we’re not okay, the natural instinct is to want to fix it and be okay again. It will be eventually—but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to deal with all the emotions you’re feeling overnight.
When you’re going through grief, the number one thing you can do is to be kind and gentle with yourself. You’re working through a lot, so remember to be patient with yourself, especially if you feel like you’re not making as much progress as you’d like or you’re not feeling like yourself.
Being kind to yourself could also mean:
Taking time off work to process what happened rather than simply trying to power through and distract yourself
Going back to basics, including eating well, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep
Going on a holiday to decompress and recharge
Spending time doing things that you love, like reading a good book or going on a hike
Don’t fight it
Let’s be real here: painful experiences SUCK. There’s no way to experience loss and not feel some really deep and confronting stuff. Rather than run from those painful feelings, it’s better to let yourself feel them (no matter how rough) and remember that it won’t be this way forever.
Take it from me: there’s no way of running from the feeling of grief. If you actively try to fight it or sweep it under the rug, it’ll always find a way to rear its head—and often in a place and way you’d least expect it.
Express your feelings in a healthy way
When coping with loss, having a healthy outlet for your emotions can be invaluable. Whether it’s writing your thoughts down every day, punching a boxing bag, painting, or going to pat cats at your local cat cafe, these activities provide an outlet for the challenging emotions you’re experiencing.
The more proactive you can be on this one, the better. If you don’t find an outlet, an outlet will find you—and these outlets will often be destructive in the short and long term.
Talk to someone
It sounds cliche, but talking about how you feel is an incredible source of comfort and a powerful way to process what you’re going through. I, for one, know that every time I talk about how I’m feeling after a huge loss, I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders.
Friends and family are a great source of support in these times, but they’re not the only network. Sometimes it helps to speak to an objective third party who you can open up to without the fear of being judged.
And lastly, if you don’t feel like you’re coping with it or you’ve exhausted all of your support networks, seek professional help. A qualified therapist or psychologist can provide specialized care to help you cope with grief and begin the healing journey.
Life after loss
Losing someone or something you cared about doesn’t mean life is over. Rather, it means that life will look different—but it can be equally as joyful if you let it.
Take time, be patient, and give yourself the room to feel what you need to feel. Remember: it’s okay not to be okay now, but it doesn’t mean it will always be this way.