8 Ways to Cope With Grief at Milestones
If you’ve lost a loved one, a milestone event such as a holiday, anniversary, or birthday can trigger a new wave of grief. Long-held traditions tug at your heart and make you wish that things were different—that the one you love could be with you to celebrate again.
Unfortunately, our culture teaches us we’re supposed to grieve quickly and move on with our lives. Earlier this year, the American Psychiatric Association removed the “bereavement exclusion” in the diagnosis of major depressive disorder (MDD) when they released the fifth edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the bible of mental illnesses. As a result, someone who is grieving may be diagnosed with the mental illness MDD if they experience a number of symptoms listed in the diagnostic criteria for more than two weeks. And although proponents argue that this will keep bereaved individuals who are experiencing a depressive episode from falling through the cracks in doctors' offices, critics warn that the revisions make it possible to pathologize even short-term grief, opening the door for a surge of pharmaceutical treatments for a condition that some experts argue is a universal human experience.
Jerome C. Wakefield, a psychiatry professor at New York University School of Medicine and author of The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow Into Depressive Disorder told the New York Times last year, “An estimated 8 to 10 million people lose a loved one every year, and something like a third to a half of them suffer depressive symptoms for up to month afterward.” Brenda Shoshanna observes, “People get scared when they feel a lot of grief, but it's normal and natural." "Be gentle with yourself," she says, "and give yourself permission to feel what you're feeling."
Elizabeth Lesser and Brenda Shoshanna have both journeyed through their own grief and help others move through theirs. Here are eight all-natural tips they offer to help you cope with grief during milestone events:
1. Don’t hide your grief.
Try to be honest about what you're going through—at work, at home, and with your friends, says Lesser. If your parent or partner passed away, and you’re facing your first holiday season without them, when a coworker comes up to you at the Christmas party and cheerfully asks, “How are you?”, take a deep breath and say, “Thanks for asking. The holidays are really hard for me this year, because someone I loved died.” Chances are, Lesser says, your colleague will breathe a sigh of relief and say, “I'm so glad you shared that. Here's what I'm going through.”
2. Celebrate your progress.
When you’re approaching an important milestone in your grief journey, you may think you should be happier, or more functional, or farther along in the healing process—and it’s tempting to beat yourself up for that. “Let go of your expectations about how your grieving process is supposed to look and be pleased with the steps you did take,” Shoshanna says. “Spend some time thinking, 'How have I grown? What are my accomplishments? What do I feel good about?'” It’s important to acknowledge and honor your progress.
3. Give yourself permission not to observe a milestone.
If you’re grieving a fresh loss, it's okay to sidestep a milestone celebration such as a traditional holiday, says Lesser. “In old European cultures, people who lost someone would wear black for a year. Their community would know that that person was going to have a different year. It was like, ‘Stay away, she's wearing black. We're going to treat her very gently this year and give her time to go into the fruitful darkness of her loss.” If you're feeling brave, you can say to your coworkers or friends, ‘My heart is so sore, so I'm going to sit this one out.’”
4. Consider the healing power of serving others.
Sometimes it helps to shift your focus from your own grief to the grief of others, says Shoshanna. Chances are, there’s someone out there who’s coping with an even greater loss than you are. Perhaps providing a microloan to a woman in a war-torn region or writing letters of support to people who lost loved ones in a bombing may bring a new perspective to your life—and your own experiences with grief may help them feel heard and understood.
5. Remember your loved one through a ritual.
When you come to a seasonal marking of loss, such as the anniversary of your child’s death, Lesser says, “create a family ritual of your own—one that keeps the memory of your loved one alive.” It can be as simple as visiting their grave and sharing your favorite stories about them, or starting a foundation in the loved one’s name, encouraging your family and community to engage in a meaningful act of giving back.
Don’t look for “closure” in this ritual, Lesser warns. Although the loss of a loved one creates a gap in your heart, she says, “the Christian minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, the point is not to close the gap, to fill it with something else, not even to fill it with God, but to keep it open. By keeping it open, you remain connected to the person you have lost.”
6. Reach out for support.
Although it’s tempting to isolate yourself when you’re grieving—especially during “happy times” like the holidays, you’ll do better with support. Reach out to a therapist or a trusted spiritual guide, Lesser suggests. Find a grief support group. Stay connected to supportive family members and friends.
7. Search for the sweetness in your grief.
This may sound radical, Lesser says, but “Try to reframe your grief from something that feels like it’s going to kill you, to something that can feed you and motivate you. The world is suffering from not grieving. If we grieved, let's say, the loss of forest habitat for birds, if we really let ourselves feel that loss, we would act differently. We would love better. And we would preserve what really matters.”
When you’re struggling with a milestone event, remind yourself that your grief is a sign that you loved deeply. Tell yourself, “I'm a lucky person. I got to love that person who died or left me. And now the loss of it is showing me what a lover I am and how much room there is in my heart for love.”
8. Let go of regrets and forgive.
When your grief is triggered at milestones such as birthdays or anniversaries, Shoshanna notes, it’s often because you’re mourning an aspect of your relationship that wasn’t resolved before your loved one left or passed away. If you wish you'd done or said something differently, Shoshanna recommends asking, “What do you need to say, do, or give to the person?” Sometimes, imagining how that interaction would have gone can help you release your regrets. “If you think, ‘I wasn’t loving enough,’ or ‘I wasn't forgiving enough,’ or there is something you blamed yourself for, you can also try saying, doing, or giving that to somebody in your present life,” Shoshanna says.
Conversely, ask yourself: “What did you need to hear your loved one say or to have them do?” Try to figure out what that is, and then see if you can give it to yourself. “We can correct the past in the present,” Shoshanna says.
And if a memory comes up about the person and you realize you’re angry with them, try to forgive that person for any way in which they might have hurt you. This can soften your grief, too—and, perhaps, encourage you to enjoy the present moment.