Strategies and Tips for Grieving

Short placeholder heading

Contact the Bereavement Program


Staying Healthy While Grieving

The death of a loved one is a very stressful event that affects not only your emotional well-being but also your physical health. Keeping yourself healthy during this time is vital. If you are physically healthy, you will have more resources to deal with your grief.

To help you pay attention to your well-being, we recommend that you:

  • Establish a simple routine
    • Try to wake up at a similar time each day and go to bed about the same time each night
    • Eat at regular meal times, even if you don't feel like it
    • Plan a simple activity each day
    • Develop a to-do list and aim to check off one or two things each day
  • Keep active and focus on your health
    • Try to do something outdoors each day
    • Walk wherever you can
    • Limit your alcohol intake
    • Eat fresh food: Avoid processed food when possible
    • Do something for yourself – self-care is really important
  • Visit your doctor
    • Grief can be very stressful, so it's important to let your doctor know what has happened
    • Follow up on appointments that you may have put off when you were caregiving, such as the dentist, your PCP, or optometrist
  • Connect with people
    • Seek opportunities to be with your friends and family, especially those who are good listeners
    • Accept invitations: Try to do something socially even if you don't feel like it
    • Seek counseling if you have little support or feel overwhelmed

Setting Aside "Grief Time"

In the weeks and months ahead, it's important to carve out time to grieve on a regular basis. Otherwise, your busy schedule can push grief into the background. Even though you may be reluctant to do this, scheduling grief time can help you feel more in control of your grief and less overwhelmed. One suggestion is to begin by setting aside 20 or 30 minutes every day when you won't be disturbed. Pause for a moment and think about your loved one.

The following tips may give you some ideas about what to do in your "grief time":

  • Sit quietly and think about your loved one
  • Talk to them as though they were sitting right next to you
  • Play music that reminds you of them
  • Allow yourself to cry
  • Write them a letter
  • Start a journal, a memory book, or a photo book
  • Write about the events leading up to their death
  • List any questions you have
  • Make a "to-do" list about what needs to be done

Making Difficult Decisions

There will likely be many decisions to make after the death of your loved one. Some decisions will concern finalizing their affairs and sorting through belongings whereas others will concern your grief and building a new life for yourself.

Decisions that often cause people distress include:

  • When to sort through their loved one's belongings
  • Whether or not to take off their wedding ring
  • When to return to work
  • How often to visit the cemetery
  • Whether or not to sell or move

When grief is new, it's harder to think clearly about things because there is so much emotion involved. A general rule of thumb is to avoid making major decisions in the first year especially if those decisions are irreversible because you are more likely to make a decision that you might regret.

If you're facing a decision, write a list of the positives and negatives for the different options you are considering. Focus on the consequences of whatever decision you are entertaining, and ask yourself: Can I live with the consequences?

Facing the First Anniversary

By the time the first anniversary of your loved one's death comes around, you most likely will have dealt with many other "firsts," such as birthdays, holidays, and other significant dates. For many people, anticipating the first anniversary is particularly difficult as it not only highlights their loved one's absence but marks the passage of time.

It is helpful to remember the wave-like pattern of grief, where the waves are likely to increase in size as the first anniversary approaches. Many people find that they replay over and over the events of the prior year that led up to the day their loved one died. It's not unusual to think, "This time last year we were doing…" or "This time last year we had just found out this news." Often it feels as though you're getting worse again, but this is a normal part of grief.

The best advice for dealing with the first anniversary is to make a plan. This helps you prepare for the day before it arrives, which increases your sense of control. If the first anniversary is approaching, think about the following questions:

  • How do you want to acknowledge the day?
  • Who do you want to share it with?
  • What arrangements do you need to make ahead of time?
  • Are your plans realistic?

If you are having trouble deciding about what you could do, think about the favorite places you shared and ask yourself: What would my loved one suggest if they were here now?

Maintaining a Connection

When someone special in your life dies, it's important to work out how to maintain a connection with them. Often people worry that they will forget the sound of their loved one's voice, their face, or smell. These are all normal fears and working out how to maintain a connection with that special person based on memory and legacy is the key.

The following questions can help you think about how to develop a new connection with your loved one. Ask yourself:

  • What did you learn from them?
  • What were their values that are important to you today?
  • What history did you share?
  • What advice would they give you now about how they would like to be remembered?
  • Who can you share stories with? Find opportunities to reminisce with others.

Use Technology

Technology is a great way to maintain a connection especially for those families with young children. Creating online picture and storybooks are wonderful ways for children to learn more about their parents, grandparents, or other friends and relatives who have died. Convert any home movies to DVDs and if you have saved voicemails, find someone who can transfer these recordings to a safe storage device.

You could also:

  • Start an online journal
  • Make a coffee-table photo book with all of your favorite photos
  • Contact friends, family, and colleagues of your loved one and ask them to write some special memories or insights you can collate into a book

Coping With the Holidays

The holidays can be very difficult after the death of a loved one because what were once happy times may now fill you with sadness and dread. How soon after the death of your loved one they fall will most likely influence your decision about how much you want to participate in them. There might also be differing opinions in the family as to how to spend them, which can complicate things.

The same guidelines about facing the first anniversary apply here. The best strategy to deal with the holidays is to make a holiday plan:

  • Speak to your family ahead of time about the holidays
  • Consider making changes to your usual plans in the first year if it feels too hard
  • Lower your expectations about holiday preparations
  • Tell yourself (and others) that it is perfectly normal to feel sad and to cry
  • Give yourself permission to enjoy yourself without feeling guilty
  • Honor your loved one: What did they like about this particular holiday?
  • Create new traditions
  • Find ways to reminisce as a group or on your own

Caring for the Bereaved

If someone you care about is grieving, there are simple things you can do to help them get through this difficult time. Some will be easier to do than others, depending on your relationship with the deceased.

  • Encourage them to talk about their loved one
  • Let them tell their story, even if you have heard it before
  • Listen without interrupting
  • Accept their feelings, have empathy
  • Let them cry, even if you feel uncomfortable
  • Invite them to do things with you that they normally would enjoy
  • If you say you will call, make sure you do
  • Remember significant dates such as their loved one's birthday or the date they died
  • Use their loved one's name
  • Reminisce with them
  • Offer to accompany them to first-time appointments such as visiting the doctor, the lawyer or the bank
  • Offer to help write thank-you notes
  • Offer to help them plan for significant "firsts" such as holidays and the first anniversary of their loved ones' death
  • Suggest they see a counselor if they appear to be struggling

Learn more about the Bereavement Support Program at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center.