How to Talk about Your Grief Feelings
May is mental health awareness month, a time when we like to talk about the fact that we need to discuss mental health more and that it’s OK to do so. But often, the conversation does not go much further than that, leaving many people feeling like talking about their emotions is difficult, not because they don’t want to do it, but because they do not know how to do it.
Grief, whether you consider it a mental health condition or not, has a major impact on one’s mental health and emotional wellbeing. And like many aspects of mental health, it is complex, nuanced, unique to each individual, and deeply personal. The feelings a grieving person experiences are complicated, confusing, and often contradictory. Relief at the end of suffering may share space with longing for one day more. Someone might feel immense guilt, while still knowing they did everything they could. Sadness may come out as anger because it is an easier emotion to access and feels more cathartic rather than vulnerable.
With so many emotions often all at once and different intensities, it can be overwhelming to even know where to start in answering the question “how do you feel?” It is even more difficult to know how to cope with those feelings because different things might be needed for each feeling.
It is best to first identify the feelings you are having. This may sound overly simplistic, but putting a name to the many complex emotions we have and finding the language for how they all interact is a powerful tool for understanding our grief. Naming them out loud is validating and allows you to address them head on.
Next it is helpful to connect with those feelings in a concrete way. Sometimes talking about emotions seems too abstract and it can be easier to access them through your physical experience of each feeling. Where in your body do you feel nervous? How does your body feel when you’re angry? What does your body do when you are sad? Or happy? Responses might be butterflies in your stomach, tension in your shoulders, crying, and laughing.
Now instead of thinking about how to respond to the emotion, try thinking about how to respond to the physical sensation. Would a snack or a walk in fresh air settle your stomach? Would an intense workout or hot shower release the tension? Would some soothing music or a midday nap help with the tears? Would a lunch with a good friend or enjoying a hobby help keep your spirits up?
Next try your “coping tool” and see if it helps. If it lessens the intensity of the feeling or sends it fully away for the time being, notice how you feel in your body now and what feeling or feelings seem connected to that. Calm? Supported? Is your body more relaxed? Remember that you can use that tool in the future.
If it doesn’t work, give yourself credit for the attempt and acknowledge that these feelings are not bad or wrong. Your heart and your body deserve relief from the difficult feelings, but not because they are not valid. Sometimes, we have no choice but to sit with them. Try something else next time. You are still learning and your grief is always changing. And maybe the more you name your feelings and connect with them concretely, the more easily you will find it to discuss them and the bigger your box of tools to cope with them will become.