Grief is Messy: Why it Looks Different for Everyone

A woman wearing a dark backpack stares into the distance as she walks past a grassy hill.

One of the first things I tell patients who have experienced loss is that grief is unpredictable and, oftentimes, quite messy. You may have learned about how people move through the 5 stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), but we all know the truth: It isn’t a linear process.

If you’ve lost someone or something you love, you know the process can be all over the place. There is no roadmap … one moment you may feel numb and the next you may be hit with a wave of great sadness. All of this is normal and completely OK, but that doesn’t make it any easier to navigate.

Whether you’ve experienced the loss of a loved one, a job, a pet, or your routine, it’s important to give yourself permission to grieve. Instead of judging yourself, try to approach your feelings surrounding loss with acceptance and kindness. Check in with your body. What do you need? Perhaps you’re craving extra sleep, a day off of work, a snack, or connection with a loved one.

Seeking out meaning

Whether it was the loss of my beloved pet or my dear parents, my stages of grief never happened in the order listed above, and honestly, I don’t think they are ever complete. In his book, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, grief expert David Kessler talks about the importance of finding meaning after moving through the previous 5 stages of grief. In this 6th stage, he recommends focusing on gratitude, commemorating someone, being aware of the brevity of life, and looking at the ways in which who or what you lost impacted you.

I was reminded of how complicated grief can be when I lost my cat, Tiger. She was tiny, yet fierce, and so affectionate. Sadly, she had chronic asthma and pneumonia that we went to great lengths to treat. When she began to suffer, our family had to make the difficult decision to have her euthanized.

I missed her terribly after she died, especially around her mealtimes and in the evenings. She had been such a comfort during this uncertain time, and life isn’t the same without her. I still find myself experiencing waves of grief and wishing that Tiger was sitting on my lap. Some days are fine and on others, I really feel her absence, so I take time to focus on the gratitude for all the joy that she brought my family. Finding meaning after loss doesn’t always look perfect, but it can make a big difference.

Your grief toolkit

Most of us have experienced tremendous loss, and yet many of us have not been taught how to grieve. Some cultures have set rituals and ways to process loss, while others may have less defined ways of responding. We simply may not know what to do with our feelings, so we pretend it isn’t happening at all. Below are a few resources to help you navigate loss and all the ever-changing feelings that come with it.

Try 4×4 breathing

  • Gently inhale through your nose for a count of 4.
  • Hold the breath for 4.
  • Slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of 4.
  • Hold at the bottom of the exhale for 4.
  • Repeat for as long as you need, whether that’s 4 breaths or 20 minutes. You decide.

Identify your support system
Who can you call in the middle of the night when you’re feeling vulnerable? Who can you text to relive happy moments?

Focus on positive memories
Create a memory book of your loved one or past experiences.

Write out all of the ups and downs that you’re experiencing. This is your place to get mad, get sad, and get the feelings out.

Take even just a few minutes to sit with your emotions. The Cope with Grief and Loss meditation would be a great place to start.

Be gentle with yourself

The death of my father when I was 9 years old was the most difficult loss I’ve experienced. Not only did it change my daily routine, but it also affected my relationship with my mother and brother. Looking back, I can say that his passing has shaped who I am today. There are still times that I miss my father, especially during big life events like when I got married, but I think I’d rather feel this pain than not feel anything at all. It reminds me of how much I love him and creates a more colorful, multi-dimensional life.

Remember, regardless of the loss you’re processing, you deserve support. If the resources above aren’t enough, don’t hesitate to reach out to a friend, family member, or therapist. Give yourself permission for your grief to be as messy as it needs to be.

By June Mitchell, LCSW

June Mitchell is a Program Therapist at AbleTo. She has been in the social work and mental health field for over 20 years. June has clinical experience working with people who are coping with depression, anxiety, and grief. When she’s not seeing patients, June enjoys spending time with her family, traveling, playing tennis, and snorkeling. She’s recently found joy in gardening and meditation.

Clinically reviewed by Sarah Dolling, LPC, Clinical Content Producer at AbleTo.

Photo by Sylwia Bartyzel/Unsplash. Individuals in photographs do not represent AbleTo participants.