It’s OK not to be OK: Advice on how to navigate your own grief, and how to support others

| May 3, 2024

The significant pain of losing a loved one is a near-universal experience.

Mary Frances O’Connor, a psychologist researching the relationship between the brain and grief, depicted grief as waves that continue to ebb and flow, rather than a process that can be easily stopped. Grief doesn’t follow a standard timeline, so it’s important for those who are grieving and their supporters to take their time and not rush the process.

How can we support the people we care about when they are in grief? What do we do when we are in a position of bereavement ourselves?

Here is some advice on how to navigate grief, whether you’re doing it yourself or trying to help someone else.

To grievers: how to deal with life after loss

“I couldn’t do anything without thinking of him,” my friend told me after she lost her best friend in a hiking accident. She blamed nature for taking his life and regretted things she could have done in the past.

After going through some depression, she returned to the mountains, where many of their best memories were created. It took her one year to finally share those thoughts and feelings without triggering sadness.

While people may process their grief differently from my friend’s experience, there are common strategies suggested by the NIH and the American Psychological Association that can help you adapt.

  • Be gentle to yourself. Grief often comes with mixed feelings, and it takes time to heal. Some social norms and cultural beliefs expect people to act in certain ways when facing loss. However, it is essential to accept how you feel and grieve in ways and at a pace that is comfortable for you. There is no need to force yourself to move faster, or to worry about judgments from others on how a person should behave during the grieving process.
  • Take care of yourself. Returning to a life without loved ones can be difficult. However, getting enough sleep, eating nutrient-dense food, and exercising can maintain mental and physical health while navigating the grief.
  • Talk with people in your support system. Caring and connecting with people who share the same loss benefits each other’s healing process. Letting others know when you need to talk also allows your support system to be there for you.
  • Talking to professionals may help. Contact your healthcare provider if you find it difficult to perform daily activities. Mental health professionals also help people with loss develop strategies and skills to endure the pain. Refer to the list at the end of this post for Hopkins-based resources.

My friend listed some hardships during her healing process: “Sometimes I felt like the world moved on without me. Loneliness hit strongly on anniversaries and holidays we used to celebrate together. Even after the first year, I could burst into tears when triggered by certain things and memories associated with him.”

She learned to honor her friend by writing down thoughts when she thought of him, going to hiking spots they planned to visit, and sharing the process of her loss with people in need.

“Doing these helps me better sort and accept the loss better,” she said.

To supporters: how to reach out to grievers

You know they are in deep pain. This realization, however, may become a barrier to supporting people you care about. Should you avoid talking about their loss? What if you say or do something wrong? It can be awkward when you don’t know what to do.

Remember: your genuine presence matters the most to the griever. The Speaking Grief Initiative provides a comprehensive resource about supporting grief, including the dos and don’ts with specific examples. The following are some major points from the website, some of which apply to supporting people with other traumas as well.

  • Do: Know that support is different from comforting. There is no way to remove the griever’s pain, so we don’t have to force advice or smiles on them. Listening and accepting what they say are good ways to assist them through grieving.
  • Do: Be consistent. Our support often peaks immediately after a death, but ongoing support is important to grievers. Sometimes, people in grief may initially decline your offer to help. Try again with specific tasks you can help with, with the flexibility to change or decline, and let them know you won’t go away.
  • Don’t: Make things about yourself. We tend to share our experiences with grievers to demonstrate empathy or to advise them. However, a better approach to show concern (without changing the focus of the conversation) is to briefly tell them you have experience with loss and let them decide if they want to know more.
  • Don’t: Judge their loss. Trying to prematurely end people’s grieving periods and offering solutions right away could be offensive. Avoid saying any of the following:
    • “You should…”
    • “You shouldn’t…”
    • “At least…”
    • “Things get better.”

As an alternative to those phrases, voice concerns with questions led by objective statements, like, “You’ve been missing [their favorite activity] for weeks. Are you feeling OK?”

While some people may find a silver lining in their loss of loved ones years later, it is ok just to feel bad about it.

As supporters, we will stand by you and offer our support whenever needed.

Hopkins Resources

If you are experiencing high levels of stress for any reason, consider reaching out to a clinician or other resources for a consultation. Some key Hopkins resources include:

  • Stress and Depression Questionnaire (all students and trainees). An anonymous online tool that helps assess how stress and depression may be affecting you and provides the opportunity to confidentially chat with a counselor online.
  • Behavioral Health Crisis Support Team (BHCST). A program for pairing clinicians with public safety officers to respond to behavioral health crises on or in areas immediately surrounding our Baltimore campuses.
  • Free access to Mental Telehealth, powered by TimelyMD, for degree-seeking students and trainees. Mental Telehealth offers a 24/7 phone line, as well as providers licensed in all 50 states for virtual therapy appointments. Note: telehealth therapy appointments are only available to people physically located in the United States. Your citizenship doesn’t matter, but your physical location does. Students in the U.S. and in countries that permit web access can use the 24/7 TalkNow service. If neither of these options is available to you, please contact your Hopkins mental health office (see below) for support.
  • Mental Health Services – Homewood (410-516-8278). Serves all in-person undergraduate and graduate students and trainees from Krieger, Whiting, and the Peabody Institute, as well as in-person students in the School of Education, Carey Business School (Baltimore campus), and in-person Engineering for Professionals students.
  • Mental Health Services – East Baltimore (410-955-18920). Serves graduate, medical, and professional students and trainees in the Schools of Medicine, Nursing, and Public Health.
  • Mental Health Services – Washington, DC (443-287-7000). Serves students taking in-person classes in DC, including SAIS, Carey DC, AAP, and Engineering for Professionals.