Three months after my father died, I found myself in Boston attending the wedding of my niece. It was a lovely occasion, but during the reception a song was played that reminded me of my dad. I didn’t even have the time to say “excuse me” before fleeing in tears. I found my way to a bathroom stall and cried for several minutes. It was difficult to be a guest at such a happy occasion and still feel the gripping reality of having just lost my father. But after a few minutes alone in the bathroom, I was able to pull myself together and rejoin the festivities. I wasn’t dancing with joy, but I wished the bride and groom well, enjoyed the conversation with family, and made it through the rest of the reception.
Since my father’s death, I’ve become a therapist who specializes in, among other things, grief work. My decision to move forward with my schooling and career choice is directly tied to his passing.
Loss changes us—even if we’ve known a particular loss is coming, the actuality of it can be difficult and jarring. Our grief experience can start out with feelings of devastation, but when we allow grief into our lives, it invites healing and can lead to healthy and positive life shifts, including deeper empathy for ourselves and others.
In thinking about grief, it helps to understand that it’s okay to grieve all kinds of losses. In addition to the death of a loved one, we can experience grief in many situations, including divorce, the loss of a friendship, transitions within families, the loss of a pet, the loss of a job, or a move from a beloved home or area. Because our lives are profoundly touched by many different relationships, changes in those relationships can create tender feelings when those interactions are lost to us. Much of the time, we overlook or ignore the losses that don’t involve the death of a family member—but they matter.
It’s helpful to recognize that there are many ways to grieve. Most of us are familiar with the five basic stages of grief first written about by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. However, there are many grief models to consider that may be a better fit for your experience. Regardless of what model you choose, remember that grief is not linear. Your journey is unique. Your time in each stage or task depends on your relationship with that person and your own personality traits. Grief is messy, so be gentle with yourself. It is my hope that these 10 suggestions will help you on your journey, bringing purpose, meaning, and healing into your life.
1) It’s okay to cry. Many of us, especially men, feel the need to be strong and stoic in the face of grief. But God gave us emotions and tears to be able to feel and heal. We can’t heal what we refuse to feel. In the fifth footnote of her 2019 General Conference address, Sister Reyna Aburto stated, “Learning to identify and value our emotions can help us use them constructively to become more like our Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Acknowledging and feeling our emotions is a key component to healing our pain around loss. What isn’t acknowledged will find some way to get our attention. If we don’t acknowledge grief when it shows up under normal circumstances, it can return with complications of depression, anxiety, irritability, or a disconnect from self and others. Refusing to work through our grief can cause more problems than if we created a puddle of tears. So, give yourself permission to cry.
There are no rules when it comes to crying. You can cry alone, with others, or in prayer. Cry whenever it strikes you. If you’re in the car, pull over. If you’re with your kids or grandchildren, explain what’s happening in age-appropriate language to help them feel safe and recognize and become friendly with their own emotions. If you’re in a crowd, find a private place as I did during my niece’s wedding reception. If it’s in the middle of the night, cry where you feel safe. Don’t lie in bed, wiping away tears, thinking it’ll pass. Just cry. I have spent many nights huddled on the bathroom floor at 2:00 a.m., and although I woke up the next morning feeling and looking as if I’d been hit by a truck, I did wake up a little more emotionally centered after each episode.
2) You will experience “waves” of grief. You can’t control them. And that’s okay. They wash over you. Sometimes during your grief, you’ll feel relatively calm or something may distract you. You may even feel a spark of joy. These moments are incredible blessings. Breathe them in. But when the next wave comes, you’ll feel as if you’ve been pulled under. This can be one of the most frustrating and grueling aspects of grief.
These waves can be intense, but let these experiences deposit you on whatever shore you land. Their intensity will lessen with time, and afterward, there will be small bits of peace and the promise of relief.
3) You may think you see your loved one everywhere. After my father died, it wasn’t unusual for me to think I had seen him when I was out in public. Anyone who remotely resembled him would make me look twice. This is a common experience for those who have recently lost a loved one. You may think you see your person at the grocery store, in the car next to you, or walking down the street. You aren’t going crazy. It’s normal, and it will lessen with time. It’s been years since my father passed away, and on occasion, I still see someone who reminds me of him. But instead of being startled with shock, it makes me smile.
Along this same line, you’ll expect patterns and routines to stay the same around your loved one. You’ll wait for them to walk in the door at the usual time. You’ll expect that phone call at lunch or their car in the driveway after work. My dad had gotten in the habit of calling me every Sunday night, especially during football season so we could talk about the games. It took me a while to quit waiting for the phone to ring. This is all part of a normal grieving experience.
Similarly, you may experience a flood of memories at inconvenient times. You’ll cry over finding your loved one’s favorite cereal in the grocery store. Music can also be a trigger, such as when I heard a certain song at my niece’s wedding. A specific aroma or their favorite season can bring tears. Perhaps you find an errant sock under the bed that will send you into an emotional meltdown. These experiences are normal. Death can make you tender, and tenderness needs to be honored by giving it space so you can experience it and allow it to help you heal.
4) Keep a separate journal—just for you. This journal isn’t something that’s passed on to posterity. It’s for you alone. Your journal doesn’t have to be fancy. A spiral notebook will do. On these pages, you can write every difficult and uncomfortable feeling you have. Whine. If you’re mad, put it on the page. Better out than in.
This type of intimate grief journaling has other purposes, as well. Write about your epiphanies. Write about the good and joyful things that happen—the small moments of peace or the help given by a friend. Write your memories down. Use your journal to keep track of your spiritual experiences. Elder Richard. G. Scott encouraged us to “write down in a secure place the important things you learn from the Spirit,” saying “that as you write down precious impressions, often more will come.” Writing about your grief helps free up your head, and eventually, your heart. With time, you can decide if you want to share your private words.
5) There will be many firsts without your person. For a spouse, there will be that first wedding anniversary. You’ll also experience your first birthday, holiday, and other special occasions that can cause you to grieve. If you remember these special occasions ahead of time, you can plan for them by choosing how you want to spend that day. Perhaps you can participate in a ritual such as planting a tree or lighting a candle of remembrance. If the day sneaks up on you, consider journaling through your experience to help sort out what you feel and how to proceed.
6) Write letters. Write letters to your loved one who has passed away. Oftentimes, when working through grief, the loved one left behind can often feel as if there was some unfinished business. Perhaps they missed a moment to share their love, a wound remains open, or there’s some lingering regret. Writing letters can help us clear the space between us and our person.
Through letter writing, it’s also possible to relive happy and joyful times and recall special and meaningful moments. You can also write to God or to yourself. Letter writing can be part of your journaling process and is one step in healing.
7) Join others who are grieving. Grief can be isolating, and we often feel separated from both the individuals we love and our community as we grieve and try to mourn. One way to bridge the spaces between the singularity of grief and learning to be social again is to join an online or in-person grief group. It will help you realize you’re not alone and that others have traveled this journey, while also helping prepare you to eventually join other social circles.
This isn’t just for those who have lost a loved one to death. If you’ve experienced divorce, it can be helpful to join a group of individuals who have also lived through this trauma. Loss of all kinds can make us feel alone, but the truth is, there are many others who are also going through similar experiences. Although your journey is unique to you and your loss, joining with others who are living through something similar can help foster connections in a time when we may be experiencing loneliness.
8) Find someone to witness your grief. To heal, grief needs to be witnessed and shared. The Book of Mormon refers to this when Alma teaches that as part of our baptismal covenant, we’re encouraged to “mourn with those that mourn, yea and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places.” When our grief is met with someone who is willing to mourn with us, it gives us a safe place to land, offering us comfort. I’ve never considered it a coincidence that these offerings of mourning and comfort are also part of what it means to stand as witnesses of God. Our Savior offers healing. Part of our healing in grief comes from being seen by another. When we stand as a witness of God, we’re also willing to witness the pain of others in a safe and caring way, much like our Savior.
Some folks are uncomfortable with grief, making it hard for us to find someone we can trust to witness our grieving experience. Again, grief groups can help fulfill this purpose. Or, if you’re needing a little extra support or you simply want someone who can walk with you and help you process your loss in a way that’s healthy and helpful, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional.
9) Feeling sorrow and grieving over your loss does not mean your faith is weak. Sometimes, we’re afraid to show or even feel our sadness, because we’re worried that we’ll appear or feel faithless or as if we don’t trust the Lord. There can even be some pressure placed on us by family and/or ward members to behave a certain way so we can look faithful or maybe spare them any discomfort. However, faith and grief are not adversarial toward one another, where we feel one at the exclusion of the other. They are sisters, intricately connected with threads of love and reliance on the Lord. We don’t necessarily turn to the Lord in hopes of immediately freeing us from our grief. Instead, we can rely on Him to walk with us on this journey, so we can learn from it what He would have us know. In time, this can deepen our empathy and allow us to be available to others when they’re suffering while also drawing us closer to the Lord.
10) Rely on your Savior When it comes to the specific pain of grief, the Savior is thoroughly and wholly familiar with the heartache and suffering of loss. Isaiah teaches that the Savior was . . . “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). This truth is illustrated during the Savior’s mortal ministry when His friend Lazarus dies. In John 11 we read that the Savior, after learning of the death of Lazarus and witnessing Mary’s weeping, “groaned in his spirit and was troubled.” (John 11: 33). Jesus was the Savior of the world, and yet, He was a willing witness to Mary’s grief and willingly joined her in her heartache and mourning. Later, in John 11:35 we read that “Jesus wept” for the loss of His friend.
Oftentimes when we consider the Atonement, we focus on how the Lord’s sacrifice allows us to be forgiven of sin. But that was not the entirety of His gift. Prior to the Lord’s birth, Alma reminds us that the Lord “shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions . . . of his people.” (Alma 7: 11). He understands sorrow on an intimate and immediate level, and because He’s descended below all things (Doctrine and Covenants 122: 8), He can and will walk with us on our personal grief journey.
These are just some of the events that surround grief. It’s possible to experience all or some of these or have other meaningful occurrences that aren’t on this list. When my mother passed away several years after my father, her loss affected me differently. Each grieving experience is unique.
Grief is ultimately about healing—not forgetting or getting over the loss but reconciling a new and often shocking reality into our life. Much of the time, individuals are afraid to heal or feel happy because they worry about being disloyal to their person. They mistakenly believe that if they hold on to their sadness, they’re holding on to their loved ones.
But letting go of a loved one is not the aim of healing. Healing is about creating a new relationship with your loved one and bringing that relationship into your present and future life. Grief is the price of love, and love is never forgotten. Healing from the loss can change you and deepen your relationships with your loved ones still on earth, your person who has died, and with your Savior. It won’t happen overnight. It won’t even happen soon, but if you’re willing to heal, your grief will help you find new purpose and meaning in your life.