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Accepting and Embracing Grief: A Road to Healing

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It seems that everywhere we look these days, we see news clips about one catastrophe or another. When we are faced with so many saddening facts and stressful events, how can we help ourselves and our loved ones heal?

Grief is a natural part of how we process painful and saddening events. Many of the patients in my integrative-medicine clinic have to learn to address their grief or other feelings for the first time. Unfortunately, in our fast-paced society, it seems that we have learned to suppress our feelings, or not deal with them, because we think we don't have time to work through our emotions.

The problem with suppressing feelings long term is that eventually our bodies will want to have those feelings expressed and dealt with. If you don't allow your body to attend to your feelings through its natural healing process, your body may force you to deal with it at a later point, whether you want to or not. Feelings of sadness or grief can manifest in other ways, such as pain, fatigue, insomnia or the worsening of already-existing health issues.

So, as we turn toward addressing our feelings about many of the recent natural disasters, the wonderful heroes who have died while trying to help us, and those who are still currently taking on that self-sacrificing role, let's take some time to figure out how to most effectively deal with grief and loss. Because unfortunately, with so many sad events occurring, long-term suppression of feelings is not something I would recommend for any of my patients, and thus, I would not recommend it for my readers either. Sometimes, however, it may be all right to put grief aside for a while, until we can deal with it more effectively. It seems that many of us do this, and that brings our discussion to the first stage of grief, which is denial, shock and numbness.

There are concepts about potential stages of grief, but I want to caution readers that these stages may not occur for everyone. As we are all individuals, we may also manage grief differently. This concept of the stages of grief is to help you understand what can potentially happen when something traumatic occurs and we have to deal with it.

Potentially, in the first stage of grief, you may see signs of denial, shock and/or numbness. This phase helps to protect us from the initial impact of the event, so that we can maneuver ourselves out of danger or allow ourselves to attend to the practical matters of the loss or the disastrous event. This is a protective mechanism so that we are not too overwhelmed by traumatic events, and it gives us some time to get out of trouble if we need to. It also gives us time to slowly digest the information until we recognize the full impact of the event, instead of all at once when it first happens.

The next phase is typically what we call the bargaining phase. We start to think about what we could have been done differently and if we could have altered the outcome somehow by acting out the scenario in different ways. Effectively working through this phase is important to help us heal, and not be stuck with feelings of extreme guilt or lack of resolution.

We then progress to the phase where we feel sadness, loneliness and depression. It is extremely important in this phase to seek help if you need it. Support from people you feel safe with or from support groups or therapists is very helpful in this phase of grief. I would highly recommend involving your physician in this phase of the healing process. Your physician can help you pick out the warning signs and see if any supplements or medications are appropriate if you are experiencing more sadness than just associated with the loss or grief.

As you emerge from the sadness of the loss, you may feel a sense of anger and injustice at the tragedy and loss. The anger phase is a natural part of the grief healing process. Support and therapy, as well as the involvement of your physician and loved ones are very important in this phase. It may be a very overwhelming stage if you are not used to these emotions and haven't learned to effectively deal with them.

In the acceptance phase, you learn to accept the loss and integrate it into your life. It's not so much that you are fine with the loss or tragedy. Instead, your mind, body and emotions are finally able to accept the events that have occurred, and you see it as something you can assimilate into your everyday life, thoughts and feelings.

Many of my patients think that it's not normal to have grief extend beyond a certain time limit. Frequently they'll ask questions such as, "Shouldn't I be over it by now?" or, "Shouldn't I still be upset about this?" But it's important to understand that healing can take as much time or as little time as your body needs to recover from great tragedies and losses. As I mention to all of my patients, we are all individuals and none of my patients are cookie-cutter replicas of each other. While the frequently-used concept of stages of grief may help provide you with a road map of how one person may deal with grief -- ultimately, the process differs, to varying degrees, from person to person.

So, be easy on yourself, and as long as you are getting the support and help you need during your healing process (and you have a professional health care practitioner monitoring you for any concerning symptoms or feelings) you should allow yourself as much or as little time as you need to heal. You may also return to an earlier phase of the grieving process at any time, and that is all right and natural as well.

Ultimately, we all experience grief a bit differently and we may experience one episode differently from another episode. The stages of grief are used as a rough guideline to help us figure out why we feel what we feel at various stages of healing. But that doesn't mean you are not "normal" if your grieving process is a bit different. This is the exact reason that I usually recommend my patients find support groups or therapists, and recommend that my readers seek their physicians for guidance on helping them through a difficult healing process.

Needless to say, all of the disasters and senseless losses we keep seeing on TV these days make us think more about grieving and loss. I see this time and again at my own clinic (many patients come into the clinic expressing tremendous sadness about world events).

While we cannot prevent natural disasters or senseless losses (however much we want to), we can take this opportunity to help ourselves and those around us learn to properly address our emotions instead of suppressing them.

As a whole, we can be stronger and better able to withstand the stressors of life if we are able to take the negatives, feel their impact and grow stronger from them by allowing ourselves to deal with all the feelings that come along with these events.

References: Maciejewski PK, et al. An Empirical Examination of the Stage Theory of Grief. JAMA. 2007;297(7):716-723.

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