Why Does Grief Come in Waves? Reasons + How to Deal

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Learning about grief and how you can potentially experience it allows you to better prepare for its ebbs and flows. Realizing that your pain and sorrow aren’t constant and can sometimes be unpredictable will help you as you navigate through the stages of grief.

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You’ll need to develop a tolerance for its uncertain and often erratic manifestations. But learning to work with your grief will allow you to better cope with the associated stress and complications that may come up. 

A part of the process of working through your grief requires you to accept your feelings and emotions and become comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Grief work isn’t easy. You may need to reach out to your grief resources and trust in the people you know and love to help you get through it.

Reasons Grief Comes in Waves

A few key facts about the way bereaved individuals experience sorrow are that there’s no timeline for grief, it comes in stages, and negative grief-related emotions ebb and flow like the waves of an ocean. There will be times when you’ll start to feel better, only to get knocked down by a wave of emotion the very next moment.

Learning to accept and embrace these moments will help you develop the tenacity needed to heal from your loss. The reasons you’ll experience a constant flow of emotions when grieving are:

You need time to process

Healing from the pain and sorrow of a significant loss takes time. You shouldn’t expect to get over your grief at any given point. You must work at healing from your grief by going through the natural grief process and allowing yourself the necessary time to process your emotions and heal from your loss. 

Accepting your new reality is challenging

You might have worked your way through your grief, thinking that you are ready for the next chapter in life when suddenly you're unexpectedly swept back by your grief. Experiencing grief when you thought you’d healed isn't an indicator that you've failed. Regressing into your sorrow at this stage can signal that you haven't fully recovered, and you'll need to continue working on accepting the changes in your life.

You miss what you’ve lost

The reality of loss doesn’t immediately sink in. The consequences of loss can take years to manifest, sending a new wave of emotion when least expected. Waves of grief usually happen around the time of significant events that you missed out on, like your loved one’s graduation from college, wedding day, or retirement.

Your emotions are unpredictable

Waves of grief that appear when least expected can lead you to feel an erratic and overwhelming swarm of emotion. Until you get your grief under control, you may never know when you’ll experience a flood of emotions that are difficult to contain. The emotional pain you suffer after a significant loss can be immense. The level of pain is often beyond words, and trying to navigate through it may seem impossible at the time. 

Your grief gets triggered

Grief triggers are everywhere. Individuals who've successfully worked through their grief can still feel unexpected sadness when their suffering is triggered. Triggering events can be the sights and sounds of a schoolyard in the afternoon if you've lost a child. It can mean receiving your first social security check as a widowed person or having to move into a smaller home. 

What Does a Wave of Grief Look or Feel Like?

Waves of grief are unpredictable. They can be overwhelming and feel like a major setback to the healing process. Many people suffering through loss explain waves of suffering as one day feeling like things are starting to get better, and like you’ve made it through what you thought was the worst of times, only to get swept away in a tangle of uncontrollable and uncomfortable emotions. 

Waves of grief can make you feel like you’ve failed at healing, and they can threaten your emotional and psychological wellbeing if allowed. Those who have sufficient experience in dealing with grief understand that waves of emotion come and go, and that they’re not permanent.

How to Deal With a Wave of Grief

As you go through some of the more challenging experiences in your grief journey, you’ll learn to recognize the signs and triggers of your grief. In time, you’ll be better prepared to handle the flow of negative emotions associated with your loss. 

For now, you’ll benefit from learning some basic grief survival skills to help keep your head above water. Remember that not everyone goes through the same experiences, and what works for one person may not work for you. Keep trying different ideas until you find what works for you. Some of the best ways to cope with waves of grief are:

Set reasonable expectations

When you have reasonable expectations of the grieving process and how you’ll react to your grief, you allow yourself the freedom to work through your pain and suffering at your own pace. Everyone grieves differently and will take as much or as little time as is necessary for healing.

Comparing your grief journey to others sets you up to have false expectations of what grief feels like. No two persons will ever grieve the same. The sooner you understand and embrace this concept, the faster you’ll get to work on healing from your loss. 

Share your grief experiences

When you don’t allow yourself to talk about your loss experience, you’re robbing yourself of the opportunity for healing. Holding on to your pain and sorrow is detrimental to your recovery and overall wellbeing. Sharing your story with others is therapeutic and a necessary part of the healing process. 

Try to find someone with a sympathetic ear who won’t mind you sharing your story over and over. Let them know ahead of time that this retelling helps you process what you’re going through. Consider circulating through your support system to allow everyone who loves you the opportunity to support you while you’re grieving. 

Allow yourself to feel

Grief is painful. There's no other way to get past the sometimes excruciating pain other than by allowing yourself to feel it. Once you go through the most painful part of your grief, you'll emerge a different person with a renewed sense of resiliency and a different outlook. 

The tendency to push back the pain you feel serves only to delay the grieving process until you're ready to face it head-on. Your suffering doesn't go away just because you decide to ignore it. You may be able to ignore it for a while, but you won't succeed in making it go away by burying it deep inside. Sooner or later, it'll rear its ugly head when least expected.

Know that it will pass

As with most feelings and emotions, your grief will come and go. What you’re experiencing now will not likely exist this same time tomorrow. Grief works like the ebbs and flows of an ocean wave. Sometimes it comes in gently lapping at the edges. While at others, it comes crashing in like a tidal wave.

But unlike an ocean that you can sit and watch for hours to predict what’s coming next, grief is unpredictable, forceful, and at times relentless. You can help yourself get through these waves of emotions by bracing yourself for whatever comes next. Understand that the feelings are temporary and won’t make you drown when caught underneath them. Take a deep breath and wait for the emotions to subside.

Turn to your spirituality

Leaning on your faith during your darkest hours helps you have something to hold on to. Grief can be challenging and drain you of everything you once believed to be true. A loss of faith often accompanies a life-changing event. You wouldn’t be the first person to question their beliefs, their faith, and their religion. 

While this might not be the best time to reevaluate your faith, it is undoubtedly an excellent time to reconnect with your higher power. You can expect to need the added support from your spiritual leaders or congregation as you move through your grief journey. Having something to believe in provides you with the necessary stronghold to survive your emotions. 

How to Help a Loved One Deal With a Wave of Grief

The families of those struggling with loss may benefit from knowing how to handle waves of grief as they come up. Unfortunately, many family members and other loved ones find themselves feeling frustrated and at their wit’s end because they don’t know what to do to help their loved ones. 

When someone you love is struggling to overcome the negative feelings and emotions they’re experiencing, consider giving them added love and support until their grief reactions subside.  

Here are a few ways you can help:

Be their support

Grief is a personal experience that you can’t take away from anyone. They must face the challenges head-on and deal with their feelings and emotions as they manifest. Nothing you can do or say will make them get through the pain of loss any quicker. 

When your loved one faces a wave of negative emotions, you can’t fix things for them. However, you can lend your support by being there for them, listening to them without judgment, and not offering any advice unless asked. 

Help them walk it out

Physical movement can be tremendously beneficial for someone experiencing waves of unexpected negative emotions. Encourage your loved ones to stop what they’re doing and focus their energy on going out for a walk around the block. When you get the body moving, it releases a chemical reaction referred to as endorphins. 

These are the feel-good receptors in our brain that signal happiness and an elevated shift in mood. Taking a walk also helps distract from the wave of grief and allows your loved one to divert their attention elsewhere.

Encourage grief support 

Getting professional grief counseling at any stage in the grieving process has markedly improved the grief experience in bereaved individuals. With proper guidance, a person suffering from debilitating grief can better handle how they process their grief and react to it. 

There are many free grief resources found online that can be useful right now to someone struggling with an unexpected wave of grief. Your loved one can opt to seek therapy online, by video chat, or over the telephone without ever needing to step foot in a therapist's office. 

The Ebbs and Flows of Grief

The grief experience is fluid, if anything. It’s constantly evolving depending on the stage of mourning a bereaved individual is in. Some days can signal a positive outlook on what’s ahead. And others can feel like a colossal setback. Learning to accept these ins and outs makes the process easier to digest and manage. 

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