How to Practice Self-Compassion When Grieving

Author: Cori Bussolari

The death of a loved one can be the most difficult event we ever experience. Grief, or the deep sorrow and heartbreak we feel as a result of this loss, can overwhelm us so much that all assumptions about how the universe works completely shatter.

Grief is messy, confusing, enormously painful, and never seems to follow a linear path. This is the time where we need to deeply take care of ourselves, and yet, why is it that this is also when we beat ourselves up the most?

As a practicing psychologist, I often hear my grieving clients say, “I feel so sad I hate myself” or “I should have gotten over this already. What is wrong with me?”

Survivors hold hands

We are good at being compassionate toward others when they are grieving — something especially evident in social media. The outpouring of love, support, and acknowledgment of the loss is substantial and immediate, giving us the opportunity to virtually show up for every single bereaved friend we have ever come into contact with. On the other hand, we are quite unpracticed at giving ourselves that same kind of loving sustenance or self-compassion.

According to pioneer researcher Kristin Neff, at its heart, self-compassion is “treating yourself with the same type of kind, caring support and understanding that you would show to anyone you cared about.” In essence, you honor and accept your humanness by recognizing that you will encounter personal failings and that life is hard at times for everyone, even yourself. Cultivating self-compassion means that you accept that you are part of the human condition and that you are not perfect.

For whatever reason, people still seem to adhere to a notion that there is a correct way to grieve — contributing to the irrational belief that there is something wrong with them. One recently bereaved client commented, “I thought I was doing so much better because I spent a few evenings with friends and actually had a really good time. Then on Sunday all I did was stay inside, watch movies, and cry. I’m still so sad.” She equated “better” with only feeling positive emotions. Another bereaved client once told me that she got mad at herself whenever she experienced any light-hearted moments.

The Dual Process Model accurately captures the grief process. This model proposes that adaptive coping is an ongoing, oscillating pattern of facing the painful loss and avoiding those feelings. In essence, sometimes you directly deal with the realities of the loss and sometimes you take a break from all of that heartache.

I tell my clients, “Grief takes a lot of energy out of you.” In addition to all of the grieving you have been doing, you also need to try to engage in activities that feel replenishing, like recharging a battery. This way you have the energy to continue to grieve. It is perfectly fine if you want to stay home from work one day or decline an invitation. It would also be great if you actually go out and have fun. Give yourself permission to experience the good and the bad. I believe that this normalizes the experience and contributes to increased self-compassion.

How Can We Practice Self-compassion When We Are Grieving?

We can take moments to actively bear witness to our own suffering and fully accept it.

Notice your pain, acknowledge how it feels and that the world, as you have known it, has changed. Even if you can’t provide self-compassion, try to at least recognize that you need some support and care at this time.

We give ourselves permission to be imperfect.

There is no such thing as perfection. Things will not work out the way you want them to all the time and you may not respond in the way you had envisioned. So what if you mess up? Everyone around you has done it before and will do it again, so you are in good company.

We think about what we would say to a friend who has gone through a similar issue, and we say those same things to ourselves, even if we don’t quite believe it just yet.

Write down exactly what you would say to someone who came to you with your problems — and then read it out loud to yourself over and over until it starts to feel familiar.

We think about ourselves.

Putting ourselves first is by no means selfish. It is okay to decline an invitation or take a sick day at work when you are feeling down. It is also okay to practice self-care. This might include limiting self-judgment when we experience positive feelings such as joy. Sometimes people also say things to us that feel distressing, even when we know it comes from a place of compassion. Take care of yourself by letting them know how you feel and what you might need from them instead.

We realize that there is no “correct” way to grieve.

Everyone grieves differently. Sometimes we feel like talking, sometimes we don’t want to talk about our loss at all. Sometimes we think about it every day and other times, we can go minutes, hours, or days without thinking about it. Sometimes we just want to go out and have fun with our friends or family. This is part of the Dual Process Model and is completely appropriate. Grief is complicated — just know that you are doing the best you can.

We notice when we are being overly harsh or critical of ourselves.

We sometimes feel that we need a critical voice to get motivated, that by beating ourselves up we will “do better” in some way. We also might beat ourselves up and focus on feelings of guilt because it feels easier than attending to our pain. Self-compassion is about being okay with who you are and how things are unfolding.  Just notice when this is happening, and try to soften your response.

We take breaks from social media.

It might feel too much for us at times, especially during anniversaries or birthdays, and we may need to unfollow our loved ones on social media until we feel emotionally ready to go back to it.

We seek professional help when we need it.

Therapy is not a sign of weakness or that something is wrong with you. Sometimes, we just need a little extra support.

We cultivate hope.

A major tenet of self-compassion is recognizing that our suffering is part of the human condition. No matter how hard things are right now, you are not alone and will get through this.

We forgive ourselves for not doing any of the above.

From the pen of…
Cori Bussolari, Psy.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology at the University of San Francisco. She is a licensed practicing psychologist and credentialed school psychologist. Her clinical and research passions are focused on positive coping with bereavement and health-related issues.