Is There a “Wrong” Way to Cope with Loss? 4 Warning Signs to Look For

Everyone grieves differently, but these coping mechanisms spell trouble.

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Losing a loved one is a natural part of life, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to deal with. Grieving can be a long and difficult process. Luckily, the majority of people successfully cope with the loss and go on to live healthy and productive lives, but a small fraction of people may continue to struggle. 

It can be hard to pinpoint whether someone is coping in the “wrong” way: After all, everyone grieves a little differently, and it’s important to remember that someone’s way of grieving isn’t wrong just because it’s different than yours.

For example, you might feel worried about a loved one who feels a loss of appetite or sleeps a little more than usual. Your loved one may also appear irritable or have doubts in their faith. As long as these are temporary, they’re normal reactions to loss. The grieving process can often take a year or longer, so give it time. 

"After the death of someone close, people react with a wide range of what is considered normal; however, it doesn't follow a recipe. It is seldom predictable," says Fredda Wasserman, MA, MPH, LMFT, FT, special projects director at OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center. "What we look for is that the person is beginning to accept the reality that the person close to them really has died, and if the person is able to acccess a whole myriad of emotions that are likely to start surfacing."

Those emotions are likely to be random and not necessarily as clear cut as the oft-cited five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. "We know people can experience any range of emotions, plus so many more, at any given time, in any order. We don't see [grief] as progressing on a linear level," says Wasserman.

But there are some ways of coping with a loss that are actually destructive to your health—both physical and mental. If you noticed a friend or family member exhibiting these warning signs, they may need more support to cope with the loss:

1. Continued denial of the loss.

Denial is a normal stage of grief, but it’s usually short-lived. It’s a way to delay the intensity of emotions that accompany a loss.  Denial doesn't necessarily have to mean the person is actively stating their loved one didn't actually die; it more commonly means the person is in a state of shock of numbness, and they have shut off their emotions. Continuing to live in this shut-off state can prevent the individual from making meaningful connections with others and living a healthy and productive life. 

“Grieving is a necessary process that we must go through [to] psychologically, emotionally, and even biologically reorient ourselves to life without the one we have lost,” says Kara Lissy, LCSW, of A Good Place Therapy and Consulting. While the emotions associated with the grieving process are difficult, they are necessary to healing.

2. Turning to drugs and alcohol.

Drugs and alcohol are yet another way to delay the grieving process. “The use of substances to numb or ‘get us through’ this difficult [grieving] process may seem like an ideal short-term fix, but in reality, it simply delays—or even exacerbates—the inevitable grieving process,” says Lissy.   

Additionally, increasing the use of substances to numb the pain puts your physical health in jeopardy. It can increase the risk of addiction, overdose, heart problems, certain types of cancer, and more.

3. Social isolation.

Many people are naturally tempted to withdraw themselves when upset. However, isolating yourself can make mental health worse. It can increase feelings of loneliness and loss. Additionally, connecting with loved ones can help you heal and remind you of the meaningful relationships you still have.

4. Ruminating on the loss. 

“Healthy grieving involves integrating the loss into our lives,” says Sherry Cormier, PhD, licensed psychologist and certified bereavement trauma specialist. “People who are unable to do that are stuck in grief and are constantly yearning for what or who they lost and cannot find ways to incorporate the loss into their current and future reality and life.”

Someone who is unhealthily ruminating on a loss of a loved one may show signs of depression; they may lose interest in the things they used to enjoy and appear apathetic, lethargic, or unmotivated. You might even hear them say troubling things: “Such people may say that they or the world is damaged beyond repair and may even talk about or show signs of self-harm,” says Dr. Cormier. 

Luckily, there are plenty of resources available for those who are struggling to cope with loss. Talking to a professional can help weave the loss into your story and let yourself grow as a person. (Here are 3 things to expect at your first therapy appointment.)