Losing Someone You Love – 10 Lessons for Overcoming Grief
Reading Time: 9 minutes
Losing someone you love is one of the most difficult experiences that life has to offer. When it happens to you for the first time, you’re thrown into a vortex of chaos and pain that no one can prepare you to confront. Some people find a way through these moments, but many others crumble under the weight of grief and lose years of their life to unimaginable suffering.
By the time I was 25 years old, life had taken away three of the most important beings in my world. The most difficult of these experiences was losing my mom to suicide in 2017. Her exit from the world shattered my soul into pieces.
Since then, I’ve worked hard to put those pieces back together. Time played an important role in softening the blows of her death, but looking back, it was also a lot of intentional effort and experimentation that helped me navigate the pangs of grief and regain my sense of inner peace. While her death changed me forever, it did not ruin me.
Over the last few years, my writing about losing loved ones has been read by hundreds of thousands of people. Every week, I receive emails from people who have recently lost someone they love and want to know if I have any advice for them. I’m humbled that people feel comfortable telling me (a stranger on the internet) about some of their most painful and vulnerable experiences. At the same time, I’m uncomfortable. It’s difficult to hear about someone else’s loss, and I’m afraid that I won’t be able to offer any advice that will alleviate their suffering.
The reality is that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Every loved one’s death and grieving process is unique. And while the five stages of grief is a good model for understanding what to expect as you flip between denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, nothing can prepare you for the emotional rollercoaster of your journey with grief.
So even though I have endured multiple losses, I do not have the answers. At least I do not have the answers for you. That said, through my experiences, I have learned some things that I often share with people who reach out to me and that will potentially be valuable to other people. Below, I share some of those thoughts and lessons. If at least one person finds this article helpful, I have done my job.
Before we dive in, if you’ve recently lost someone you love, I’m wishing you some peace during this difficult time.
1. The immediate aftermath
Dealing with the logistics of death is brutal. When you’re at your absolute lowest point, you have to plan a funeral, write a eulogy, administer an estate, and so on.
There is no way to avoid these obligations. So you have to find the strength to deal with them, no matter how horrible you feel. My advice for this period is to hold on and focus on getting through one day at a time. Be easy on yourself. Tend to your physical health and get enough sleep. Take time off of work if you can.
Get through the first month as compassionately as possible. If you need to write a eulogy, keep it simple. Pick three positive qualities about the person you lost and share a short story about each quality. That’s what I did for my mom’s eulogy. Accept that there’s no way to capture even 10% of what a person meant to you in words. Just do your best to share a few good moments.
2. Be around people who want the best for you
Dealing with tragedy has a funny way of revealing who you want to be around when things fall apart. To the extent that you can, focus on spending time with people who elevate your spirit. These people will be your support group and can have a huge impact on your ability to understand your emotions and ability to navigate the grieving process.
Stay away from negative friends who complain about their trivial problems. There’s nothing wrong with these friends. But in the early stages of losing someone you love, you need to be around positive and supportive people who make you feel good. It’s okay to be selfish and prioritize the needs of your own life while you’re grieving.
3. Random moments are the hardest
On my mom’s birthday, Mother’s Day, and the anniversary of her death, people reach out to me to see how I’m doing. They expect that these days will be the hardest for me. But so far, I’ve had a different experience. I’ve been perfectly okay on most of these days.
One surprising reality of grieving is that the hardest moments can come when you least expect them. I feel the most pain when I see a mother on the street laughing with her child, hear friends talk about visiting their parents, or read a story about someone who lost a parent. All of these everyday experiences can make me cry on the spot.
These days, I’m saddened by the anticipation of the big moments of life that I won’t get to share with my mom. At weddings, I tear up because all I can think about is how my mom will never see me and my partner walk down the aisle. She’ll never hold my children. She’ll never help me move into my first house.
And there’s nothing I can do to bring her back for these milestones. Your experience will be different than mine, but don’t expect grief to hit at the obvious moments. It can slap you in the face when you least expect it.
4. Dealing with emotions in the grieving process
When losing someone you love, you may feel guilty or burdened by regrets. You may feel angry about how you didn’t spend enough time with the person, what you did or didn’t do, and so on. And when someone dies of suicide like my mom, the guilt is heavy.
You think you might have been able to do something to stop it from happening. It’s hard to avoid this line of thinking, but the truth is that even if you could have prevented someone’s death at a particular moment, there’s no way you could have prevented it entirely. We all die at some point. And it doesn’t matter anyway. The person you love is gone. You can’t change that. The only way to avoid regret is to act before something bad happens.
If you feel regret, know that it’s normal and okay. But instead of dwelling on it, find a way to use what you learned to enhance your relationships with people who are still with you. Spend more quality time with the people you love. Record videos of you interviewing your friends and family about their lives. Use someone’s death as a catalyst for being kinder and more present with the people who are still in your life.
5. Feel and respect your pain
Losing someone you love leads to an emotional rollercoaster. You may feel anxious or filled with extreme anger. You may have intrusive thoughts or wonder if you are a bad person. You may experience profound sadness and shock. You may even have physical symptoms and lowered immunity for some time. Feeling and experiencing these things is completely normal.
When navigating this complicated grief and loss process of losing a loved one, it can be tempting to use activities or substances that dampen your pain. Booze, drugs, and other numbing agents are alluring outlets for avoiding your suffering.
The problem is that when you numb your pain, you stunt the healing process. You delay and bury the grief so that it stays locked inside your body. And if it stays within, your healing process will be much longer and more difficult than if you find healthy ways to process your feelings.
When I felt the most pain, I sat with it. I meditated and observed it. In the short term, this feels unbearably painful. You feel like you’re going to lose your mind. But in the long run, it will help you move past the paralyzing pangs of grief. A bottle of booze can’t offer you that.
6. Find ways to release your energy
I had absurd surges of energy flow through me during the first three months of grief. I had bad dreams and often woke up in a terror or had flashbacks of my mom’s final breaths while trying to sleep. I rotated between wanting to curl up in a ball and cry and wanting to throw everything around me into the wall.
In these moments, I looked for productive ways to release that energy. I sprinted on the beach, surfed in thrashing waves, and swam laps until I could barely breathe. Getting out of my head and into my body with these intense physical activities helped me release the pain bubbling within and prevented it from consuming me.
7. Look for unconventional sources of healing
Before my mom’s death, I had taken magic mushrooms a few times and found them to be immensely powerful for helping me see the world and my life clearly. Based on those experiences, I decided that a psychedelic experience may help me process some of the emotions that were dwelling deep inside my body.
I spent a few months researching various psychedelic compounds and setting my intentions for the experience. After reading Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind (now a Netflix series), I decided to embark on my first journey with LSD.
At Burning Man in 2018, I took a high dose of LSD with one of my best friends. I fully relived the experience of my mom’s death and felt the mountain of pain she endured that led her to decide to commit suicide.
The result of the experience was a massive emotional release. I immediately felt lighter and filled with empathy for my mom and everyone who is suffering. Any guilt that I had about her death faded away. The effects of that experience endure to this day, which is incredible. I’m not recommending psychedelics as they are super powerful and need to be treated with caution, but my experience with LSD helped me tremendously.
8. Create a positive legacy for the person
Instead of dwelling on the tragic end of my mom’s life, I tried to find ways to amplify the positive legacy that she left behind. She had a nearly 50-year life filled with hope, joy, dreams, and the simple pleasures of existence. I did not want her suicide to negate the beauty of her life in my mind or in the minds of other people.
So I decided to create a positive legacy for her. That started with publishing her eulogy online, which has now been read by 100,000 people. A few dozen people have reached out and told me that they have stopped themselves from committing suicide and felt understood for the first time in their lives because of what I wrote. Those messages were difficult to receive, but they ultimately give even more meaning to my mom’s life and her struggle with the darkness.
I also got a tattoo on my wrist that symbolized the authenticity, belief, and compassion that my mom taught me. It’s a daily reminder of values that I want to embrace even after her death. And finally, I created a scholarship in her honor that helps students and their families struggling with mental health issues. You will find the tactics that work for you, but I’ve found it invaluable to help the world see my mom as the hero she was.
9. Find sources of wisdom that improve your mind
I found a lot of spiritual comfort in reading books that helped me process my grief and move forward. When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron and The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday were the most helpful. Pema’s work highlights the wisdom of the Buddhists, which helped me feel grounded within the finite and sometimes painful reality of life. Holiday’s work tapped into my logical brain, helping me see that the only way past my suffering was to endure it with grace and a strong mind.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and Awareness by Anthony de Mello also helped me at various points. None of these books are about death specifically, but each highlights specific philosophies (Buddhism, Stoicism, and Logotherapy) that helped me endure the grieving process. Your sources of wisdom can be books, other people, movies, or whatever else you find helpful in understanding and moving through your experience.
10. Get help from a third party
I didn’t seek support from a therapist or other trained professionals during the immediate aftermath of my mom’s death. It did not feel like the right path for me in the early months of grieving. But at some point, I did see therapists and coaches who helped me think through what had happened and how I processed it.
One of those coaches suggested that I do something positive on the anniversary of my mom’s death. The first year, I gathered most of my good friends in San Diego for a few days to hang out and enjoy each other’s company. It was a blast. We’ve since made that gathering an annual tradition, and I now have the good fortune of being surrounded by wonderful people on the anniversary of my mom’s death every year.
If you live long enough, you will eventually lose someone that you love. A loved one’s death can be immensely painful, filling your soul with terrible sadness, a sense of despair, and shock about what has happened. And whether you lost someone to a terminal illness, a peaceful death in old age, or an unexpected accident, the process will not be easy.
But while these encounters with loss can be extremely difficult, they can also be helpful. Confronting the loss of a loved one can help you understand yourself and clarify what matters in your life. You will see your life and relationships in a new light, and often that light helps lead you to see how you can move forward in a better and more rewarding way.
That said, in the early stages of grief, the most important task is to find a way to navigate your feelings, take care of yourself, and remain sane. That task is easier said than done, but my hope is that some of these thoughts about my experience will help you in the process.