5 Reasons Why It Can Be Hard to Cope With Loss

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley

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A few months ago, we received an email asking us to explain the difference between "grieving" and "coping". Although these are two distinct and different undertakings, they do intertwine... so I can see where someone might have difficulty differentiating between them.

If we define grief as distress caused by bereavement or a person's response to loss; then we can define coping as a person's attempts to effectively deal with this distress or response. Seems pretty simple, right?

Not always.

Although coping is often thought of as deliberate efforts to deal with something difficult, people sometimes cope in ways that are far more instinctual, subconscious, and automatic than they even realize. This may be especially true in the early days of grief when difficult experiences, thoughts, and emotions occur in rapid succession. In order to protect oneself from becoming completely overwhelmed and overloaded, automatic coping and defense mechanisms like denial, rationalization, worrying, withdrawal, avoidance, and humor kick in.

Automatic coping/defense responses are normal and can simply be thought of as the brain and body doing what they are built to do in response to a threatening situation. But because one doesn't make a conscious decision to cope in these instances, you can see where it may be difficult to discern these processes as different from grief. Further, like grief responses, some of these attempts at coping (like worry and isolation) may make the situation worse.

In grief, it is usually necessary to move a step beyond instinctive coping responses because instinct will often push you avoid pain and suffering. Chronic avoidance can be pretty harmful in grief for a few reasons including (but not limited to)...

  1. Your pain won't go away simply by ignoring it.
  2. You need to learn to tolerate at least a little pain in order to create space for your loved one's memory in your life.
  3. Avoidance can cause you to fear emotions, thoughts, and memories related to your loved one.
  4. It can serve as a barrier to creating a continued bond with your loved one.
  5. It can push you to choose negative coping.
  6. Avoidance can prevent you from experiencing post-traumatic growth.

When coping with grief, it's important to choose coping that helps you tolerate and manage your pain. I would say about half of this site is dedicated to helping people identify the types of coping that feels right and effective for their unique coping style. However, we know many people aren't ready to think about actively coping because they still feel stunned by their loss—that's what the other half of this site is for. We know it can be really hard to cope with loss.

We realize it can be difficult to know where to begin.

start here

We know that, even once you've made the decision to cope with your grief, it can be hard to know what to do, where to turn, or who to ask for help.

grief map

We know that your brain may be feeling pretty foggy these days.

I'm sorry, can you say that again? I forgot to listen.

We know you have your hands full trying to deal with the secondary losses that keep crashing down on your head.

secondary losses

And we know that, just when you think you have a handle on things, avoidance rears its head yet again and distracts you with a 'Real Housewives of Anchorage' marathon or something similarly tempting.


We get it, but we're going to keep trying. We're going to keep throwing out ideas and you can keep saying things like, "Nope", "Not for me", "Not right now" and "Hmm... maybe"... until hopefully something resonates with you.

For those of you who want tools to cope with your grief but aren't sure where to start, here are a few resources that may be helpful to you:

WYG Posts:

What's Your Grief Coping Style? (a.k.a Coping for Your Kind of Crazy)

Reconnecting with Life After Loss

Grief and Negative Coping

Your Guide to Assessing Online Grief Support

Seeking Professional Grief Support: The nuts and bolts

Grief Support Groups: Positives and Pitfalls

How do I Find Grief Support as a Grieving 20-Something?

Support for Grieving Children: Grief Centers and the National Alliance for Grieving Children

Finding Grief Support Locally and Beyond [Podcast]

WYG Post Categories:

Grief and Music


Grief and Photography

Gratitude in Grief

Essays, Books, and Poetry

Journaling and Creative Expression

A handful of other sites...

115 Helpful Websites on Grief and Bereavement

Coping with Loss Resources via ADEC

Grief Healing Blog

Moyer Foundation Resource Center

Subscribe. Come back when you need us. We'll be here.  

We wrote a book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
real-life book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.

You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books:

Let’s be grief friends.

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9 Comments on "5 Reasons Why It Can Be Hard to Cope With Loss"

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  1. Glenn Traudt  June 16, 2020 at 8:28 pm Reply

    Recently I had lost my therapist of many years or so I thought. Turns out she went solo due to Covid . I am going to start seeing her again. But I’m still having major issues with depression and anxiety, feeling like I am bothering her if I have questions. It took me days just reach out due to fear of rejection. I am very happy that our relationship was not ended permanently and I look forward to starting up again. But I can’t shake all the emotions at times. I’m not sure I know how to grieve.

  2. Clare  May 17, 2020 at 10:55 am Reply

    Dear Gwen- ( post March 28, 2020)
    My heart goes out to you, in deepest sympathy, on your very sad loss. To lose somone whom you have lived with and loved for 58 years is a very uncommon bereavement these days. Although, I am not in your situation, I have suffered many losses in my life and so I am well aquainted with grief. Having said that I still struggle with coping with loss and grief. One positive outcome of my personal experience , is that I have grown more sympathetic and compassionate towards others who suffer from loss. I hope, that the following will help you, Gwen. Try to imagine a favourite place, where you and your beloved husband spent happy times together, and then set aside an hour or two at the same time , every day, to meet ‘in your mind’ in that special place, sharing time together I think tha this would help you to cope better. Also, you could look forward to that ‘ special time’ every day and treasure the memories that it brings to mind . My kindness regards to you. Clare

  3. Gwen  March 28, 2020 at 6:56 am Reply

    I lost my beloved husband to cancer last month with him till his last breath last voice he heard was mine telling him I loved him not to struggle and go to sleep married 58 years. I am so lonely now. Have so many mixed feelings anyone in the same situation who need to chat get in touch this is a very hard sad time for us

  4. Kay  February 5, 2019 at 6:24 pm Reply

    Lost my husband in my arms in 2006, Massive Heartache , No I Never had children, But My Baby Brother had Two Beautiful
    Children With The Adopted Daughter of My Husband, Is Thier A Answer My Husband was married twice before we finally both found love of our lives, The Frist wife and children have been God sent,, How ever the Second Wife And Children Are so evil,and selfish to me,,When I lost my husband, They excluded me and our Home, marriage as never happened, Sad part is my little brother was once married to an adopted daughter of my husband, So he is put in middle, THE Daughter by marriage second marriage is as her mother very mean vingable,,,I try stay back for his sake ,mean while I’m Treated Terrible, And They say I owe them all I ever have, No I Never Remarried, Loved my Husband very much,,How do I handle the mean under handed things Thier doing, No My Bro. NEVER REMARRIED,What A Mess,,,

  5. Rochelle  June 10, 2017 at 8:45 pm Reply

    Grieving the loss of my husband….56yrs ..cancer…so sad am I.

  6. Vicki  August 16, 2016 at 9:21 pm Reply

    I had to “cope” on a call last night. I’m a paramedic and the patient, who’d lost his wife and son in a car crash not long ago, shot himself in the head and was dead when we arrived on the scene. He was alive when his niece called dispatch, so we had to come. We didn’t get to do anything (because we’re not allowed to transport deceased patients unless they die en route) but his niece talked about her aunt and cousin who’d died in the crash.
    I’m still distressed about it tonight because it’s the time of the year that I always get more depressed about the death that occurred in my own life and it happened by violence too, although not self-inflicted.
    It’s less than a month until the “tragi-versary” of my daughter’s dad’s death, and we’re planning to go to a Reading of the Names again. That’s when they read aloud every one of the 2,996 names of the people who were killed on September 11. Family members read them and talk about their own loved ones. Even though it’s a good thing to go to, the actual reading takes hours and is highly publicized and is overwhelming to endure hearing all the names of people who died senselessly, like James Agee said in the poem about war: “most of us died senselessly.” I think my loved one died senselessly bc I can find no logic in it. It makes me feel better to NOT have a reason. About that I’ll say what one of my favorite authors wrote: “People always want a reason for the bad in life; sometimes there ain’t one.”
    That quote makes me feel better than someone saying “There’s a reason for everything.”
    I don’t know why but it does and I’m just glad something feels more comforting than all the usual turns of phrase.

  7. Jane Aiello  June 29, 2016 at 5:37 am Reply

    Multiple losses…need your support!!

  8. Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC  June 28, 2016 at 3:51 pm Reply

    Good stuff, as always ~ and many thanks for including Grief Healing as a resource! You two are terrific ♥

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