Cancer Featured Mental health Wellness

What to do on a grief-filled day

crying eye close up

Even years after a loved one’s death, grief can resurface and make for some sad, tear-filled days. It can come when it’s expected, like on her birthday or anniversary of her death, or it can sneak up unannounced, when you hear the first few notes of his favourite song on the radio.

“We’ve all come to know the stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance,” says Dr. Elie Isenberg-Grzeda, a psycho-oncologist at the Odette Cancer Centre. “There’s a tendency to think these stages go in order and are time-based. But the stages can happen in any order and at any time.”

So, even when you think you’ve accepted a loved one’s death and are done grieving, you might walk by your Dad’s dry cleaner and the sadness could come flooding back.

What can you do when you find yourself having a grief-filled day long after the immediate grieving of a loved one’s death? That really depends on you, Dr. Isenberg-Grzeda says.

Step one, though, is let yourself off the hook a bit.

“There is nothing abnormal about having a sad day after the death of a loved one – even months and years later,” he says. “But one thing that will definitely make you feel even worse is thinking something is wrong with you because you feel sad. Remember, sadness is part of the process. It’s ok to cry.”

If you find yourself flooded with grief, turn to the coping skills you have learned to help you through any time of stress or sadness.

“Distraction techniques can help,” he says. “Things like, putting on your favourite music playlist, or watching a TV show that can’t help but make you laugh or smile. You could take a walk, go for a run, ride your bike. Physical activity works as a distraction and also releases endorphins.”

These distraction techniques tell your brain, “We can keep going. We can do this,” Dr. Isenberg-Grzeda says.

“The process of saying to yourself, ‘I feel sad’ and then doing something that makes you feel a little better is how we can live in this world of stress and sadness.”

Using distraction doesn’t simply mean “fake it til you make it”, Dr. Isenberg-Grzeda says.

“That’s a phrase that’s often used in the grief world, and really, in our lives in general,” he said. “When we experience intense emotions, there’s a common phenomenon of stoicism or the idea of keeping a stiff upper lip. I want to educate people: feeling sad, particularly when someone you love has been lost, is part of the wide range of human emotions.”

If you are feeling sad, it may help to say so.

“I often hear in my office, ‘I’m sure people are sick of me being sad and talking about my sister who died last year so I hold it in’,” Dr. Isenberg-Grzeda says. “That’s just not usually true. A good, kind, well-meaning person wants to help. They may not know how, so try to tell them what you need. Most people, when they know what you need, prove to be quite helpful.”

So if you need to talk about your sister, or to cry because you are having a bad sad day, you could say to a friend or to your spouse, “I need to have a moment. Can you please just listen? I just need to know you are here.”

Also try to remember: Everyone is allowed to have a bad day. Actually, even two. So don’t be too hard on yourself if you are in pieces sometimes.

“There’s not a threshold of bad days to say, ‘This is now a problem and you aren’t coping as you should’,” Dr. Isenberg-Grzeda says. “We all experience emotions. When those emotions are so intense that it is stopping you from functioning, that’s when we need to explore things further.”

If you aren’t able to go to work, or you have quit all your hobbies, or you are arguing more than ever with your spouse and snapping at your kids, it could be time to get some help.

“Reach out to your family doctor or a grief counsellor,” Dr. Isenberg-Grzeda says.

If you are acutely upset and having thoughts of harming yourself, call 911.

If you’ve had a history of a psychiatric diagnosis, reach out to your care provider.

“For example, if you were diagnosed with depression a few years ago and are now experiencing sadness due to the death of a loved one, you may start to wonder if it is actually depression returning. Call your doctor.”


Patient and Family Support at Odette Cancer Centre
Coping with Grief by Cancer.Net
Grief and Bereavement by Canadian Cancer Society
Virtual Hospice
Grief is a process that can’t be rushed by Your Health Matters

About the author

Alexis Dobranowski

Alexis Dobranowski is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.