Why Grief Comes in Waves & How to Control the Tides

We all know that grief comes in waves, but the reason might surprise you. Learn why, plus get tips to cope when the grief hits.

Published February 5, 2024
Grieving woman looking at a photo

Sometimes, grief is like a mountain, insurmountable and all-encompassing. And sometimes grief is like a well-loved scent, coming through with bursts of memory and emotions. But mostly, grief is like the waves, giving as much respite as it takes away.

But why does grief come in waves? Surprisingly, there’s scientific proof to back those complicated experiences up and a way for you to hack this unpredictable sadness system from the inside.

Why Does Grief Come in Waves?

If you’ve ever gone through the grieving process, then you know how unexpected and arresting the waves can be. Slowly, they’ll creep in until they’re crashing over you with a feeling so overpowering that it wrests the breath from your lungs.

But this experience isn’t a sign that you’re not coping, or that you’re somehow failing the process. Quite the opposite, actually. According to George Bonanno’s research as reported in Mary-Frances O’Connor’s “Grief: A Brief History of Research on How Body, Mind, and Brain Adapt,” even well-adjusting grievers still experience emotional waves.

The dual process model of coping and bereavement was created to explain this phenomenon. As O’Connor describes it, “Healthy people oscillate between focusing on loss-related stressors (e.g., the pain of living without the person) and restoration-related stressors (e.g., engaging in new roles and identities due to the loss), and at other times are simply engaged in everyday life experience.”

Simply, a part of the grieving process is to be distracted by life, until a new grief-related stressor comes along to bring those feelings back up again.

Related: 7 Grief Art Activities to Help You Process Your Feelings

6 Ways to Adjust to Grief's Undulating Waves

Knowing there will be waves of grief coming and figuring out how to cope with them are two totally different things. Feel more prepared by expanding your grief toolbelt with these helpful suggestions.

1. Name Your Feelings as They Come

Acknowledging your feelings is easier said than done. So, one way to make it easier is by naming your feelings as they show up. Often, when a wave of grief comes, it first shows up in feelings. So, trying to put a name to the feeling can kick-start your mental processing of it. It’s hard to stamp down feelings that you’re trying to name.

2. Avoid Triggers When Possible

If you notice that a specific perfume, activity, movie, or story really kick-starts your grieving, try to avoid interacting with those things when you're not in a physical or mental place to grieve and process. That’s not to say you should never be confronted with grief, but you deserve to have some control over when you need to be confronted with it. For example, no one wants to break down in the middle of a grocery store because a song came on the speaker that reminds you of someone you lost.

Quick Tip

Triggers aren't always avoidable, but you can also find ways to work through them. Journaling, grief meditation, talking with a trusted friend, or creating your own grief rituals could help you work through what you're feeling. 

3. Be Physical About Your Grief

Grief can be a physical process. Feeling angry and acting in anger aren’t the same. Sometimes, you need to release your feelings through physical actions. Mostly, you’ll probably feel like crying, and it's not only totally okay to cry when that impulse comes up, it can be beneficial. Your physical body is just as much a part of you as your emotional one, and it needs to purge the grief just as badly.

Quick Tip

Everyone's different, and crying more or less than others isn’t an indication of how deep your grief is. It's okay to process your grief in whatever healthy physical and mental ways feel right to you. 

4. Be Honest With Others When Grief Comes In

One of the worst things you can do if you feel a wave of grief coming and you're with friends is try to power through it. If you’re prone to disassociating, this can be a really tempting offer. But being open with your loved ones about needing a moment to process is a step towards asking for help.

Woman consoling grief-stricken friend

Not everyone knows how to ask for help, and sometimes just acknowledging that you’re going through something will call the help you need to you.

5. Talk With a Therapist About Coping Mechanisms

If your waves of grief have lingered for a long time, then you may want to seek a mental health professional to give you tips on working through them. For some, the grieving process is short and for others lengthy, but if you’re uncomfortable with your progress, there’s always a professional you can turn to.

6. Remind Yourself That You Won't Feel This Way Forever

In some instances, the most powerful thing you can do is remind yourself that this feeling won’t last forever. Sure, grief shows up, but it always leaves eventually. Find solace in the fact that grief is finite, and you will come out on the other side.

Strive to Keep Your Head Above Water

Once you’ve experienced deep grief for the first time, you understand what it means that grief comes in waves. Years and years after you lost someone, you’ll be struck with a niggling mixture of feelings inside your chest of longing, sadness, and melancholy. But, just like the tides come in, they always go back out, and with the right tools you can be ready for when it’s high tide.

Why Grief Comes in Waves & How to Control the Tides