Moving through the world while grieving is a lot like avoiding stepping on trip wires. It can feel like wherever you turn there’s a potential trigger waiting to yank you back into your sorrow and yearning for what you’ve lost, even if your heartbreak happened many years ago. Much like any other emotion, grief doesn’t come when it’s invited; it can crash over you like a wave when you least expect it or welcome it.
Grief doesn’t have a specific sequence and it’s not linear—how and when someone experiences it is totally individualized. If you’ve ever gone about your day and suddenly felt a sob catching in the the back of your throat or your chest tightening at an inconvenient time, you may look back and wish you could bottle those feelings and save them for later or not experience them at all—that’s why wrestling back some modicum of agency when dealing with grief sounds so appealing. One way to do so is by making time to experience and let out your emotions. According to grief counselors, scheduling time to grieve can provide the space necessary to feel and engage with your emotions.
Television fans may recognize this concept of scheduling grief from recent episodes of two hit shows. On HBO’s cutthroat corporate drama Succession, oldest daughter Shiv Roy is asked if she was “scheduling her grief” by her husband when she’s found sobbing in a company conference room after her father’s death.
As a business woman vying for control of her family’s company, she’s not able to cry openly at work or near her family and coworkers. In Apple TV+’s Shrinking, therapist Dr. Paul Rhodes, played by Harrison Ford, advises his clients to take 15 minutes during the day to sit with their sadness—he advises his client to listen to the saddest music she knows and see what happens. While the shows may be fictional, this concept of setting aside time to express grief isn’t and can be a key piece of working through and managing it.
Why scheduling your grief is a good idea
So what does it mean to schedule grief? According to grief counselor Gina Moffa, LCSW, author of the forthcoming book Moving On Doesn’t Mean Letting Go: A Modern Guide to Navigating Loss, rather than totally ignore the feelings when they arise or try to push through them, this is about “putting them in a little container that is safe and coming back to them at a specific time,” says Moffa.
By doing so, it’s possible for someone to regain a bit of control over their feelings and incorporate grieving into their life on their own terms. “It gives us a sense of control without actually stuffing down our emotions and never coming back to it, which a lot of people do when they’re busy,” says Moffa. There’s no one correct way to do this either, because it can look different for everyone—working through grief doesn’t necessarily have to mean sitting in a room and crying alone.
Both Moffa and psychotherapist and author Meghan Riordan Jarvis, MA, LCSW point out that this scheduled time can include lots of activities—Jarvis actually assigns between seven and nine minutes of grief journaling to her clients as part of their healing. For others, their grief engagement could mean movement, or crying, or writing a letter to someone they love and miss, or what Ford’s character in Shrinking recommends: jamming out to the saddest song you can think of and letting whatever feelings come wash over you unabated.
“It gives us a sense of control without actually stuffing down our emotions and never coming back to it, which a lot of people do when they’re busy.”—grief counselor Gina Moffa, LCSW
The reason this works is because of our ability to compartmentalize our thoughts and feelings when necessary. Compartmentalization is a defense mechanism the brain enacts to help you push forward even as distressing emotions and feelings crop up. “The brain can prioritize certain tasks and emotions, allowing us to temporarily set aside our grief and focus on the task at hand,” says neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, director of Comprehend the Mind. “This is a natural coping mechanism that allows us to function despite the emotional pain we may be experiencing.” However, the key piece is returning to these emotions to process and engage with them.
While many people can benefit from this practice, Moffa particularly recommends this to her busy patients whose responsibilities, like caregiving or work, preclude them from fully leaning into their emotions as they arise. Other people who would gain something from this are those who experience anxiety and overwhelm as a result of poor skills managing and regulating their emotions and people who desire more privacy to work through their feelings because scheduling grief allows dedicated time and space to do so on their own terms. This practice can also be helpful for people who may not have access to paid sick leave or who don’t have flexible schedules that allow them to take time off to grieve. However, people who have a tendency to be emotionally avoidant may use scheduling as a means to not deal with their grief, so it’s important to be aware if you are a person who fits this pattern.
To be clear, scheduling out the time to feel your grief doesn’t mean you won’t experience grief symptoms unexpectedly, or even that you will learn to control your emotions necessarily. Rather, doing this is part of strengthening and exercising your coping mechanisms to “allow yourself what you need, which is to carry this grief with you” as it changes and evolves, says Jarvis. “If you want to do something energetically expensive like run a marathon, you’re going to have to run every day or at least have a plan of how to build your capacity to do that hard thing,” she says. Think of it like dedicated training time for your mind and heart: Part of grieving is learning to live with grief in all its mutations, and scheduling time to experience yours can help you on that path.
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