Illustration by Ruby Aitken.

Grieving the death of a loved one is like living in a dream where you’re asleep, but life goes on without you. I’m just waking up from it, but sometimes it still feels like I’m out of my own body, watching my younger self search for the sanity I had before the start of 2013, when my parents told me my dad had a malignant brain tumor. I couldn’t grasp this information until his death forced me to, only a few months later. I was 12 going on 13, and still pictured my dad as the one person who would sing the song “Erie Canal” to me till I fell asleep. The New York public high school teacher who would share his lesson plans with me. This was no longer him, and I could not accept that because I did not get to say goodbye. My dad left as quickly as his hair fell out.

I needed help—as in, someone to talk to. In some of my first experiences with counseling, I was continually told that I “should be done with the whole grieving period.” That was from a counselor recommended by a family friend. One time, in the first months without my dad, my mom and I went to a clinic in our neighborhood. We met with a therapist who compared the loss of my dad to that of her dog. She felt proud of her comparison, sitting high and mighty on her plastic-covered chair. Needless to say, we did not see her again.

I gave up on finding someone to talk with and decided that I didn’t want to process anything. Not long after I gave up, though, this mindset blew up in my face. Refusing to process my emotions eventually caused me to lose control of them.

Grief should not come with a timer that just keeps ticking and telling you to move on. When you lose someone close to your heart, you will keep missing them, and that is not a problem, nor is it your fault. However, it does help to have someone to help you process your emotions, and to learn how you can help yourself when you’re alone. There are also ways to build a support system beyond that trusted individual. Here’s what’s helped me, and I hope it helps you, too.

1. Find a grief counselor.
I did eventually find invaluable help from counselors and therapists, so don’t be discouraged by my earliest experiences, or by the trial and error it will take to find the fit you deserve. If your school doesn’t have a counselor or you don’t want to see them, look up nearby hospitals and call to ask if they have grief counseling. Many hospitals, like mine, will not refuse patients based on financial status, and if you can’t afford therapy, they may still help you find the care you need. The people I see do not try to belittle me, or guilt me for the ways that I’m still grieving. They are helping me process the past so it will not hurt my future. They’ve shown me things I can do on my own, like exercising and listening to music, to find peace and strength within myself.

If you don’t live by a hospital or have a way to get to one, you can get set up with a counselor at a hotline like BetterHelp (which comes with a weekly fee, although you can apply for financial aid) or Crisis Text Line (which is free). If you feel suicidal, 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is available 24 hours a day, from anywhere in the U.S., and has a list of resources for outside the U.S. I know it seems impossible that anyone else could understand exactly what you’re going through, but trust me when I say that they will still be able to provide guidance that you can’t create for yourself.

2. Get involved in a club or activity.
Not all support will deal with your grief directly. Even if you’re not sure what you’re passionate about, having a group of people you see regularly, with some kind of activity or task at hand, will make you feel less alone. The year my dad passed away, I got involved in my middle school’s drama department. With the help of my drama teacher, I adapted the play The Importance of Being Earnest into a musical set in the 1990s. This helped me thrive in more ways than one. The drama club offered not just artistic support, but emotional support. Surround yourself with people who care about you. They may be easier to find if you’re working as a team or in collaboration than if you take on the daunting task of just making more friends.

3. Find a support group.
I know you might not want to Google “support group near me” like you’re looking for a restaurant, or talk about yourself in front of strangers. But the fact that it is convenient to find (and read people’s accounts of) a support group is something to take advantage of. You don’t have to talk any more than what makes you comfortable. And, hearing from other people who are going through helps tremendously with the feelings of alienation that come with grief.

I remember trying to attend a support group not even a month after my dad died, and I just could not do it. Losing my dad felt as though I was stuck in the middle of a moving carousel—my feelings wouldn’t let up long enough for me to process them. Eventually, I realized I could not stop the carousel and had to call out for help. I went to Gilda’s Club in New York City, which helps families that are going through or have gone through a loved one’s cancer treatment. It was filled with therapists who did not just go on their phone while I was speaking and who actually listened to what I was saying before guiding me to ways of understanding my emotions. Friends and family members could also be a support group if you are comfortable talking with them about what you are going through.

I remember hearing this corny saying the entire time I was going into counselor’s offices: “It gets better over time.” Now, that saying is rather loose-ended, don’t you think? It aims to be helpful and is heading in the right direction, but you want to know how—how is it going to get better?!? The pain of losing a loved one won’t simply go away—after five years, I still miss my dad every single day. The saying should actually be, “Over time, you learn to better understand your emotions and find ways to manage them.” The pain of losing a loved one can make it hard to do that all on your own. There are people and outlets to help you carry that weight, but you have to be the one to find them before it gets too heavy.

You do not have to be alone, full of emotions that are difficult to make sense of. I know it may not seem like it immediately, but there are so many different hands reaching out for you to hold onto; you only have to choose which one. ♦