LIVING with Grief
Living with grief… For someone experiencing overwhelming grief, it can be challenging to figure out exactly how to do that. There are as many different ways to grieve as there are losses in this world. Even the same loss will be experienced many different ways because we each have a unique relationship with the person who has died. While there is no one way to grieve, there are things that you can do to cope with the process of grief. Find the way that works for you:
- Soothe yourself physically in the immediate aftermath of loss. Some people describe a kind of out-of-body experience after a loss, that sense of shock, disbelief, and dissociation that can come when difficult news just does not compute. Soothing yourself physically, such as taking a warm shower, inhaling and exhaling slowly and deeply, sipping a hot cup of tea, or taking a gentle walk, can help you calm your nervous system and feel grounded in the present moment. Your body will give you helpful clues throughout the process of grief, and soothing yourself physically will help you feel safe when confronting difficult feelings of loss.
- Maintain a basic routine, including pleasurable activities. Grief, like depression, may sap your desire to participate in your regular routine. You may not feel enjoyment in the same way, or even feel guilty about experiencing pleasure or joy when your lost loved one no longer can. It is important to stay active, even when you just don’t feel like it. Keeping an active routine is important to preventing depression, by giving yourself opportunities to produce positive feelings again. It may be helpful to ask yourself what your lost loved one would have wanted for you. Would they have wanted you to be happy? Would they have wanted you to pursue your passions? What advice would they have given you in trying times? Participating in the beauty, connection, and love of life can be an excellent tribute to those who are no longer with us.
- Know that you do not have to perform your grief for anyone else’s benefit. It is common for mourners to feel pressure to display or underplay their grief in a particular way. Am I holding it together enough? Should I be more/less visibly sad? Do I tell people how I really feel when they ask how I am? We are all subject to cultural norms that tell us how we are supposed to act in certain situations, and death is one of those situations. It may be helpful to reframe this social pressure as knowing that others generally want to help, but don’t always know how. Feel free to tell others directly how to best support you in your time of grief. You will receive a lot of different kinds of advice about how to cope with loss, but your own instincts will be the best guide. Take the time to listen to these instincts.
- Know that it is common to experience regret after a loss. Regret about all the things that were left unsaid or questions unasked. Regret about decisions that were made during end of life care. Regret about not being able to do more to prevent death. Regret can lead to feelings of powerlessness and stuckness because we cannot go back and change the past. Observe these thoughts and feelings, while knowing that you do not have to participate in them. I encourage my clients to observe difficult thoughts and feelings the same way that you might watch clouds float across the sky: You cannot push them away, nor pull them closer. Clouds move at their very own pace, and over time, they will pass. Have patience with yourself, and your thoughts, along the way.
- Talk about your grief. Even when you don’t know what to say, talk about it anyways. Talking or writing about difficult emotions helps us organize our thoughts to makes sense of a stressful event. Find your own way to talk about the loss. Maybe it is with a partner, friend, or family member. It could be a therapist or support group. It could be only to yourself, talking to yourself in the mirror, using a voice diary, or writing in a journal. You can experiment with different ways of talking about your loss, but doing so one way or another will be important to processing and understanding the reality of the loss.
- Be open to finding meaning in death and loss. Finding meaning in death will never bring your loved one back to you, but it may help you find a little bit of peace in the midst of overwhelming grief. You may not find meaning right away, maybe only accumulating pieces of meaning and acceptance slowly over time. Being open to finding meaning in loss means that you leave a teeny part of your heart open to finding it unexpectedly. If meaning is to be found, you will be mindful enough to be receptive to it, which may soothe the soul, if only a little bit.
- Maintain a relationship with the person who was lost. This will look differently for all of us. For some it may be continuing to set a place at the table during mealtime, talking out loud to your loved one, or calling a disconnected number. For others it might be visualizing their face, smile, or laugh clearly in your mind. It could be looking at old pictures or reminiscing about favorite memories with friends. Anniversaries and birthdays will become very important reminders of the loss and should not be shied away from. Invite opportunities to maintain a relationship with your lost loved one. Ask yourself how they would respond in different situations or what they would say. Losing your loved one does not mean that you have to lose your relationship with this person completely. Maintaining a relationship with a lost loved one requires a bit of creativity, but it basically means exercising that part of who you are who was drawn to that person in the first place.
And in honoring our loved ones through our actions, we are able to live, in spite of grief.
What gives you peace in living with grief?
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Anna Lindberg Cedar, MPA, LCSW #64284 is a Bay Area psychotherapist who specializes in burnout prevention. She is an expert practitioner of Dialectical Behavior Therapy — a counseling style that combines Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and other change-based skills with mindfulness and other acceptance-based strategies. Find out more: www.annacedar.com .
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The grief counseling strategies shared in this piece are drawn from evidence-based therapies, such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Mindfulness Stress Based Reduction, and Behavioral Activation.