9 THINGS TO DO IF YOU’RE STRUCK BY GRIEF
Loss can hit us from out of the blue, leaving us shocked and confused. It can come in many forms — the death of someone we love (a family member, friend, pet, or even a celebrity we admire), the loss of our health, independence, relationships, jobs or even the loss of children leaving the nest. These intense losses can also lead to losing our confidence, our security and our well-being.
Often, we can recover quickly from smaller losses, but major losses can have a lingering impact which can lead to grief. Grief is more than sadness. It is more than an emotional response. Grief is a psychological process of reacting to a major loss, and every person will react differently.
There’s no fixed order to cycle through when we experience grief. We may experience variations of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We may experience some, none or all of these “stages”; they may cycle back and forth and vary in intensity. There’s no “right way” to grieve. Everyone copes differently. For most of us, coping with loss is very difficult. Our thoughts, feelings, memories, and physical responses push us around and we want to escape them and retreat. This might look like throwing ourselves into work, hobbies, exercise, drinking too much, fighting with loved ones, or even hiding under the doona.
These are all normal responses and if we beat ourselves up ON TOP of the pain we’re already dealing with, we can fall into a deeper hole. Our brains can go into overdrive: worrying and catastrophising, dwelling on the past, criticising, blaming, doubting and judging ourselves and others, feeling hopeless, meaningless, pointless, or vulnerable.
With the right support, we can find new ways to respond to our grief, find self-compassion, and see through the thick fog towards a meaningful life, all in our own time.
9 things to remember when tackling grief
If you’re seeing a therapist, they could use many different therapies to help you through your grief. But outside of this, there are things you should remember.
1. Acknowledgement is the first step
We must acknowledge that there is a huge empty space in our world which feels out of our control. We may feel fear and anxiety, start to worry about our uncertain future, ruminate on painful memories, try to figure out who is to blame or even blame ourselves. Ultimately, we have no control over the outcome, the past, the future, and often our own thoughts and emotions. We can’t magically delete these thoughts and feelings. Acknowledging this will help us pay attention to what we CAN control, do, say, and focus our energy and attention on. This will help us make space for our grief.
2. We can’t do it alone
When we’re grieving, we might want to hide or withdraw from loved ones. We might feel like a burden and not want to talk about our pain. We might get irritated by how others treat us. We might feel like we need to get through it alone. While these responses are completely natural, disconnection only magnifies the problem. We’re social creatures. Reach out for support, care and compassion is crucial. Maybe it’s just a text or a voice message, but reaching out is something we CAN control.
On the flipside, it’s important to set boundaries and say ‘no” when you need to take time to recharge. A lot of people don’t know what to say or do when someone they care for is grieving. They might be trying to help, fix or give advice. Be aware that they usually have the best intentions but it can sometimes fall flat.
3. Nature helps
Go for a walk (in nature and the sunshine if you can). When we’re grieving, the world can feel small; being outside can connect us with the larger world. Be yourself and don’t feel the need to “perform”. Just move, breathe, pay attention and feel your feelings.
4. Be careful of making big decisions
Grief can exhaust us: we can struggle to sleep, we can feel “foggy”, and we can struggle to think clearly. Try asking yourself “can I put this decision off for now? Can I ask someone else to take care of it?” If not, “can I pause, connect with the present moment, and remember the values and beliefs that guide my actions, before I decide?”
5. Talk or write about how you feel
Many people suffering from grief find journaling helpful. Others find drawing, creating a scrapbook, colouring, or writing and reading poems helpful. While all of this can absolutely help, another option is to reach out to friends, family, support groups, helplines, or local therapists if needed.
You can still recover without having to talk or write about how you feel but try it out and see how it works for you.
6. Indulge in self care
Finding a balance between resting, recuperating and staying active, engaged and healthy can be difficult. Grief takes a lot of energy so we need to listen to our bodies and rest when we need to. But if we notice that we are staying under the doona for extended periods, this won’t help us. Some things you can do to maintain self care include:
- Trying to keep a sleep routine – set alarms; try guided sleep meditations
- Taking care not to seek too much comfort in sweets, alcohol and “comfort food”. Everything in moderation
- Staying active. We might feel like dropping physical activity entirely, but even small walks and gentle stretching can help keep us engaged
- Simply brushing your teeth, having a shower, or eating something healthy
- Reading a favourite book, listening to a favourite song, or calling a friend.
7. Be kind to yourself
Most of us aren’t very good at this one. Treat yourself the way you’d treat a loved one. We are pretty good at beating ourselves up. Our mind talks to us in ways we would NEVER talk to a friend but we need all the kindness we can get. Our minds are built to problem solve, judge, and blame. It thinks it’s being helpful by trying to figure it all out, find a solution, get us “back on track,” but our minds can be our worst enemy.
Self-kindness is like an oxygen mask — it’ll give you the strength to keep going and cope with what comes. Recognise your pain. Notice and acknowledge it. “Right now I’m having feelings of sadness, despair, anger/numbness”. When we phrase things in this way, we shift from being our feelings (“I am sad/angry/numb”), to seeing that we are not our emotions; helping us take a step back from our feelings.
Then we can respond with kindness and in a voice we would use to comfort someone we love: “you’re doing the best you can right now”, “this is really painful so go easy on yourself”. This is different from “positive thinking”. We’re not trying to get rid of the sad, unwanted thoughts or feelings; we’re making space for them, allowing them to be there in this moment, and bringing in some others to join them.
8. Stop trying to control your feelings
When emotions are too painful, we often want to distract ourselves from them by keeping busy, blaming, problem solving, trivialising, comparing ourselves to others, eating, drinking, and even taking prescription medications. But feeling the full range of emotions is to be human. We don’t experience great loss without great love. The more we try to control them, the more exhausted we become.
When we drop the struggle and stop trying to get rid of our thoughts, memories, and emotions, we can make space for our feelings and be more present in the world around us. We have more freedom to let them come, stay, and go in their own time instead of fighting with them, escaping from them or being controlled by them.
9. You need to weather the storm
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) there is a process called the A.C.E formula which can be used any time of day, as many times as necessary, for as short or as long as you need. It can help us keep steady when we experience intense emotions. It’s like dropping an anchor in a storm, grounding yourself and riding it out. Anchors don’t control the storm, but can reduce the impact. Dropping an anchor is a way of responding to your pain in a caring gentle way.
- Acknowledge your thoughts, feelings, memories, physical sensations.
- Connect with your body: use your senses, your breath, have a stretch, press your hands together
- Engage in what you’re doing: refocus your attention to the present moment. Notice what is around you. Use your senses. What can you see, hear, touch, taste, smell?
Some of us find support and comfort through religious, spiritual and cultural beliefs and practices. Others find our own ways of acknowledging our loss. Here are some suggestions from “When Life Hits Hard” by Dr Russ Harris:
- Find a regular time and place to acknowledge your loss
- Keep reminders of your loved one (a photo, toy, item of clothing)
- Do something symbolic (light a candle, play special music, pray, journal)
- Take time to remember and allow your emotions to be, just as they are. Make room for them. Acknowledge your pain and memories and be kind to yourself. Notice them, name them and allow them. Hold your own hand or lay a kind hand on your heart or belly and feel the warmth of your own touch.
- Focus on the memories that you hold dear; how you want to remember your loved one – a special occasion, things they said that mean something to you, their quirks, things about them that you admire. Savour these memories and moments.