There is a terrible thing that awaits us all. Anyone fortunate to live long enough and be born into a loving family, have meaningful life experiences, and to deeply love others will, in fact, know the anguish and suffering of loss.
Grief is a strong, oftentimes overwhelming, emotion of deep sorrow. At the root of grief is a sense of loss – whether it’s the death of someone they love, a divorce or fracture of an important relationship, a miscarriage, or a terrible diagnosis (loss of health, staring death in the face). What’s left? The abrupt, raw wound is the tremendous absence felt from a loved one’s physical death, or the end of a dream about living ‘happily ever after’.
While we aim mostly to look on the bright side of life (also, an excellent Monty Python Life of Brian song), when someone close to us recently passed, we knew it was time to address the part of life that is The Suck – the 50% that isn’t ‘good’ but is the price we all pay for being here in life. When you’re feeling zombiefied by grief here are some Q+A’s and ways to help you cope:
Do I have to go through grief? Can’t I just skip it somehow? There’s got be a ‘hack’ for this…
The importance of participating in your grief and actually feeling your emotions is that it 1. allows healing to occur and 2. doesn’t compound the issue by adding on over-eating, over-drinking, or over-whatever-short-term-pleasure-actually-hurts-you-in-the-long-run.
It’s a choice: willingly enter the heart-rending, swamp of difficult emotions knowing it’s part of your path forward to healing OR try to avoid and numb-out with food, work, or alcohol only to STILL have to go through the swamp AND now there’s extra weight or a burdened liver carried on with you.
How long does grief last?
Grief is tricky. You might think to yourself “oh, I haven’t cried the past two days, I guess I’m moving on to the next stage to get out of this mess”…but NOPE, grief will pop up out of nowhere and sock you in the nose. It could be song you hear while driving in the car, a phrase you heard your loved one say, a random memory, even an annoying commercial…and you’ll find yourself in tears once again. Expect the unexpected.
Grief isn’t linear and it’s not just five stages. You’ll likely bounce from denial to regret, confusion to despair, anger to bargaining, trying to accept to depression…over the course of months or even a single day. Grief is not a race you can run and be done with. Accepting that simple fact will probably do more for your mental health than trying to force your way through it.
As Dodinsky said, “Grieving is a necessary passage and a difficult transition to finally letting go of sorrow – it is not a permanent rest stop.” Onto entering the ‘sad swamp’ and tips to guide you through your grief:
1. Listen to your favorite sad songs. Our brain thumbed through some old CD racks in a dusty corner of our hippocampus and served up a song we hadn’t heard since 2002 – Do you Realize by the Flaming Lips. We were promptly reduced to tears. Very apropos; thanks brain.
2. Allow yourself to cry. You’re not a robot and neither are we. “Tears have a wisdom all their own…They are the natural bleeding of an emotional wound, carrying the poison out of the system. Here lies the road to recovery.” – F. Alexander Magoun
3. Hydrate. It’s time to take very basic care of your physical body right now. There’s a good chance that in this stage you’ll feel like you’re plodding through heavy storm clouds. Don’t forget that you’ll need to replenish your body with water on a regular basis; set alarms if you need to.
4. Read mournful poems. In our brief research, we found a plethora of poems for every occasion of loss. Heartbreak over a romance ending? The loss of a parent, sibling, or child? Check out poets from Robert Frost and W.H. Auden to Rumi. In some ways it’s really comforting to know others have been through what you’re going through since time immemorial.
5. Eat comfort food. Not too much. Try to get a plant in there every once in awhile. This is a paraphrase/ parody of Michael Pollan’s rules for eating, but seriously, food is an important part of our culture and our memories. Making your Italian nonna’s meatball recipe, with extra cheese, might just be one of the most nourishing meals for your aching soul. Maybe it’s the candy bar you and your bestie shared back in elementary school days. Go for a bit of comfort food and maybe add in a vegetable somewhere in your day.
6. Let yourself sleep. Staying up until the wee hours of the morning, looking at photographs of your loved one or watching Netflix might be exactly what is needed for a night or two, but if your kids are still waking up at 7am to go to school, the 4 hours of sleep you got probably won’t be enough to help you mentally, or physically, get through the day. Being sleep deprived + a bundle of raw nerves = more easily cracking the emotional wound wider or snapping at others. Be gentle with yourself and allow extra time for sleep and rest.
7. Anchor yourself in nature. The lovely person we, and the world lost last week, had an amazing garden. Each family member took time meandering around the yard, or sitting in her favorite outdoor chair, and observing the life that she had engendered and mothered. Hiking or walking in a local park can be a soothing, if temporary, balm for grief. Nature helps to ground us all and reminds us that, while none of us can escape the seasons of life, can anticipate and try to work within them.
8. To work or not to work? That’s a good question. Only you’ll be able to answer it for yourself. Some people go right back into work because they feel they can’t take time off; others might use it to distract from the pain. One of our missions in life is to help others heal and have whole, healthy lives so, for us, working our ‘magic’ in coaching clients is rather cathartic. It’s an anti-dote to the external circumstance outside of our control: we may not be able to help the recently deceased but we *can* help the living.
9. Beware the second arrow. One of the teachings of stoicism (and Buddhism) is to not suffer twice. The first arrow – death, heartbreak, illness- causes pain and is often outside of our control. The second arrow – anger, regret, anxiety – causes suffering and this is a choice. Mindset work and challenging typical stories “if I had one more day with her” actually can help a lot here.
10. Clean. Or don’t. This is another tricky situation. While most of us feel better in a freshly tidied up and vacuumed environment, this may not be a time where even any cleaning gets done. While we were spending 13-hour-days in the ICU last week, all we could really do when back at home was to try to make a quick meal and load/unload the dishwasher. That was enough. Now, especially with needing to declutter and maintain the home of the person we lost, on top of our own, the balance needs to shift. It’s a season. Bottom line: if it makes you feel better to exert some control over your environment, clean til your heart’s content; if you are super-fatigued and burnt out, give yourself a few days without cleaning (or ask a friend/hire someone).
11. Let friends and family help you. Many of us Americans are taught to be independent, individualistic and self-reliant. An additional layer to those in the helping professions is that often they have the hardest time accepting help. And so it is with us. Some of your friends will jump right in with emotional and tangible support. They will offer or insist upon providing: homemade soup and cookies, gift cards for meal delivery from your favorite restaurant, tactical decluttering or clearing out of the deceased’s house. Other friends will probably flounder a bit with the “right thing to say” or how to support you. That’s okay, you’ll probably need to think of an option – “hey, I could really use a hike and a hug. Let’s meet next week” or “can you tell me what steps you took to clean out your aunt’s house when she died?”
12. Get in touch with a bereavement counselor or therapist. People who are trained to be great listeners can help you tell the story of what has happened, explore the complexity of your grieving feelings, and offer a hand to help you back up to face a new reality after loss.
You’re not alone. We all enter the sad swamp at various times in our lives. Take care of yourself, ask for help (professional, if needed), and we’ll all float on alright.