The old saying is true: “If there is an elephant in the room, introduce
him.” No good purpose is served by denial, yet we are very good at it.
And when it comes to facing the pain of our grief with both eyes open,
we often turn away instead. But when we have a psychological elephant in
the room of our mind, we should acknowledge him, and plan a way to
shrink him down to a manageable size then get him on his way. If we’ve
had a loss recently, the new year provides a good opportunity for us to
be honest about the pain of our grief, and resolve in the months to come
to be proactive and do the necessary grief work to begin addressing the
elephant in the room.
#1. Write yourself a comforting and encouraging letter.
Imagine you had a friend who you cared deeply for, and imagine that friend had just experienced the death of someone they love very much. You would want to help them, you’d want to comfort then and encourage them. Well, now substitute yourself for that friend. You are worthy of being comforted and encouraged too, so write yourself a letter saying to yourself the same sorts of things you would say to a good friend. Then, read the letter aloud to yourself once or twice, put it away for a few days or a week, then read it again. Do this for a few months, then write yourself a second letter, and so on. This is an act of self-compassion, treating yourself as gently as you would treat someone else. Avoid thinking that you are so ‘strong’ or ‘solid’ that you don’t need help and tender compassion. That is a misunderstanding of strength and personal fortitude. Feeling intense sorrow and bereavement is not a sign of weakness, to the contrary, it is a sign of deep humanity and personal capacity to love.
#2. Buy a big calendar, and use it.
One of the main problems bereaved people face is the feeling that one day drags into the next, always the same. Grieving people also sometimes get pressured by other well-meaning people into doing activities they really don’t want to do. An ‘appointment calendar’ can solve both of those problems. Large calendars, like a desk calendar, give you room to write. So as the new year begins, grab your pen, sit down with the calendar, and start filling your days with appointments. Appointments with whom? Well, most importantly, with yourself. Without isolating yourself or taking yourself out of social circulation, you can pen in some ‘self-time’ and thereby reserve a lot of valuable quiet time. Now this quiet time does not have to be momentous. Just by reserving time for yourself, you will give yourself time to breathe and reflect as the new year, with all of its demands and changes, unfolds. Appointments like “movie with me,” or “reading with me,” “journaling with me” or “recreation with me” make it possible for you to always be able to tell others, when asked to go somewhere or do something, “Let me check my calendar, I may have an appointment.” This way you can say “No” in a socially graceful way, and if you want to accept someone’s invitation, you can always break an appointment with yourself, no one will be upset about that.
#3. Move your body, move your mind.
As you slowly adjust to your life without the physical presence of your loved one who died, it’s vital you get outside and move your body. Notice, I didn’t say “exercise,” since for some people that may sound daunting (What do I wear? What gym do I join? What are the elements of my workout?). No need to make it a big undertaking, you’re not training for the Olympics. So pick short, achieve-able goals, like a very short hike, a walk around the block, a bike ride to the park, etc. Keep these jaunts short, as this will give you a sense of accomplishment, and you will derive the physical and psychological benefits of having enlisted your body in your ongoing encounter with grief. This is a great habit to form in the new year.
#4. Realize that you do not need to “understand” your grief, or fit your loss into your religious or philosophical worldview right now.
When I coached Little League, I established the One Minute Rule. It was this: If I, or any player, gets hit by a batted or thrown baseball, whatever the person hit by the ball says for the first minute after being hit, is OK. Screaming and accusations were common after being hit by the baseball, but everyone knew that you got a free pass for a minute. And they knew that after a minute the hit person had to be ready to move on. Well, bereaved people get a lot longer than a minute, or a month, or a year, to integrate their experience into the rest of their outlook on life. So don’t feel any anxiety about fully grasping what has happened to you. Time will help clear your mind, and you will eventually be able to cognitively address your loss, the pain it has brought you, and the changes in your life that have ensued.
#5. Decide that in the new year, you will, in some new way, begin to focus a bit more on others, as a part of your loved one’s legacy.
This is a valuable change you can make in your life. We all need to get out of our skin for a while, we need to get out of ourselves and just focus on other people, and their problems. Sometimes this helps us gain a fresh perspective on our own life. So plan on doing that this new year, and as you do it, you will no doubt talk with new people, and when the opportunity presents itself tell them about your loved one who has died. You don’t have to tell your loved one’s life story or anything like that, just mention them in passing, or say “My wife used to like to do this (activity).” You may feel a bit more comfortable talking about your loved one with people who didn’t know him or her, and it is very valuable to begin to talk out loud—in the past tense---about your loved one. It may be shocking for you to hear yourself speak out loud in the past tense about someone so close to you, but it will help you integrate their death into your life. Where do you go to be around other people? Start with local civic groups, like the Boys and Girls Club, the Historical Society, the Kiwanis or Elks, the Library, Big Brothers and Sisters, a Habitat for Humanity project or a Rescue Mission.
#6. Listen to the Music.
A recent study I saw asserted that sad people who listen to their favorite music that matches their mood, report feeling better. Music is therapeutic and soothing. Throughout human religious and cultural history, music has been central to the expression of human values and sentiments. Sit down with a pen and paper, and make a short list of some songs of different types that you have always liked. Then go to youtube.com and search for them and listen to them, or go to the library and listen to them, or order them online (if you are not accustomed to doing that on a computer, ask a friend to do it for you). Just get the music playing so you can listen to it. And as you do, let your mind take you where it will---daydream---and after a while I’ll bet you’ll feel relaxed and even renewed.
When I was a teenager I spent four hours every Saturday morning, from 8:30 a. m. to 12:30 p. m., helping Mr. Leffingwell clean his expansive yard. There were what seemed like hundreds of plants and bushes, in addition to several lawns he wanted pristine. It was a big undertaking, as he was a very particular man. I remember that his wife died one year. He took one Saturday off from yard work, and he was right back at it the next week---and I was with him. The first Saturday back, he opened up the sliding door to his backyard where we were working, and he turned up his stereo. He was playing a record by John Denver, and on it was the tribute ballad Annie’s Song. When that song came on, he stopped trimming bushes, and just stood there, looking at his pool, and staring around the green yard. As John Denver sang “You fill up my senses, like a night in the forest….” Mr. Leffingwell stood still. When the song was over, he went back to work, and I remember he worked hard, with vigor, until I left at 12:30 p. m. That soulful song seemed like a tonic to him, it seemed to soothe his aching heart. Find the songs that are meaningful to you, and let them speak to you.
#7. Wishing you well.
As the new year begins, write down what your loved one would want for you in the new year. Trouble imagining what that might be? It’s probably the same as what you would wish for your loved one, had you been the one that died. So sit down at the computer, or put pen to paper, and make a list of five or seven or ten states of mind or attitudes or commodities that your loved one would want for you to attain as you move forward without them physically with you. For example, my mother would want me to look toward the future, and not be paralyzed by mourning. Or, my father would want me to be optimistic about what will happen to me this year, or my sister would want me to buy those expensive boots we used to talk about. And then, armed with your list, choose one of those dispositions or possessions and pursue it. Look back at your list after a few months, and check off the outlook or object you now have. Deliberately choose to achieve something your loved one would want you to have in this new year. By doing so, you will honor their memory.
So often, we think of grief or bereavement as something that happens to us, instead of something we do. This is unfortunate, since passivity and inaction will not help us to engage the new reality of loss in our lives. This is not to say that grief is a “problem” we can solve, or a “condition” we can hurry up and make go away, but it is to say that we can be active participants and even helpful agents in our own emotional well-being. By deliberately and purposefully facing our sorrow, and calmly, carefully thinking about what we can do to help integrate our sorrow into our larger life, we can contribute to forging our new identity. And this is a powerful choice to make as a new year and our new lives dawn.
About the Author
Brad Stetson (Ph. D., University of Southern California) has published on a wide range of religious and social topics, including Tender Fingerprints: A True Story of Loss and Resolution (Zondervan, 1999, 2000) and Living Victims, Stolen Lives: Parents of Murdered Children Speak to America (Baywood, 2003).His books have been critically reviewed in academic and popular venues ranging from Omega: The Journal of Death and Dying, to the Journal of Church and State, First Things, National Review, Publishers Weekly and the Wall Street Journal. He has also written for various periodicals, including The Orange County Register, The Los Angeles Times, Grief Digest, and Christianity Today magazine.
Mr. Stetson works frequently as a funeral chaplain and officiate, and has written and conducted nearly 1,500 memorial services.