Emotions reflect that you have special needs that require support from both outside yourself and inside yourself. Becoming familiar with the terrain of these emotions and practicing self-care guidelines can and will help you authentically mourn and heal in small doses over time. The important thing to remember is that we honor our emotions when we give attention to them. Following are just a few ideas to help you care for your emotional self during your journey through grief.
Reach out and touch.
For many people, physical contact with another human being is healing. It has been recognized since ancient times as having transformative, healing powers. Have you hugged anyone lately? Held someone’s hand? Put your arm around another human being? Hug someone you feel safe with. Kiss your children or a friend’s baby. Walk arm in arm with a neighbor. You might also appreciate massage therapy. Try a session and see how it feels for you.
Listen to the music.
Music can be very healing to mourners because it helps us access our feelings, both happy and sad. Music can soothe the spirit and nurture the heart. All types of music can be healing—rock & roll, classical, blues, folk. Do you play an instrument or sing? Allow yourself the time to try these activities again soon. What music reminds you of the person who died? At first, listening to this special music may be too painful. But later you may find that playing music that reminds you of the person who died helps you keep her memory alive in your heart.
Draw a “grief map.”
The death of someone you love may have stirred up all kinds of thoughts and feelings inside you. These emotions may seem overwhelming or even “crazy.” Rest assured that you’re not crazy, you’re grieving. Your thoughts and feelings—no matter how scary or strange they seem to you—are normal and necessary.
Sometimes, corralling all your varied thoughts and feelings in one place can make them feel more manageable. You could write about them, but you can also draw them out in diagram form. Make a large circle at the center of your map and label it GRIEF. This circle represents your thoughts and feeling since the death. Now draw lines radiating out of this circle and label each line with a thought or feeling that has contributed to your grief. For example, you might write ANGER in a bubble at the end of one line. Next to the word anger, jot down notes about why you feel mad. Your grief map needn’t look pretty or follow any certain rules. The most important thing is the process of creating it. When you’re finished, explain it to someone who cares about you.
Schedule something that gives you pleasure each and every day.
Often mourners need something to look forward to, a reason to get out of bed each morning. It’s hard to look forward to each day when you know you will be experiencing pain and sadness. To counterbalance your normal and necessary mourning, each and every day plan—in advance—something you enjoy. Reading, baking, going for a walk, having lunch with a friend, gardening, playing computer games—do whatever brings you enjoyment.
Your mind is the intellectual ability to think, to absorb information, make decisions and reason logically. Without doubt, you have special needs in the cognitive realm of your grief experience. Just as your body and emotions let you know you have experienced being “torn apart,” your mind has also, in effect, been torn apart.
Thinking normally after the death of someone precious to you would be very unlikely. Don’t be surprised if you struggle with short-term memory problems, have trouble making even simple decisions, and think you may be “going crazy.” Essentially, your mind is in a state of disorientation and confusion. As C.S. Lewis noted after the death of his wife, “At times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says.”
Early in your grief, you may find it helpful to allow yourself to “suspend” all thought and purposefulness for a time. Allow yourself just to be. Your mind needs time to catch up with and process your new reality. In the meantime, don’t expect too much of your intellectual powers.
Your cognitive powers are quite remarkable. Willing yourself to think something can in fact help make that something come to be. Think about your desired reality and make it happen. Following are just a few ideas to help you care for your cognitive self during your journey through grief. What ideas can you think of?
Ask yourself two questions: What do I want? What is wanted of me?
The answers to these two questions may help you not only survive the coming months and years, but learn to love life again.
First, now that the person you loved is gone, what do you want? What do you want to do with your time? Where do you want to live? With whom do you want to socialize? Whom do you want to be near? These are big questions that may take some time for you to answer.
Second, what is wanted of you? Who needs you? Who depends upon you? What skills and experience can you bring to others? What are you good at? Why did God put you here on this earth? While considering what you want is important, it alone does not a complete life make.
Asking yourself these questions on a daily basis may help you focus on the here-and-now. What do I want from my life today? What is wanted of me today? Living in the moment will help you better cope with your grief.
Make a list of goals.
While you should not set a particular time and course for your healing, it may help you to have made other life goals for the coming year. Make a list of short-term goals for the next three months. Perhaps some of the goals could have to do with mourning activities (e.g., making a memory book or writing thank-you notes to people who helped at the time of the death).
Also make a list of long-term goals for the next year. Be both realistic and compassionate with yourself as you consider what’s feasible and feels good and what will only add too much stress to your life. Keep in mind that, because of your grief, you may feel more fatigued than usual. Don’t over commit, thereby setting yourself up for failure.
Try to include at least one or two “just for fun” goals in your list. For example, you might want to take a photography class or learn to tie fly fishing flies.
Avoid making any major changes in your life for at least two years.
While it can be helpful to have goals to help you look to a brighter future, it’s a mistake to march too boldly ahead. Sometimes, in an effort to obliterate the pain and “move forward,” mourners make rash decisions shortly after the death. Some move to a new home or city. Some quit their jobs. Some break ties with people in their life or take on new relationships too quickly. Typically these changes are soon regretted. They often end up compounding feelings of loss and complicating healing as well as creating staggering new headaches. (For example, more than half of all remarriages within the first two years of widowhood end in divorce.)
If at all possible, avoid making drastic changes for at least two years after the death. You cannot run away from the pain, so don’t make things worse by trying to. Instead, give yourself at least a full 24 months to consider any other major changes in your life.
Of course, sometimes you may be forced to make a significant change in your life soon after the death. Financial realities may force you to sell your house, for example. In these cases, know that you are doing what you must and trust that everything will work out.
Count your blessings
You may not be feeling very good about your life right now. You may feel that you are unlucky. You may feel you are destined to be unhappy. You may feel that the universe is conspiring against you. That’s OK. There is, indeed, a time for every purpose under heaven—including self-doubt. Indeed, self-doubt is as normal a part of grief as anger or sadness.
Still, you are blessed. Your life has purpose and meaning, even without the presence of the person who died. It will just take you some time to think and feel this through for yourself.
Think of all you have to be thankful for. This is not to deny the hurt, for the hurt needs to take precedence right now. But it may help to consider the things that make your life worth living, too.
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About the Author
Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D., is an author, educator and grief counselor. He serves as director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado and is on the faculty at the University of Colorado Medical School in the Department of Family Medicine.