Coping with GriefMar 22, 2022
Grief: deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement
Lauren Herschel captured grief in a viral twitter thread in 2017, and it remains one of the best descriptions of the grief experience we have seen: The Ball in a Box Analogy. It goes like this: There’s a box with with a pain button, and it also has a ball in it.
At first, the ball takes up almost the whole box, and any movement hits the pain button. You can’t stop it. It just keeps pushing the button over and over again. Over time, the ball shrinks, so it hits the pain button less often. But it still hurts just as much when it hits it, and it feels pretty random. As Lauren says “For most people, the ball never really goes away. It might hit less and less and you have more time to recover between hits, unlike when the ball was still giant.”
We can experience grief when a loved one dies, when our life has unexpectedly changed, or experience anticipatory grief in the face of an impending loss or change, like when someone is facing a terminal diagnosis.
Grief is not linear, and it doesn’t one day suddenly go away. We all experience grief in different ways, and on different timelines. And yet we are often expected to show up to our day to day obligations, even when our pain button is getting hammered. So what can we do?
Create space to process the grief
When a loss is new, the pain can be particularly acute. In an online discussion on returning to work after losing a parent, one person said “I get randomly triggered, how am I supposed to pretend things are normal?”.
Everyone’s grieving process is different. Our culture often encourages rushing through grief, and “moving on” past the difficult feelings as quickly as possible, but that doesn’t necessarily support the healing process. Create space to experience the upheaval that grief often brings, and recognize it as part of the process.
Writing and journaling can be good tools to support this. Here is an excellent article that outlines how journaling can support the grieving process, and some suggested prompts you might explore. Journaling can help us understand our feelings, and can support meaning making. “Meaning making involves “making sense” of or. coming to understand the situation in a different way, finding benefit or positives that. come from the situation, and changes in identity” (Gillies & Neimeyer, 2006; Janoff- Bulman, 1992; Park, 2008).
Get trained support
“You can’t stop the waves, you can learn to surf” John Kabbat-Zinn
Sometimes our natural support systems have all the best intent, but they don’t know how to help. They haven’t experienced our particular kind of loss. Or, even if they’ve experienced grief themselves, their grief might have been very different. In some cases, the loss you’re trying to cope with might trigger their own grief, making it hard to be supportive in your time of need.
For many, individual therapy is an essential part of dealing with their grief. While seeing a therapist may not heal your grief, it can help you understand and assess your experience and symptoms, and how best to deal with them. Finding a counselor who is experienced in loss, and grief counseling, can be especially helpful.
Support groups for loss and grief are another helpful resource, like GriefShare or Grief Anonymous. These groups are usually facilitated by someone who is trained in grief support and counseling, and helps connect you with others going through similar experiences.
Cultivate tools for dealing with overwhelming feelings
Sometimes it all feels like too much. Our pain might be triggered right as we’re about to pick up our kids, or go into an important meeting. We need to show up somewhat put together. In those instances, there are some tools that can help you tolerate the distress.
- Breathing exercises: Calm down your nervous system through Box breathing
- Strategically distract: Imagine putting your distress in a box, and designating a time to come back to it. While we need to process our emotions to heal over the long term, choosing to put feelings that are too overwhelming aside on a temporary basis helps us gradually work up to processing these feelings.
- Mindfulness: Mindfulness in this context means accepting things as they are completely, without trying to change them. This means recognizing the pain, the anxiety, the sadness, the hurt, or whatever else you might be feeling, as a way to move through them.
Practice Self compassion
We’ve spoken about self compassion in an earlier blog post “Making Peace when all your Options Suck”. “Self-compassion is treating yourself with the kindness you’d extend to a close friend or loved one.”
Know that this is a difficult season of life, and practice being kind to yourself.
Remember to look after yourself
It’s easy to drop our foundational self care habits in crisis. Grief can interfere with sleeping, eating and exercise. Try to commit to consistent self care habits in these foundational areas. Looking after yourself and your wellbeing can help you access a better place (physically and psychologically) earlier, and more often. It can help shrink the ball. It’s often when we need to care for ourselves the most that we sacrifice these habits. Our normal routines may be out of reach (like a vigorous exercise routine), but these can be adapted (for example an easy walk) to be more accessible during a period of crisis. Writing a list of these foundational habits, or using a habit tracker, can help.
More resources on Grief
Here are some of our favorite resources on grief:
- How Grief Rewires the Brain
- TedX Talk - Getting Cozy with Grief
- Ted Talk - We don’t move on from grief, we move forward with it.
- Book - It’s ok that you’re not ok
- Book - When Bad things Happen to Good People
- Instagram - Happy Grieving
Remember there’s always help
If you’re experiencing loss and grief, and it feels overwhelming, or you need to talk to someone, there are always resources and people to help. Someone is available to speak to you 24/7.
The Mindfulness and Self Acceptance in Crisis Workbook
We created a 12 page workbook to support all those going through a difficult time. It includes lessons in mindfulness and self acceptance, along with worksheets to apply these concepts to your life. You can get it here.
Want a nudge to be more mindful? Grab the Mindful in 5 Phone Wallpaper!
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