“There is nothing in nature that can’t be taken as a sign of both mortality and invigoration.” — Gretel Ehrlich
The word “bereaved,” which to our modern-day ears can sound like an old-fashioned term that only a funeral director might use, means “to be torn apart” and “to have special needs.” So despite its obsolescence, the word is still accurate and useful. Perhaps your most important “special need” right now is to be compassionate with yourself. In fact, the word “compassion” means “with passion.” Caring for and about yourself with passion is self-compassion.
Over many years of walking with people in grief, I have discovered that most of us are hard on ourselves when we are in mourning. We judge ourselves and we shame ourselves and we take care of ourselves last. But good self-care is essential to your survival. To practice good self-care doesn’t mean you are feeling sorry for yourself, or being self-indulgent; rather, it means you are creating conditions that allow you to integrate the death of someone loved into your heart and soul.
Remember—self-care fortifies your long and challenging grief journey, a journey which leaves you profoundly affected and deeply changed. To be self-nurturing is to have the courage to pay attention to your needs. Above all, self-nurturing is about self-acceptance. When we recognize that self-care begins with ourselves, we no longer think of those around us as being totally responsible for our well-being. Healthy self-care forces us to mourn in ways that help us heal, and that is nurturing indeed.
Nurturing yourself in five important realms
When we are “torn apart,” one of our most important special needs is to nurture ourselves in four important areas: physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually. What follows is a brief introduction to each of these areas. You will then be invited to go to your companion journal and express how you see yourself doing in each of these areas.
The physical realm
Your body may be letting you know it feels distressed. Actually, one literal definition of the word “grievous” is “causing physical suffering.” You may be shocked by how much your body responds to the impact of your loss.
Among the most common physical responses to loss are troubles with sleeping and low energy. You may have difficulty getting to sleep. Perhaps even more commonly, you may wake up early in the morning and have trouble getting back to sleep. During your grief journey, your body needs more rest than usual. You may also find yourself getting tired more quickly—sometimes even at the start of the day.
Muscle aches and pains, shortness of breath, feelings of emptiness in your stomach, tightness in your throat or chest, digestive problems, sensitivity to noise, heart palpitations, queasiness, nausea, headaches, increased allergic reactions, changes in appetite, weight loss or gain, agitation, and generalized tension—these are all ways your body may react to the loss of someone loved.
Good self-care is important at this time. Your body is the house you live in. Just as your house requires care and maintenance to protect you from the outside elements, your body requires that you honor it and treat it with respect. The quality of your life ahead depends on how you take care of your body today. The “lethargy of grief” you are probably experiencing is a natural mechanism intended to slow you down and encourage you to care for your body.
And be certain to “talk out” your grief. Many grieving people have taught me that if they avoid or repress talking about the death, their bodies will begin to express their grief for them.
The emotional realm
We explored in Touchstone Four a multitude of emotions that are often part of grief and mourning. These 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 the self-care guidelines noted 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.
Caring for your emotional self
Following are just a few ideas to help you care for your emotional self during your journey through grief. What ideas can you think of?
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.
Draw a “grief map”
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.
The cognitive realm
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.
Caring for your cognitive self
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?
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.
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. 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.
But 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.
The social realm
The death of someone you love has resulted in a very real disconnection from the world around you. When you reach out and connect with your family and friends, you are beginning to reconnect. By being aware of the larger picture, one that includes all the people in your life, you gain some perspective. You recognize you are part of a greater whole—and that recognition can empower you. You open up your heart to love again when you reach out to others. Your link to family, friends, and community is vital for your sense of well-being and belonging.
If you don’t nurture the warm, loving relationships that still exist in your life, you will probably continue to feel disconnected and isolated. You may even withdraw into your own small world and grieve, but not mourn. Isolation can then become the barrier that keeps your grief from softening over time. You will begin to die while you are still alive. Allow your friends and family to nurture you. Let them in and rejoice in the connection.
Caring for your social self
Following are just a few ideas to help you care for your social self during your journey through grief. What ideas can you think of?
Recognize that your friendships will probably change
Mourners often tell me how surprised and hurt they feel when friends fall away after a death. “I found out who my friends really are,” they say. The best way for you to respond in the face of faltering friendships is to be proactive and honest. Even though you’re the one who’s grieving, you may need to be the one to phone your friends and keep in touch. When you talk to them, be honest. Tell them how you’re really and truly feeling and that you appreciate their support. If you find that certain friends can’t handle your “grief talk,” stick to lighter topics with them and lean more heavily on the friends who can.
Find a grief “buddy”
Find a grief “buddy”—someone who is also mourning a death, someone you can talk to, someone who also needs a companion in grief right now. Make a pact with your grief buddy to call each other whenever one of you needs to talk. Promise to listen without judgment. Commit to spending time together. You might arrange to meet once a week for breakfast or lunch with your grief buddy.
Remember others who had a special relationship with the person who died
At times your appropriately inward focus will make you feel alone in your grief. But you’re not alone. There are probably many other people who loved and miss the person who died. Think about others who were affected by the death: friends, neighbors, distant relatives, caregivers. Is there someone outside of the primary “circle of mourners” who may be struggling with this death? Perhaps you could call her and offer your condolences. Or write and mail a brief supportive note. If you aren’t a writer, give her a call or stop in for a visit.
The spiritual realm
When you are “torn apart,” you may have many spiritual questions for which there are no easy answers: Is there a God? Why me? Will life ever be worth living again? That is why, if I could, I would encourage all of us where we are in the midst of grief to put down “Nurture my spirit” first on our daily to-do lists.
If you have doubt about your capacity to connect with God and the world around you, try to approach the world with the openness of a child. Embrace the pleasure that comes from the simple sights, smells, and sounds that greet your senses. You can and will find yourself rediscovering the essentials within your soul and the spirit of the world around you.
Nurturing a spiritual life invites you to connect with nature and the people around you. Your heart opens and your life takes on renewed meaning and purpose. You are filled with compassion for other people, particularly those who have come to know grief. You become kinder, more gentle, more forgiving of others as well as yourself.
Caring for your spiritual self
Following are just a few ideas to help you care for your spiritual self during your journey through grief. What ideas can you think of?
Creating a sacred mourning space
Whether it is indoors or out, give yourself a place for spiritual contemplation. The word contemplate means “to create space for the divine to enter.” Think of your space, if only a simple room, as a place dedicated exclusively to the needs of the soul. Retreat to your space several times a week and honor your journey through grief.
Start each new day with a meditation or prayer
Set the tone for your day by praying or meditating. Repeat a simple phrase or prayer to yourself, such as: “Today I will live and love fully. Today I will appreciate my life.” You might also offer words of gratitude: “Thank you, God, for giving me this day. Help me to appreciate it and to make it count.”
Organize a tree planting
Trees represent the beauty, vibrancy and continuity of life. A specially planted and located tree can honor the person who died and serve as a perennial memorial. You might write a short ceremony for the tree planting. (Or ask another family member to write one.) Consider a personalized metal marker or sign, too.
Imagine the person who died in heaven
If you believe in an afterlife, you may feel like you can still have a kind of spiritual relationship with the person who died. You may still talk to her in the hopes that she can somehow hear you. You may send him unspoken messages every night when you go to bed. There is nothing wrong with trying to communicate with this person now and always—as long as your focus on this continued relationship doesn’t prevent you from interacting with and loving people who are still alive.
If you believe in heaven, close your eyes and imagine what it might be like. Imagine the person who died strong and smiling. Imagine her waving to you. And imagine your reunion with her when, one day, you come to join her.