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October 24, 2019 Beyond The Dash

Discovering Self-Care to Overcome Grief

Eight long-term strategies for conquering grief, the healthy way

Discovering Self-Care to Overcome Grief
If you've recently suffered a significant loss, now is the time to take back control. Explore the ways you can proactively care for yourself physically, emotionally and mentally. (Shutterstock)

When someone close to you dies, practical matters force you to go on. Bills need to be paid, arrangements must be made, and the dead must be buried. The distraction of urgent funeral arrangements may leave you exhausted and stressed. Many people feel pressure to push through their grief while attending to practical matters. However, it is important to pause and focus on your own care when in mourning. 

We live in a world where expressing tough emotions, such as despair, anguish and depression, is often frowned upon. Unfortunately, feeling these hard feelings is the first step to overcoming them. As unpleasant as it is, you don't have a choice of which complicated grief feelings you will experience—or when. 

What is 'self-care'?

'Self-care' has recently become  a trendy way for magazines and digital media to encourage people to pamper themselves when they are feeling worn down. It's in vogue to to conquer daily stresses with a spontaneous trip to the salon or wine bar 'because you deserve it.' However, that is not what we are referring to when discussing self-care in the aftermath of a significant death. 

For the purposes of this article, self-care refers to the intentional emotional labor you should do to ease your feelings of intense grief. This should be viewed as long-term strategy, not a one-off instance of treating yourself. If you've recently suffered a significant loss, you may have no idea how to even go about beginning the journey of self-care. If this sounds like you, read on.

1. Express yourself 

Being strong means embracing your feelings. If you feel the need to cry, then cry. If you feel the need to sleep, sleep! If you need to talk to someone, don't hold back. When you want to share memories of your loved one, tell their story—whether it brings you joy or pain.

Holding in tears, rage or indescribable pain will ultimately bring worse emotional turmoil, than expressing it honestly, recovering, and moving forward. Practicing healthy expression of emotions (however difficult) will also help you learn to cope better in the future. 

If you are worried about having a strong emotional reaction in public, your self-care should involve examination of your own particular grief triggers, and your exit strategy when feeling intense grief. 

2. Lower your expectations

After bearing a huge loss, you can't expect yourself to operate at full capacity. It will take time for you to be as productive as you used to be. So, let yourself and others know that you need some time before your performance gets back to normal.

Everything from work to school to basic, everyday tasks are more difficult when you're grieving. Cut yourself some slack at this time. (Shutterstock)

Set up new boundaries with yourself and others. By letting people know that you aren't quite yourself right, you can help manage their expectations, and yours. It's okay if you can't handle everything you normally can. Cut yourself some slack.

3. Let others in

Communicate with your family and friends, and avoid growing distant from them. Don't isolate yourself or become unexpressive. Let them be there for you so they can help you and support you.

You should also recognize the boundaries of others. Though your closest confidantes will want to be there for you in any way they can, there are limits to emotional support—and that's okay. The last thing you want to do is give your closest friends emotional burnout. When we dump on those closest to us, it only leads to fragmented or toxic relationships. They may avoid you for fear of being dumped on, or worsening your grief by not being able to effectively listen. Checking in with your confidantes' emotional capacity is good for you as well as them, as it will strengthen the relationship you share.

To avoid this, let them know they are a support to you, but that you want to respect their boundaries too. Before unloading emotional baggage, give your listener a chance to decline. Open up the dialogue to preserve important relationships. Remember that friends serve an important role in helping you overcome grief, but they are not professional counselors. 

4. Look for counseling

Don't hesitate or feel ashamed to contact a medical and or mental health specialist. Counseling can help make this journey easier by providing you with helpful tools for coping with grief. 

If you don't think you need professional help, it might actually be the best time to shop around for an experienced grief counselor. Try to find someone who both complements your grief style and challenges you. The sooner you establish this support tool, the better. You never know when you might need to schedule an urgent talk with a professional. Having some rapport with a counselor is a proactive way to ensure future self-care. 

Want to learn more about the benefits of grief counseling? Read How Counseling Can Guide You Through the Stages of Grief

5. Keep a journal

Writing down your thoughts and feelings is a helpful way to work through your grief. Make it a place to express your thoughts, feelings or dreams with absolute freedom. 

When in the throes of grief, your memory is faulty at best. Everything may seem sharp, surreal and extremely vivid. In reality, your ability to accurately recall events and feelings during this time will be greatly diminished. Keeping a journal is a healthy way to express grief, and keep a record of what happened. 

Some people find rereading their journal entries to be a cathartic experience. You may find insights into yourself, and your grieving process, that help you cope in the future. Others never read back on their journal entries, and shred or toss away their journals. Either is fine! The act of writing and processing feelings in black and white is what's important. 

6. Exercise regularly

If you had a gym routine prior to your loss, try to maintain it. If exercise wasn't a part of your regular routine, there's no time like the present for adopting a plan to get your endorphins pumping. Pay a visit to your doctor before embarking on a physical exercise routine; consult a personal trainer for advice if you think you need help. You can try yoga or aerobics or any other activity that can serve as means of getting physical exercise. Team sports is a great way to get exercise and socialize at the same time.

Aerobics, yoga, weight-lifting, or team sports are all great forms of exercise that will make everything just a little bit easier during this time of grief. (Shutterstock)

Physical exercise can dramatically improve the way you feel. The mental and physical effects of regular exercise gradually improves overall wellness. Though exercise can't totally manage all your grief emotions, you'll notice that everything becomes just a little bit better. And the slight improvement in anxiety levels, mood and coping ability is worth the extra effort. 

Working out consistently will also give you something to take pride in and improve upon, which is essential for emotional wellness. 

7. Eat well; sleep long

Now, more than ever, taking care of your physical needs is crucial. Maintaining a proper and healthy diet and getting the adequate amount of sleep helps brain and body to function well. If you experience difficulty with either, let your doctor know.

Taking care of these vital health habits will improve your mood and ability to cope. They run in the background, quietly and cumulatively helping you. Although this advice is oft repeated, and easier said than done, don't discount the benefits of eating and sleeping well. 

8. Take up a hobby

Have you ever wanted to take up photography, make a short film, write poems, or take a pottery class? When you're grieving, you may feel like trying something completely different. There's no healthier outlet for this than taking up a new hobby and pouring yourself into it. 

On the other hand, if you are struggling with work, school or basic daily tasks, don't take on more at this time. It's okay if you want to be alone, watch television or sleep more than normal. Rest is as important as engaging in leisure activities.

Do what works for you

Coping with the death of a loved one can become a tremendous load to bear. Traumatic grief can lead to a sense of abandonment and anger, as well as deep sadness or depression. It is important to be proactive in handling your grief. Contrary to popular belief, time does not heal all wounds. Emotional labor and and intentional, strategic plan will help you overcome this grief, and the next. 

By following these self-care tips, you should be able to conquer your grief with greater ease and more quickly than by trying to muscle through it. These intentional lifestyle changes increase the likelihood of coping in the healthiest possible way during this emotional and confusing time. 

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