My first instinct as a mother and a shepherd is always, “How can I help?”
I routinely set aside my own needs for the needs of others. Not because I’m so selfless but because that’s how I’m made-I’ve always had the heart of a caretaker.
That’s not a bad thing, most of the time.
But if taking care of others means NOT taking care of myself, then in the end, I’m of no use to anyone. When I allow every bit of energy-emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual-to drain away until there’s nothing left, I am unable to meet my most basic needs, much less the needs of others.
I’ve written before that grief puts a hole in my bucket. It guarantees that no matter how much is poured in, I’m never truly full.
I’ve also written about setting boundaries and trying to preserve margin as I walk this Valley. I have to create space between me and the people around me if I’m going to make it through.
But there are some other steps I can take to help ensure my heart is strong enough for the journey. It’s not always about what I don’t do.
Sometimes it’s about what I choose TO do.
Here are some ideas for self-care in grief (or really ANY hard place in life):
- Be patient with yourself. There is no time frame for grief. Each heart is unique. Extend grace to yourself, just as you would to a friend. Try not to take on extra responsibilities. It’s better to allow for some flexibility in obligations during this time (even around holidays!).
- Listen to your body and your heart: If you need to cry, then cry. If you need to sleep, then do so. If you need to talk to someone, seek out someone who will listen. If you need to reminisce, then take the time. It is important for the grieving process that you go with the flow.
- Lower expectations for yourself and communicate this new reality to others. You are not able to operate as you did before loss. Your capacity for interacting with others, managing tasks and being available for the needs of others has been dramatically altered. Own up to it, and let others know that it will be some time before you can shoulder the responsibilties you once did.
- Let others know what you need from them. No one is a mind reader. While we who are bereaved think our needs are obvious, it’s simply not the case. Communicate to family and friends how they can support you.
- Accept the help of others. Understand that grief is hard work. It requires a great deal of energy and can be exhausting. Even though we place a high value on self-sufficiency, it is important to ask for, and accept, help from those close to you. Others careand genuinely want to be of assistance, but usually do not know what to specifically offer. In particular, it is vital to know who will listen and be supportive. Sharing your story out loud is one key to healing. And, remember that professional guidance is also available
- If you need counseling, get it! There is NO shame in asking for help. Get all the support you need. There are many bereavement support groups as well as counselors or spiritual advisors who specialize in bereavement counseling. Don’t hesitate to contact a medical and or mental health specialist if you have feelings of hopelessness or suicidal thoughts.
- Accept your feelings. Feelings are neither right nor wrong, they just are. Sadness, loneliness, fear, confusion, anger—these are among the many feelings you may experience, and are completely normal. Emotions are often raw early in the grief process, but it is important to express them. Attempting to stifle feelings usually leads to an emotional outburst at an inconvenient time.
- Face your feelings. The painful emotions associated with grief are a natural and normal response to loss. You can try and suppress them or hide from them all you want but in the end this will only prolong the grieving process. Acknowledging your pain and taking responsibility for your feelings will help you avoid the complications often associated with unresolved grief such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and health problems.
- Express your feelings. The most effective way to do this is through some tangible or creative expression of your emotions such as journalling, writing a letter expressing your apologies, forgiveness and the significant emotional statements you wish you had said, or art projects celebrating the person’s life or what you lost.
- Keep a journal. Writing down your thoughts and feelings can help you to validate and work through your grief.
- Feel whatever you feel. It’s okay to be angry, to yell at God, to cry or not to cry. It’s also okay to laugh, to find moments of joy, or to let go when you’re ready. Your grief is your own and no one can tell you when you should be “over it” or when to “move on.”
- Pay attention to physical needs. It’s easy to ignore your health when all you want to do is give up and give in. However, it is even more important NOW to take care of yourself. Eat balanced meals (set an alarm if you have to), try to get adequate rest (get medication if you need to) and make sure to get in some physical activity every day (set a timer if necessary).
- Get physical exercise. If you exercised prior to your loss, try to maintain the same routine. If you did not exercise prior to your loss visit your doctor before embarking on a physical exercise routine. Physical exercise can improve the way you feel.
- Eat right and get enough sleep. Maintaining a healthy diet and getting proper sleep is essential for functioning as well as you can. If you are having difficulty with either, visit your doctor.
- Be aware of short-term relievers – these can be food, alcohol/drugs, anger, exercise, TV, movies, books, isolation, sex, shopping, workaholism, etc. Most of these things are not harmful in moderation but when used to cover-up, hide or suppress our grief they get in the way of the work grief requires.
- Take the time to do the things you need to do for yourself. When you feel up to it, engage in activities to which you feel drawn. It could be visiting a place you haven’t been to in a while, walks in nature, reading, etc.
- Pamper yourself. Treat yourself well. Do things for yourself that are helpful like walks, being with people who are nurturing to you, and inexpensive activities
Grief is a lifelong process-a marathon, not a sprint.
Maintaining space to do the work grief requires and engaging in activities and health habits that help me do that work is the only way to endure.