The death of a loved one affects us on every level. Mentally, we’re preoccupied with thoughts and memories; emotionally, we experience a rollercoaster of intense feelings; and physically, we’re overwhelmed by the immediate and long-term responsibilities.
The chronic stress that results from grieving can cause anxiety, trouble sleeping, anger, depression, loss of appetite and general aches and pains. Taking care of yourself is so important for many reasons, but here’s one that may surprise you. Did you know that constant stress, such as that following a loss, may actually increase your own risk of a heart attack or stroke?
But the goal is not just to avoid the worst. We’re talking about wellbeing here, and it often slips away when grief comes into our life.
While in the middle of it all, we may find it difficult to focus on our own needs. Grief is painful, and frankly, many us would rather distract ourselves with work or activities than deal with the full magnitude of our feelings.
Grief pushes us out of our comfort zone and into one that is physically and emotionally draining. In response, it’s important that we actively take time to heal. A conscious effort to focus on our self-care may help. How? It can create the strength and space we need to navigate all the obstacles that grief seems to drop in our path.
- Lower expectations: Just as you wouldn’t expect to put dinner on the table after running an ultra-marathon, you shouldn’t assume you’ll be able to operate at full capacity as you grieve a loss. Lower your expectations at home and at work. Give yourself time and don’t be afraid to let other people know what adjustments you’ll be making, or to ask for help filling in the gaps. Accepting help is good for you and for those who want to support you in your healing.
- Resist demanding self-talk: Avoid saying, “I should…” or “I have to...” Pressuring yourself likely won’t do anything to increase your productivity, and it could make you feel worse. Practice gentleness with yourself right now, and you may find that a little self-love gives you room to process and recharge.
Grief is a product of deep attachment. Respecting your grief honors the relationship you had with the person you’ve lost, and your own humanity.
- Feel it: Attempting to stuff down your feelings is like trying to hold a beach ball underwater: You can do it, but it ain’t easy, and the ball will probably pop back up and knock you off balance anyway. Cry when you need to cry. If you’re angry, hey, punch a pillow. The pillow will be fine.
- Find a counselor: Sometimes it’s really helpful to talk to someone who understands loss and who’s just there to listen. Read more about how to choose a therapist here.
- Keep a journal: Writing down your thoughts and feelings can help you document this defining moment, and eventually you’ll be able to reflect on this time and see how far you’ve come. Journaling can assist you in healing and help you release feelings that no longer serve you.
When you feel up to it, get back to activities you enjoyed before life took a turn. Reclaiming elements of normality will keep you engaged even as you continue to work through your grief.
- Listen to your body: Our bodies are wired to know what we need. If you’re tired, sleep. If you’re hungry, eat, but aim for a balanced diet when you can. If you’re overwhelmed, sit and breathe deeply. If you’re feeling stressed, get outside, even if it’s just to stare up at the sky.
- Monitor your health. While grieving, it’s easy to overlook doctors’ appointments and medication refills, even vitamins. But sticking to your healthy habits (with a flexible attitude, of course) can help you feel better, inside and out.
- Connect with others: Accept an invitation or reach out to friends and family. Join a bereavement group in your community. Connection is a direct path to healing.
- Move it: If you exercised prior to your loss, try to ease back into a routine. If you haven’t had a workout in a while, consult a doctor before starting something new. The good news: physical exercise stimulates brain chemicals that can reduce stress and help you relax. Not feeling it? Try just taking a walk—you might be surprised at the results.
- Treat yourself like a friend: This may seem counter-intuitive, as sometimes when grieving we feel cut off from (or guilty for) any small pleasures. But simple self-treats—getting a pedicure or watching a funny video, for example—can trigger the release of serotonin, also known as the “feel good” hormone. And who doesn’t want more of that?
Grace Y. Lin is a mom, wife and Licensed Behavioral Therapist living and practicing in New York. Visit her website here.