You cannot hide from grief. You could be grieving over the loss of a job, a marriage, or the death of a friend or family member. Whatever the cause, if you try to deny or repress the grief, if you try to pretend it’s gone and dealt with, if you try to put a brave face on what you haven’t faced, that grief continues to haunt you in unexpected ways. Perhaps you’ll have headaches, trouble sleeping, or chronic indigestion. Perhaps you’ll isolate yourself and draw away from friends and family. Perhaps you’ll make work an unhealthy obsession or begin over-indulging in unhealthy habits like drinking or eating too much.
According to Julia Samuel in a recent episode of The Happiness Lab podcast, the better alternative is to let the raw emotions of grief—the anger, sadness, and anxiety—flow through you. Only so can you truly heal from your loss. Experiencing these emotions increases your personal agency. When grief is openly felt, there are things you can do to enable yourself to deal with it and eventually return to a normal life even though that life may be changed in the process.
Samuel uses the metaphor of scaffolding or pillars. We need emotional supports during the grieving process, and Samuel identifies eight “pillars” that will help you cope with grief—especially the grief that comes from the death of a close friend or family member.
The first pillar is the external emotional support of friends and family. Paradoxically, that includes support from the deceased loved one. That person may be dead, but your love for him or her goes on. It’s a mistake to throw away photos and mementos of the deceased. Better to cherish keepsakes even though they’re bittersweet. Remembering brings joy as well as sadness, strength as well as powerlessness. Rely on all your friendships, past and present.
The second pillar (not necessarily sequential) is internal support: i.e., self-compassion. Probably you know your habitual coping mechanisms. If they work for you, well and good. If they are psychologically unsound, look deeper into yourself. If, for example, you tend to deny unpleasant facts, try to overcome that habit; and forgive yourself for the “weakness” of acknowledging a trauma.
The third pillar is naming and expressing your emotions. It’s normal to feel sadness and anger over a great loss. You are no less you, no less a good person because you feel such emotions; and feeling the emotion instead of burying it in the subconscious prevents the neurotic return of what’s buried.
The fourth pillar is time. It takes time to heal after a great personal loss. Don’t let society dictate to you how long you should grieve. Perhaps after three months or so, people will start telling you that it’s time to move on, but grief knows no socially acceptable limit. Maybe you need six months. Maybe you need a year. Let you decide when enough time has passed to move on.
And the fifth pillar? Remember that mind and body are one whole. “Psychological” trauma activates the body’s “fight and flight” response and pours adrenaline and cortisol into your system. Maybe physical exercise is a good way to handle the phenomenon. And ask yourself what you’re doing in this period of mourning. What actions make you feel better and “safer?” If going to the strip mall or clubbing make you feel calmer, shop or dance and use up the hormones flooding your body.
Number six: During grief, “fight or flight” is often followed by depression and a lack of energy. It’s not humanly possible to do all the things you normally do. Set limits. Say “no” to activities that you’re not up to.
Number seven involves establishing a routine in your life. Routine keeps you from having to constantly make decisions. Maybe on Tuesday and Thursday you exercise. Maybe on Monday you answer e-mails, and Wednesday is clean-the-house day.
The eighth pillar (and remember that none of these strategies is sequential) is simply focusing, maybe just sitting down, and breathing deeply. Here is where being in the moment, “mindfulness” comes into play. Of course, this focusing can be spiritual contemplation. You may be able to accept the mystery of life and see yourself in perspective as a small part of a grand whole. And here is where your Quaker faith and the Inner Light may bring you relief from grief and loss.
~ Richard Russell
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