Losing a loved one has disrupted your life and thrown your emotions in a whirlwind. Now, how do you recover?
It is devastating when someone you love dies and you have to somehow go on. The question as you go through that journey is who takes care of you? I recently saw pictures of Nancy Reagan’s funeral, and it struck me how hard it must have been after her husband died for her to be alone. At night she must have imagined him as he came down the hall and sat on her bed…
All of a sudden she had to take care of herself.
This reminded me of what I wrote in my book about grief, The Sun Still Rises, where I talked about one of the huge challenges that griever’s face. Here is an excerpt:
Once all the noise dies down, everyone you know will go back to their daily lives. It’s not that they will forget about you, (they love you) but they have families and jobs and their work and kids in school, so they will go back to their regularly scheduled life. It is the nature of the human condition. Here is the catch: they will have a life to go back to; you won’t because your loss has changed your life forever. You are building a new life, but it is still under construction. So, my point is in the early days people will take very good care of you and you will be amazed at the help people will provide. You may be overwhelmed at their generosity of spirit. (I was) At some point—they will not be able to take care of you any longer and they will go back to their daily lives.
Then guess what? It will be up to you to take care of yourself. You will be with you. You will need to stand on your own two feet and deal with life under the most trying of circumstances. But hold fast, you can do it—I know you can do it! I did!
In my opinion this is the most important tool you have to take care of yourself and your grief. Yes, your old noggin. Many people that I talk to as a professional speaker believe that they do not have control over their thinking.
So here are a few tips for helping to control your thinking as you go through the grief process:
Controlling your thoughts: Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that you can’t have certain thoughts about the loss of your loved one. I think that is healthy. However, if you constantly sit around thinking about how terrible your loss is, I don’t think that is healthy. I know I may face massive criticism by some mental health professionals for saying that, but there you have it—that is my strong opinion. After I lost my wife I had a huge loss and obviously was in a great deal of pain due to her death. I would sit around the house thinking to myself, “how can another human being just disappear so suddenly from the planet? Just be gone?” It was if she had “transported” like they used to do on Star Trek. It was obviously a devastating loss. At a certain point though, I realized that sitting around thinking about my devastating loss was not going to change anything. But what I could change was my thinking. That was a big light bulb for me.
Avoid negative content: When I was in the early days of the grieving process I made a deliberate attempt to purposefully avoid any negative content. Let’s face it—if your real life has enough negative content, (and boy does it right now) why would you want to expose yourself to more? I avoided all of the news channels, (I didn’t need to see any stories about death and dying, bombings and blood) all reality shows, (the majority of them are intensely negative) any negative books, sad music, and any movies that were negative or had scenes about death and dying. I have always believed in and taught the idea of garbage in equals garbage out, and I think it is even truer when you are in a grieving phase of your life.
Consume positive content: This is the opposite of the idea above. Find content that inspires and motivates or makes you laugh. The idea behind this is to find content that may help strengthen you or make you feel better or make you happy, at least during the time you’re being exposed it. Yes, I know you may say to yourself “I really don’t feel like watching something funny, or watching a movie or reading a book that is inspirational.” I’m going to ask you to try it—I’m not saying it’s a cure, but I am saying that it may help you at least for the short amount of time you’re watching, listening, or reading.
Control your associations with people: I have often said that “the quality of your life is in direct relation to the quality of the people you associate with”. You are in pain and you have had a loss. The last thing you want to do is to associate with people who have negative attitudes, who are mean, or will not support or strengthen you. I want you to carefully evaluate everyone who is in your life personally and professionally. Decide whether each person in your life is a positive influence and which ones are negative influences. I strongly recommend that you not associate with any of the negative people. Get rid of them. You are already grieving and they will drag you down with them into the abyss on the dark side because that’s what they do. You don’t need them!
This is the one time in your life when it is perfectly OK to be completely, totally selfish and do things for your own reasons and not for someone else’s. I promise it will help you heal.
Continue learning and studying: I have always been an avid reader of books—particularly books relating to self-improvement and motivation. I also enjoy fiction, books about history, invention, and creativity. I could spend a small fortune just in a few hours at a book store. I also love learning online and love watching documentaries about a whole range of topics. I would encourage you during this time to continue learning and studying about any topic that you’re interested in. With the library, the Internet, bookstores, book readers, and Amazon there is no limit to how much information is available to you quickly and often at no or little cost. So put together a plan of study and determine what it is you want to learn and what it is you want to study.
Make up your mind: Did you ever notice how when you make up a bed in the morning that it just looks so much more appealing when you go to bed at the end of the night? I think you could also do the same thing with your mind. You can decide in your mind that you’re going to grow and to move forward and not to wallow in your grief. Now I will admit that many people say to me “how is it that you can just decide on how you’re going to think?” I believe it’s all just a question of attitude. You can literally make up your mind to do anything you want.
You can either make up your mind to be down, depressed, and sad, or you can make up your mind to be working towards being happy. You’ll notice I didn’t say that you will be happy right away; I said you’re working towards being happy. It is a future goal. During my most intense period of grieving I always thought and knew that eventually I would one day again be happy.
Comparison: Please be careful about comparing yourself to others while you are grieving. In my early days of grief I used to watch couples at the airport and I would say to myself “why does he get to have a wife when my wife died? That is so unfair.” It was true—it was unfair. If we look carefully at the facts no one on the earth can tell me why his wife is alive and mine died. No one has that answer. It is a great mystery of life. So if it is a great mystery that has no answer—why compare?
Your body and fitness: When I lost my wife, I was overweight, and I lost eight pounds in the first week because I did not feel like eating at all. The week after that I decided to start working out on a regular and consistent basis. I found the workouts to be a big help. It helped boost my morale and my energy level. It also made me feel better about myself. I urge you as part of your healing process to consider some form of regular exercise. It is also one of the best ways to take care of yourself.
Diet and nutrition: You have been going through a great deal of stress emotionally, and that means your body has been going through a great deal of stress as well. Try to eat the healthiest selections you can find. When you are eating well, you’re taking good care of your body physically, and fruits, vegetables and vitamins will help you feel better. Oh sure, a glazed doughnut may be comfort food but will not make you feel better in the long run. I also strongly advise against drinking while you are grieving. All that drinking does when you’re grieving is cover up the problem that you’re having-it’s the worst form of escapism.
Social life: Most people that I talk to tell me that their social life changed once they lost a spouse or child. I guess it’s because the dynamic of your family has changed and the people that you socialize with don’t really know how to deal with your loss. Additionally, if you were originally a couple and you now are single, people that you formerly associated with as couples now think of you as single (which you are). In my life, I noticed the social dynamic changed because couples that used to socialize with us no longer did because the “us” was now just a “me.” So you’ll come to a juncture where you’ll need to reevaluate your social life, and decide who you will be socializing with (and who you won’t).
I urge you to make an effort to socialize. You may want to join a civic group (such as the Moose, Eagles, or Jaycees). You may want to get involved with a religious group of your choosing at your church, or you may want to get involved with social groups like those you can find on Meetup.com.
I do strongly encourage you to re-embrace your social life because you really do need to be around people, particularly when you are grieving. In the early days of my grieving I joined a Meet Up group that was for widows and widowers. This group held numerous social events every week for people who were widows and or widowers. They emphasized the fact that it was not a dating group, but a social group for single people to get together, without the pressure of a dating type situation. I did go on a hike with my Meet up group and had a really good time just talking to other people and socializing.
Try to do some relaxing activities a couple times a week in order to help burn off some of your stress that is a result of grief. It is up to you to manage your stress. (It’s called stress management.) For me it was working out or reading a really good book, as well as doing activities from my joy list which I mentioned in a previous chapter.
It is important to schedule relaxation into your week so that you can practice good stress management. I found when I went to our local pool for a few hours and laid in the sun I came back feeling much better having participated in a relaxing activity. Because you will be more stressed as someone who is grieving—also pay careful attention to managing your stress at work. Make sure to take breaks, (no one at work takes them anymore!) take lunches away from your desk, and try to get outside when the weather is nice. If someone at work is a big stressor for you, try to spend less time around them if you can.
Sleep: Because grief can be exhausting, you want to pay careful attention to make sure you get enough sleep. When grieving, if you can, you should sleep more not less. That may even mean taking a nap here and there, or sleeping in on Saturdays when you never did before. Spoil yourself by investing in some nice pillows, blankets, and linens (you can feel the difference). Use linen spray (it is wonderful for relaxing). Your body needs to recover from the stress. Make your bed a luxurious oasis where you can lay down and truly relax.
So take good care of the one that matters most right now…you.
Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.” ― Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum LP
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