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AfterCare

Writing a Letter to Say All the Things Left Unsaid

By | AfterCare, Grief/Loss

When we lose someone we love – whether to an unexpected event or a prolonged illness – we don’t always get the chance to say the words we wish we had. And for some, the loss is harder to process because of the things left unsaid. But there is hope. Taking time to write these thoughts down is an excellent and proven method for helping people heal from emotionally stressful events. By writing a letter to your lost loved one, you can give expression to the thoughts and feelings rolling around inside your mind and heart, so that you can move forward in the healing journey.

By writing a letter, you give yourself time to think through all the questions in your mind. You can be honest and reflect on your true feelings. Do you wish you’d shared something with them, whether good or bad? Are you struggling with “why” questions? Do you simply miss them and want to feel connected again? All of these are good reasons to take time to write a letter addressed to your loved one, allowing yourself the opportunity to release your emotions and unburden yourself.

A Few Tips

  1. This is an exercise for you, so there’s no time frame. Take all the time you need.
  2. You may need to write more than one letter. That’s perfectly fine. Write to your loved one as often as you need. In the beginning, you may write more often.
  3. Write down EVERYTHING you want to say. Don’t hold anything back, even if it’s something negative.
  4. If you’d like, after you’ve written the letter, you can read it aloud. Perhaps you can go to your loved one’s gravesite or another significant place to read it so that you feel close to them.

To Get Started

First, choose a medium. Do you want to write a series of letters? Perhaps a notebook or journal would be appropriate. Would you prefer to write a traditional letter on stationery? Or would you prefer to type on a computer or smart device? Take a look at a few examples, and choose whatever medium best fits your needs.

Second, find a comfortable place to write, knowing that this may be an emotional process. For some, coffee shops are appealing, and for others, a quiet room at home is preferred. Alternatively, you can find a beautiful spot outdoors or visit a special place to begin your letter.

Third, write. There’s no instruction manual, so there’s no way you can do this the wrong way. Just write openly and from the heart. Tell your loved one all the things you didn’t say. Allow yourself to really enter into the exercise and put it all out there. Maybe you need to ask their forgiveness. Or, you just wish you’d said, “I love you” one more time. Maybe they hurt you deeply and you need to put that pain into words. No matter what you feel, tell them.

Different Approaches & Prompts

Again, there’s no wrong way to do this, but if you’d like a place to start, here are some tips and prompts to help.

  • Share what has happened in your life since their death.
  • How do you feel?
  • What do you miss about them?
  • Is there something you regret not doing or saying?
  • Were there unresolved issues that you need to get off your chest?
  • Talk about ways that you’ve grown and changed.
  • Tell them how you plan to honor their memory.

Write to them as if they are still alive, and make sure to say everything you need to.

What Do I Do Once It’s Written?

There are a number of things you can do with your letter. It will all depend on what is most satisfactory to you. This is not a comprehensive list, so feel free to come up with another option that may work better for you.

  • Destroy the letter – burn it, rip it up, shred it, or some other method.
  • Seal it in an envelope and keep it in a special place.
  • Keep it in a place where you can see it often, like on a bedside table.
  • Save it on your hard drive for reference later (if you used an electronic device).
  • Send it to someone you trust, who will take care of it until you want it back.
  • Share your letter with others through email, social media or a blog.

No matter what you decide, writing a letter to your loved one and saying everything that’s on your heart and in your mind is a step toward greater acceptance and reconciliation to the loss you’ve suffered. This exercise will not miraculously remove your grief. In fact, grief isn’t really something we can “get over.” But we can give our grief a voice, and you will find that the more you express your feelings of grief, the easier it becomes to deal with those emotions. Sharing your heart and giving expression to all the emotions – good, bad, tender, destructive – is an important step on the journey toward healing.

 

7 Ways to Keep Your Loved One’s Memory Alive

By | AfterCare, Grief/Loss

Grief is not…a “two steps forward, one step backward” kind of journey; it is often one step forward, two steps in a circle, one step backward. It takes time, patience, and, yes, lots of backward motion before forward motion occurs.  – Dr. Alan Wolfelt

Losing someone we love is one of the most heartbreaking and difficult events we will ever face in life. While death deprives us of a loved one’s physical presence, that doesn’t mean we’ve lost everything we love about the person. Our relationship becomes one based on memory rather than physical presence. As Dr. Wolfelt states above, the grief journey is a meandering way, filled with many steps. And part of the journey is traveling back into our memories in order to move forward toward reconciliation with our loss. That said, our loved one may be gone, but their memory need never die. Below are several ways you can remember and honor your loved one’s memory long after they have gone on.

1. Celebrate your loved one’s birthday

The first birthday after your loved one has passed can be a painful a milestone. But it can also be a special time set aside to honor the one you love. Every year, take a few moments to be thankful for the life they lived and the positive ways they impacted you. You can look back on the wisdom shared, the joyful moments, the love and support you received, and you can honor those memories by sharing that wisdom, love, and support with others.

2. Host a dinner in their honor

Choose a special day (birthday or anniversary, for example) to honor your loved one’s memory by inviting a group of friends to dinner. You could hold it at the person’s favorite restaurant or craft a menu of dishes that your loved one particularly enjoyed, then share memories and receive support from friendships in your life.

3. Get involved

If your loved one favored a particular organization or charity, you can get involved with that group as a way of continuing your loved one’s legacy. Or, if they weren’t involved with a particular group, think about what they loved. Were they a teacher? Provide backpacks full of school supplies to kids in need. Did they enjoy walking at a particular park? Volunteer your time to maintain the park by picking up litter or ask about upkeep and/or gardening. Did they volunteer at the local soup kitchen? Consider volunteering and invite a few friends to join you.

4. Set up a permanent memorial and visit regularly

For those who are grieving, it’s often helpful to have a place to go where you feel close to the one you’ve lost. For many people, a memorial or gravesite becomes that special place. If there is not a gravesite, installing a memorial bench at a significant place or planting a memorial tree may be an alternative. You could even include a memorial plaque so that anyone who passes by will be touched by your loved one’s life.

5. Create a memorial video/memory box

This activity may be especially helpful for those with young children. Children’s memories fade over time, so a memorial video or memory box can help a child hold onto memories and form a connection with the person they love and miss. The child can see his or her loved one regularly and watch the video as much as needed. With a memory box, they can touch and hold items that once belonged to the person who died and create a connection in that way.

6. Create your own tradition

If your loved one enjoyed dominoes, play dominoes on their birthday. If your loved one enjoyed action movies, set up a monthly night to watch the newest one. Let’s say your loved one enjoyed reading westerns – commit to reading one a year in their memory. Did your loved one just adore bananas? Set up an evening of banana-flavored foods with friends. Banana bread. Strawberry-banana smoothies. Banana pudding or pancakes. Your grandmother’s banana punch. The possibilities are as unique are your loved one.

7. Visit special places

If you and your loved one had places you always enjoyed going together, continue to visit those places. Did you have a favorite coffee shop or bookstore? Perhaps a favorite vacation destination or state park? Go to those places and enjoy yourself while also setting aside time to remember your loved one. You might even consider writing them a letter each time you visit, telling them about a specific time you visited together or sharing how much you miss them.

Death does not stop us from loving those we’ve lost. The love stays with us. The relationship you shared is important and worth remembering and sharing with others. We all need an outlet to express what we are feeling on the inside, and these activities will help you do that. By taking part in any or all of these activities, you will feel closer to your lost loved one and create forward motion in your grief journey.

Guilt, Anger, and Other Normal Reactions to Loss

By | AfterCare, Grief/Loss

We experience a wide range of emotions when faced with the death of a loved one. And those emotions aren’t the same for everyone. Perhaps, if everyone grieved in the same way, we could craft a formula for grief – something that worked every time. But that’s not how it works. There’s no “correct” response to death. Every grief journey is different, as are the emotions swirling around within us.

As you deal with emotional stress, it’s important to name your feelings and acknowledge them. Nationally renowned and respected grief expert Dr. Alan Wolfelt says, “I have worked with thousands of grieving people and they have taught me about many, many different thoughts and feelings after a death. Rest assured that whatever you are thinking and feeling, while in one sense your thoughts and feelings are completely unique to you, they are also usually a common human response to loss.” Whatever you’re feeling – whether it seems typical or unusual – is normal. There are, however, a few normal emotional reactions that are often viewed negatively – ones that we think we shouldn’t feel after a loss. Let’s take a few moments to discuss them.

Anger

If you are feeling angry, you are not alone. Your anger may stem from feeling helpless, powerless, or abandoned. It may also be directed at someone or something in particular, like the doctors, your loved one’s health choices, God, or even life in general.

It’s important to remember that being angry is a normal response. As long as you don’t hurt yourself or others, it’s good to find a way to vent your feelings. If you are able to articulate what you feel, then consider writing it down or talking with a safe person (either a counselor or a good friend). However, if your emotions are more explosive, you might try using a punching bag, running, or participating in some other physical activity to help you release your anger.

Also, pay close attention to your words and actions. You may be more irritable and easily triggered than normal, causing you to be short-tempered with those you love.

Anxiety, Fear

For some, death can stir up anxiety or fear. Questions may arise in your mind. Will I be okay? Does my life have any purpose after this? Will other people I love die soon, too? What if something happens to me?

Feelings of anxiety or fear are often triggered by feeling vulnerable or that your security is threatened. For example, a child who loses a parent may feel anxious or fearful about whether something will happen to their remaining parent as well. Other options are that fear and anxiety are learned responses (a previous experience has conditioned you to respond this way) or that you aren’t sure how you will be able to cope so your anxiety rises, or you are worried that other sad things might happen.

Guilt & Regret

Another common emotion after a loss is feeling guilty about what happened or what didn’t happen. However, in many cases, it is misplaced guilt, though that doesn’t make the feeling any less real. Someone might feel guilty for not being a donor match, for not calling or visiting more often, or for not doing more to prevent the death (such as in the cases of depression, suicide, or substance abuse).

If you are dealing with feelings of guilt, remember that, while it’s a normal reaction to feel this way, your feelings may not be accurate. Consider why you feel guilty and whether you might actually be feeling regretful. There is a difference. Guilt, by definition, means that you have intentionally done harm to the person who has died. However, regret means that you wish you had done something differently. The main difference between the two is intent.

If you determine that you are guilty of some wrongdoing, look for ways to make up for your mistake – write a letter to your lost loved one to apologize or ask forgiveness of other people affected by your actions. Also, try to forgive yourself. We all make mistakes. On the other hand, if you are feeling regret, work through your emotions. Determine what changes you can make to avoid regret in the future.

Relief

Relief may be one of the most common yet misunderstood emotions a person may experience after a death. We feel so strongly that we shouldn’t be relieved that we sometimes hide the fact that we are. But relief is to be expected, especially after a period of intense or prolonged suffering (as is the case with terminal illnesses). If a person dies after a long period of illness or was the cause (directly or indirectly) of increased stress in your life, it’s only natural to feel relieved when you are no longer suffering under high levels of stress. It doesn’t mean you wanted them to die or that you didn’t love the person. It simply means that you have been through a difficult time and are now emerging on the other side. Relief is normal and natural in such circumstances. As human beings, we are complex and can feel both relieved and sad at the same time. What you feel does not minimize your love for the person or the depth of your grief.

A Few Tips for Dealing with Your Emotions

  1. Don’t bottle them up. Let yourself feel what you feel.
  2. Realize and accept that your emotions are complex.
  3. Find a way to express yourself.
  4. Give yourself time to grieve and process. There’s no rush.
  5. If you need additional help, consider joining a grief support group or visiting a grief therapist.

Taking time to process and confront your emotions is a necessary part of every grief journey. Experiencing any or all of the emotions we’ve covered is normal, as are others we didn’t cover, like sadness, numbness, denial, and confusion. However, as time passes, and you do the work of mourning, the emotional intensity should lessen. As Dr. Wolfelt puts it, “Your feelings of loss will not completely disappear, yet they will soften, and the intense pangs of grief will become less frequent.  Hope for a continued life will emerge as you are able to make commitments to the future, realizing that the person you have given love to and received love from will never be forgotten. The unfolding of this journey is not intended to create a return to an ‘old normal’ but the discovery of a ‘new normal.’”

Embrace your grief in all its complexities and allow yourself to feel all of your emotions (they are natural!). In time, if you do the work of mourning, you will find your “new normal.”

Nature & Your Grief Journey

By | AfterCare, Grief/Loss

Grieving is not easy. In fact, it can be one of the most difficult but potentially strengthening journeys in life. But to become a stronger person on the other side of the grief journey, we have to walk through the pain. As Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a nationally respected author and grief expert, puts it, “You don’t get to go around or above your grief. You must go through it. And while you are going through it, you must express it [if] you are to reconcile yourself to it.” One habit that has helped many people process and deal with their grief is spending time in nature. You may be thinking, “Nah, I’m not an outdoorsy person. That won’t work for me.” Before you throw the idea out, take a moment to read through some of the benefits of incorporating time outdoors into your schedule.

Nature reminds us that death is part of the cycle of life.

As much as we could like to escape death, it is a part of life. The natural cycle is very evident in the cyclical nature of the seasons. In the spring, life begins anew, continues into summer, begins to fall in autumn, and dies in winter. But there is hope – life begins again. In many ways, our individual lives experience these seasons. Perhaps you are in the winter of your grief – feeling lifeless on the inside – but if you allow it, spring will come.

Nature provides physical evidence that life does go on.

In a similar vein, just as the seasons show us that death is a part of life, they also remind us that life goes on. This cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth helps put life and death in perspective. Even though it may feel like life has stopped with the death of a loved one, it hasn’t. In some ways, this truth may make you angry (how can life just keep going on when the one I love is dead?), but there is also comfort and assurance in the certainty of the continuation of life.

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.’ Albert Camus

Nature nurtures our mental and emotional health.

A Stanford-led study found that people who walked in natural areas (versus urban) showed a marked decrease of activity in the part of the brain associated with depression. When there is high activity in this area, a person is more likely to become depressed, so a decrease in activity is a positive thing. In fact, research shows that there is a link between connecting people with nature and faster recovery rates, reduced stress, and eased symptoms of mental and physical disorders. Just looking at nature can be beneficial to your health.

Nature demands nothing from us.

During times of grief, you may feel pulled in many different directions. Work. Family. Friends. Grocery shopping. All the big and small responsibilities of life. In contrast to all of these things (even though they are good), nature asks nothing of us. In many ways, it gives to us. It accepts us as we are and doesn’t demand answers from us.

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.” John Lubbock

Nature affords us quietness and solitude.

For many of us grieving, time away to think and process is necessary but hard to achieve. Taking a walk, going for a bike ride, hiking a mountain trail – all of these things give us the time and solitude needed to process our thoughts. We have an opportunity to enjoy the quietness without feeling cut off from the world. And when needed, we can talk out loud – to ourselves or to our loved one – without an audience.

Nature allows us to disconnect from the world around us.

In a world that is becoming increasingly chaotic and negative, sometimes we just need time to unplug, especially when we are dealing with feelings of grief. For some of us, it’s hard to completely unplug but doing so is valuable and healthy. Taking time to enjoy nature gives us the opportunity to embrace the world without its distractions and miscommunications. Even if something is good and positive, couldn’t we all use some time away?

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Albert Einstein

Nature brings wonder back into our lives.

When we’ve lost someone we love, life seems a bit dimmer. Its joys aren’t as joyful; its mysteries aren’t as fascinating. But nature can help bring wonder back into our lives. The majesty of the Rocky Mountains; the beauty of a sun-kissed beach, flanked by turquoise waters; the rolling green hills of spring. Nature is limitless in its artistry and can remind us that there is still beauty in the world.

Nature draws our attention outward.

Grief is often mentally exhausting. In some cases, the events of the death play in our minds over and over again, especially in the case of an unexpected or traumatic death. We live most of our lives in our own minds, where we can get caught up in circular thoughts that may not be healthy for us. Nature can be an outlet for your thoughts and draw your attention outward to give your brain a much-needed break.

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” John Muir

Nature activates social support if you enjoy it with others.

As human beings, we are wired for interaction and community. During times of grief, some of us have a tendency to isolate ourselves, perhaps as a defense mechanism against further pain. But, despite the pain, it’s important to receive support from others. We aren’t meant to go through life alone. If you enjoy walking or hiking, invite a friend to join you and allow them to support you through your grief.

These are only a few of the reasons why nature can be quite beneficial to any grief journey. If you decide to incorporate outdoor activities into your life, make sure to start out slow. The act of grieving is tiring. If you can only walk for five minutes before you need a break, start out with five minutes. Over time, you will be able to go for longer periods. This is about you and your grief journey – don’t worry about what other people are doing to deal with their own grief. Find what works best for you and stick with it until you come to a place where the pang of loss doesn’t sting quite as deeply.

Grief & Self-Care

By | AfterCare, Grief/Loss

The word ‘bereaved,’ which to our modern-day ears can sound like an old-fashioned term that only a funeral director might use, means ‘to be torn apart’ and ‘to have special needs.’ So, despite its obsolescence, the word is still accurate and useful. Perhaps your most important ‘special need’ right now is to be compassionate with yourself. In fact, the word ‘compassion’ means ‘with passion.’ Caring for and about yourself with passion is self-compassion.” – Dr. Alan Wolfelt

Grief is hard. It’s unpredictable and grueling. It’s mentally, physically, and emotionally taxing. It is almost like a fog descends around you, and everything looks somewhat gray and dim. Depending on the nature of your loss, these feelings may persist for quite some time. That’s why self-care is so important. Every person’s grief journey is different, encompassing a range of emotions and an unknown time span, but in the midst of it all, taking care of yourself is important. You may not feel like making the effort, but self-care may be one of the most beneficial things you do for yourself.

When you think about self-care, personal fitness may first come to mind, but really, it’s a much broader term. It does mean taking care of yourself physically, but it also encompasses your emotional, spiritual, cognitive, and even social health. So, what can you do to take care of yourself while you’re grieving?

1. Don’t be afraid of your feelings.

You feel what you feel. It is what it is, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with the emotions that may be coursing through you. We all feel loss differently, and every loss is different because every person and individual relationship is unique. Try not to stifle or ignore your feelings; don’t stuff everything down. Instead, accept that you feel what you feel and that it’s okay.

2. Give yourself time.

Grief is a journey, not an event. You will need time to come to grips with what life looks like without your loved one. You aren’t necessarily going to spring back into life the way it was. It’s okay to give yourself a little space and to take more breaks. Grief is hard work, and you need time to work through it.

3. Find ways to express your grief.

What you do is going to depend on your personality. For some, it’s helpful to go out into the backyard and chop wood or go to the batting cages and just whack the balls over and over again. For others, creative expression is helpful. Many times, journaling, creative writing, painting, drawing, arts & crafts, or other types of self-expression help us make sense of the seemingly senseless feelings going on inside. And if you are a person of faith, prayer, meditation, worship, or traditional rituals can help you express your grief.

4. Don’t neglect your health.

Most people feel more tired and less energetic when they are grieving. For this reason, it’s important to get plenty of sleep. If you are having trouble sleeping, try to stay hydrated, limit your caffeine intake, and make sure that your bedroom is dark and relaxing. Additionally, you should make sure that you are eating healthy foods and taking time to participate in some kind of physical activity on a regular basis. One thing to watch out for is numbing activities. It may start out as a coping mechanism but beware of allowing numbing activities to distract you from dealing with your grief. Common numbing activities are: food, alcohol or drugs, anger, excessive exercise, TV or movies, books, isolating yourself, shopping, or losing yourself in work. While these may help you cope, they don’t help you move toward reconciling your grief and moving into what life looks like after a loss.

5. Allow others to walk alongside you.

You don’t have to walk this road alone. In fact, it will be much less stressful if you do accept help from others. There’s an incredible scene in The Return of the King, the third installment of The Lord of the Rings. Throughout all three movies, Samwise Gamgee has faithfully walked alongside his dearest friend, Frodo Baggins. Together, as they seek to destroy a powerful ring and save all of Middle Earth, they face danger and hardships, feel lost and hopeless, and at one point, Sam even fears that Frodo has died. And then, the moment comes. Frodo is so near the end of this incredibly taxing quest – this journey that has sapped him physically, mentally, and emotionally – and he says, “I can’t do this, Sam.” After some fortifying words, Sam says, “I can’t carry it [the ring] for you, but I can carry you!” This is why we need friends along the hard journeys in life. They can’t carry our burdens for us, but they can help carry us along; they can provide the support we need to move forward and find new life and new meaning.

Self-Care vs. Keeping Busy

It’s important to remember that self-care is not about “keeping busy.” It’s about taking care of yourself as you grieve. Nationally respected grief expert Dr. Alan Wolfelt puts it this way: “Remember—self-care fortifies your long and challenging grief journey, a journey which leaves you profoundly affected and deeply changed. To be self-nurturing is to have the courage to pay attention to your needs. Above all, self-nurturing is about self-acceptance. When we recognize that self-care begins with ourselves, we no longer think of those around us as being totally responsible for our well-being. Healthy self-care forces us to mourn in ways that help us heal, and that is nurturing indeed.

Taking care of yourself will contribute to giving you the strength to face each day of your grief journey. There are so many ways to care for yourself, and it will vary from person to person. Some will find bubble baths relaxing. Others will care for themselves by exercising, talking with friends, taking walks, sticking to a daily schedule, or enjoying a daily smoothie. No matter what you decide is best for you, be kind to yourself. It’s okay to have a bad day for no apparent reason, and you don’t need to feel guilty when you have a good day or enjoy an activity. The grief journey is not about the pain disappearing; it’s about you learning to reconcile with your loss and finding your “new normal.” You may always deeply feel the loss of your loved one, but you discover what life looks like after a loss and find new meaning in it.

Accepting the Caring Help of Others

By | AfterCare, Grief/Loss, Helping a Friend in Grief

Gracious acceptance is an art – an art which most never bother to cultivate. We think that we have to learn how to give, but we forget about accepting things, which can be much harder than giving…. Accepting another person’s gift is allowing him to express his feelings for you.” – Alexander McCall Smith

For many of us, accepting help is difficult. Naturally, we want to help others when needs arise, but when it comes to accepting help ourselves, we resist. But during times of loss and grief, it’s important to accept the caring actions of others. It may be difficult, it may require vulnerability on our part, but we will substantially benefit from the love and care that those around us want to bestow.

But why is it so hard to accept the caring actions of others? Why do we so often say, “Oh, no, that’s okay; I’m fine”? It’s safe to say that there’s no one reason; in fact, reasons for refusing help may differ considerably from person to person. Usually they are subconscious assumptions that are actually false. The following list offers the most common reasons why people refuse the help of others. Are any of these false assumptions keeping you from accepting the help of others?

1. If I accept help, it means that I’m weak and don’t have it all together.

For many of us, it’s ingrained to be independent, self-sufficient, and capable members of society. We don’t want to appear weak for fear of judgment from others because we don’t “have it all together.” But what do we really gain from rejecting the help that others offer us? More work and more stress, most of the time. What’s worse is that it is all for the sake of keeping up appearances—which will never result in deep or meaningful connections with others. On the other hand, allowing yourself to be vulnerable with others can lighten the load and actually strengthen your relationships.

2. I won’t accept help because I don’t want to be an inconvenience or a burden to you. You shouldn’t waste your time helping me.

Some of us struggle with feeling like our needs might be an inconvenience to others. It’s not that our needs aren’t legitimate, it’s just that we don’t want others to take time away from their own lives to help us. When you lose someone you love, you may feel bad that a friend wants to babysit your kids, clean your kitchen, or cook some meals. But really, when you accept the help that’s offered, a door to deeper friendship is opened.

3. I have to return the favor if I accept help. I don’t like feeling that I owe anyone anything.

There are those who struggle with feeling that if they accept help, then it makes them beholden to the person who has offered assistance. Again, because many of us desire independence, we don’t like to owe anyone anything. But consider when you offer to help someone – are you thinking about when you will ask them to return the favor? Or do you genuinely want to help, regardless of whether you “benefit” in the end? For most of us, the answer is that we genuinely want to help and have no ulterior motives. So, if someone you know offers to help you when times are difficult and the grief is overwhelming, take them at their word and consider accepting the offer. What do you have to lose?

4. If I accept help, it means admitting that I can’t do it on my own.

It can be hard to admit that we need help. And it may be that we could do it all on our own, but it would be so much easier if someone was there to lend a hand. In reality, you don’t have to do it on your own, but it’s hard to break the mold. It really is okay to accept the kindness of others. It’s okay to say “yes” to the casseroles, the offers to go to the funeral home with you or just sit with you in silence as you grieve. Social connection and community are part of our internal make-up, so it’s okay to allow others to surround you and support you at a time of grief and loss. After all, it takes more internal strength to accept help than to shun it.

5. If I accept help, it makes my grief more real and highlights the fact that I don’t have this situation under control.

Many of us strive for control in our lives, but in reality, any amount of control we think we have is just an illusion. We may be able to dictate certain aspects of our lives, but there is so much that is outside of our control. And during times of grief, the emotions we feel need to be expressed, and to do that, we need to relinquish the tight hold we have on control. The reality is, you don’t have everything under control, so why not acknowledge it and accept the help others offer?

6. I don’t need anyone’s help. I’d rather just do it myself.

For someone who won’t accept help because they feel like they don’t need other people or they’d rather do it themselves, the cause is often rooted in past pain and disappointment. Perhaps they have been so hurt in the past, so let down by others, that they’d rather just do it themselves than risk being wounded again. The truth is, we need other people. And yes, people are messy, but even in the mess, there is great beauty, especially when you lower your walls to allow someone to serve you with caring actions.

What’s at the root of it all?

So, what’s really happening when we refuse to accept help that we actually need? Are we putting on a happy face when what we really need is a shoulder to cry on? Perhaps we are afraid of being vulnerable in front of other people and admitting our needs. When it comes down to it, all these responses are rooted in fear.

Margie Warrell, in an article for Forbes magazine, put it this way: “Fear gets in the way of asking for help. Fear of overstepping a friendship…of appearing too needy. Fear of imposing….[or] of revealing our struggle and having people realize we don’t have it all together. Too often though we ‘tough it out’ rather than reaching out to ask for help when we need it most. Fear gets the better of us while depriving others of a chance to show they care and share their gifts.”

It’s hard to admit that we might need help, but we do. It can be scary. It can push us to our limits, but we need relationships. We need others. It’s a proven fact that healthy relationships decrease our stress levels and improve our quality of life. So, what’s keeping you from accepting the caring actions of others? Are you afraid that your grief will make them turn away? That the fact that you aren’t okay will make them view you differently? There’s no need to fear. It is natural and human to grieve and to not have it all together. Accepting help will actually draw truly caring people to you. They will be grateful for the opportunity to express their care for you. It may be difficult at first, especially if you are hard-wired to refuse all help, but in time, it will become easier, and your life will be so much richer.

 

Give Yourself Permission to Grieve

By | AfterCare, Grief/Loss

You give yourself permission to grieve by recognizing the need for grieving. Grieving is the natural way of working through the loss of a love. [It] is not weakness nor absence of faith. Grieving is as natural as crying when you are hurt, sleeping when you are tired or sneezing when your nose itches. It is nature’s way of healing a broken heart. – Doug Manning

Grief is the natural result of love. When we love deeply and wholly, we open ourselves up to the grief that will come when we lose the one we love so much. And while death is a part of life, it’s certainty doesn’t make it any easier to process the loss of a loved one. Did you know that the word “bereaved” literally means “to be torn apart”? So, by that definition, when we are grieving, we are being torn apart inside. It’s no wonder that we can become so tired, withdrawn, and quiet during times of loss.

Today, it can be difficult to grieve well. We live in a world that’s all about feeling good and embracing what makes us feel pleasure rather than pain. In fact, many of us shy away from pain, especially our own. Our feelings can be scary. So many of us don’t want to feel “out of control.” Our minds rebel against the idea of anyone seeing our pain, how deeply affected we are, how not okay we feel inside. But grief is not only in our minds, it’s most deeply rooted in our hearts and must find a way to be expressed.

Nationally respected author, counselor, and grief educator, Dr. Alan Wolfelt, puts it this way: “Over many years of walking with people in grief, I have discovered that most of us are hard on ourselves when we are in mourning. We judge ourselves and we shame ourselves and we take care of ourselves last.” The simple truth that we must all come to realize is that it’s okay to hurt. It’s okay to NOT “be strong” in the face of loss. It’s okay to give yourself permission to grieve, to give outward expression to the internal anguish of your soul. We need to be free to express our emotions, not hide from them or feel ashamed of them. They are what they are, and they are a natural response to what we’ve lost.

Other people may not understand the depth of what you are feeling, and they don’t have to. You don’t need permission from other people to grieve. No matter how you express your grief – silence, weeping, screaming, quietness, thoughtfulness – it’s never going to fit into any particular mold. In fact, there is no “grief” mold. Every single person grieves the loss of a loved one differently, and that’s as it should be. We are all unique, individual people with unique, individual relationships.

By giving ourselves permission to grieve, we begin a journey. It’s a journey that requires much from us, but one that is worth taking. Through the journey, you may feel many things: pain, loneliness, restlessness, vulnerability, fright, peacefulness, comfort, and love. You are on a journey; a journey that will take you to reconciliation. As Dr. Wolfelt tells us, “Never forget that the death of someone loved changes your life forever. It’s not that you won’t be happy again. It’s simply that you will never be exactly the same as you were before the death.” Life will not be the same as it was before, but you will find your “new normal” and begin to move forward.

As you begin your personal grief journey, remember these tips from Dr. Wolfelt:

  1. Realize that your grief is unique. No one else is exactly like you, and the relationship you enjoyed with your loved one was one-of-a-kind.
  2. Take time to talk about your grief. Sometimes it’s helpful to talk with a safe person about the emotions swirling around inside you. If you aren’t much of a talker or aren’t ready to be vulnerable with someone, write your thoughts down in a journal. Find a way to express what’s on the inside.
  3. Anticipate feeling a range of emotions. People experience a wide spectrum of feelings at the loss of a loved one: shock, numbness, denial, confusion, yearning, anxiety, fear, guilt, sadness, relief, and more. You will certainly feel some of these. It’s normal and natural to do so.
  4. Be mindful of your physical and emotional limits. You will be more tired, more emotionally sensitive. Learn what is too much for you right now and take things easy.
  5. Find people to support you. You don’t need to walk this journey alone. If you don’t know anyone that you feel would be an appropriate support for you, find an organized grief support group.
  6. Make use of ritual. There is a certain healing to be found in rituals. They encourage us to remember, they comfort us, and they offer us peace. For example, if you and your lost loved one watched a certain movie every Christmas, keep the ritual (tradition) alive as a way to remember them and feel close to them during the holiday season.
  7. Treasure your memories. Write them down. Tell the stories to others. Share the essence of the one you loved with those around you and keep their legacy alive. Your memories are your own to cherish forever and will be a continual reserve of peace and comfort.

Grief is not an issue to be solved or resolved. It’s a process we must tend to and live through in whatever form it may take for whatever length of time it may require. For many of us, the tendency is to ignore our pain. But trying to ignore it won’t make it go away. In fact, stuffing our grief away can have serious consequences on our mental and physical health. Rather than avoid what you’re feeling, give yourself permission to grieve. It just might be the best gift you can give yourself during a time of loss.

For more grief resources (books and websites), see the list below:

  • counselingforloss.com
  • webhealing.com
  • griefrecoverymethod.com
  • heartlight.org
  • whatsyourgrief.com
  • funeralbasics.org
  • Canfield, Jack and Mark Victor Hansen. Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul. Deerfield Beach, FL: HCI, 2003.
  • Canfield, Jack, Mark Victor Hansen, and Amy Newmark. Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery. Cos Cob, CT: Chicken Soup for the Soul, 2011.
  • Cross, Darlene F. A New Normal: Learning to Live with Grief and Loss. Las Vegas: Darlene F. Cross, 2010.
  • Curry, Cathleen. When Your Spouse Dies. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1990.
  • Deits, Bob. Life After Loss. Tucson, AZ: Fisher Books, 1988.
  • Emswiler, James P. and Mary Ann Emswiler. Guiding Your Child Through Grief. New York: Bantam, 2000.
  • Fumia, Molly. Safe Passage: Words to Help the Grieving. York Beach, ME: Conari Press, 2003.
  • Grollman, Earl A. Living When A Loved One Has Died: Revised Edition. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997.
  • Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Grief and Grieving. New York: Scribner, 2005.
  • Noel, Brook and Pamela D. Blair. I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye. Milwaukee, WI: Champion Press, 2000.
  • Peterson, Randy. When You Lose Someone You Love. Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 2007.
  • Rando, Therese A. How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Has Died. New York: Bantam Books, 1991.
  • Schiff, Harriet S. Living Through Mourning. New York: Viking, 1988.
  • Wolfelt, Alan D. Understanding Your Grief. Ft. Collins, CO: Companion Press, 2004.

Grieving the “Firsts” After a Loss

By | AfterCare, Grief/Loss

The first year without your loved one can be very difficult, especially as milestones approach. First Valentine’s Day. First birthday. Christmas. The anniversary of your loved one’s passing. Each of these days will be difficult in their own ways.

Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a noted grief counselor, author, and educator, affirms that our grief journeys are as unique as we are. “In life, everyone grieves. But their grief journeys are never the same. Despite what you may hear, you will do the work of mourning in your own special way. Be careful about comparing your experience with that of other people. Also, do not adopt assumptions about how long your grief should last. Just consider taking a ‘one-day-at-a-time’ approach. Doing so allows you to mourn at your own pace.”

Here are a few ideas for navigating your “firsts”:

1. Plan ahead if you can.

As a special day or milestone approaches, consider what you will need to get through the day. Plan ahead and decide if you need to take the day off to rest and reflect. You may also wish to do something special or meaningful to honor your loved one’s memory. Or, you may want to go to a special place or gather with certain people on that day. A little planning ahead of time can make for a more peaceful and contemplative day.

2. Find a way to celebrate and remember your lost loved one.

The hardest part about a day that is special to you is if no one else seems to remember. No matter what the particular day may be, if it’s significant to you and your lost loved one, do something to remember, to celebrate, to commemorate, to honor. Take flowers to the gravesite, look through old photos and videos, light a candle, or write a letter. At Thanksgiving or Christmas, you can serve their favorite dish and start calling it by their name – Nana’s mashed potatoes, Joe’s green bean casserole, etc. You can also sing your loved one’s favorite Christmas carols or put a remembrance ornament on your tree. All of these are simple ways to express your grief outwardly. The outward expression of grief will help bring peace and healing on a difficult day.

3. Reinvent the day and bring hope to a day of sadness.

Another option is to reinvent the days that bring you pain. For example, on the anniversary of your loved one’s death, do something that would have delighted them. If they loved to fish, maybe you and your family could honor their birthday by spending a day at the lake and taking time to remember and cherish. On your first Valentine’s Day without your loved one, you might treat yourself to a dinner out or eat a meal with others who have lost a significant other.

This same principle can be applied to any special day. Even at Thanksgiving or Christmas, you can look for ways to reinvent the day and make it something new, something meaningful and healing, something intentional and beautiful. For example, your family might decide to celebrate away from home if a Christmas at home is too difficult to face. Changing routines and focusing on what brings you joy and peace, even temporarily, can help you get through a difficult day or season.

4. Give back to meaningful causes.

As birthdays or the anniversary of the loss come around, some people choose to run a fundraiser via social media supporting a cause that helped their loved one, such as the Alzheimer’s Association, the American Cancer Society, nonprofit hospitals, or other significant causes.

If your loved one loved animals, you may decide to give a donation in their name to a local rescue. Another idea would be to volunteer your time to a local nonprofit that cares for animals. If they greatly valued children, find a way of giving back to local or international programs that help children. You may even sign up for a race or a walk that raises funds for a special cause.

Some people become so passionate about a cause after losing a loved one that they establish their own nonprofit organizations in memory of the person who died. Whatever you decide to do, giving back is one way you can pay it forward to others and carry on your loved one’s legacy.  Though your loved one is gone, their legacy lives on through you.

The possibilities for honoring a loved one on a special day are virtually endless. It all depends on what speaks to you. What makes you feel close to the one you have lost? What were their favorite things? Once you discover what comforts your heart, do it year after year, until it’s either a beloved tradition or you feel that you can stop. As Dr. Wolfelt assures us, each grief journey is different. No two are the same. Do what works for you and brings you peace. In time, the significance of the day will change slightly. Yes, it will still mark the loss of your loved one, but it will also come to have new meaning and new life.

In truth, we never really get over our grief; we become reconciled to it. We find a new way to live because the old way is gone forever.  As Dr. Wolfelt puts it, “You will find that as you achieve reconciliation, the sharp, ever-present pain of grief will give rise to a renewed sense of meaning and purpose. Your feelings of loss will not completely disappear, yet they will soften, and the intense pangs of grief will become less frequent. Hope for a continued life will emerge as you are able to make commitments to the future, realizing that the person you have given love to and received love from will never be forgotten. The unfolding of this journey is not intended to create a return to an ‘old normal’ but the discovery of a ‘new normal.’”

In time, you will find your “new normal.” But for now, grieve. Cry. Remember. And eventually, if you allow it, reconciliation will come. In the meantime, look for ways to celebrate or commemorate your lost loved one on those days special to you both or find a way to take the painful days and mark them for good deeds. May you find the peace and reconciliation you need.

Dealing with Grief in the Aftermath of Suicide

By | AfterCare, Grief/Loss, Loss from Suicide

The 21st century has seen a significant rise in suicide rates. Nearly 45,000 American lives are lost to suicide every year, making it the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. Even in the last few years and months, we’ve seen a number of well-known and well-loved people take their own lives: Robin Williams, Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, and Chris Cornell, to name a few. For those left to mourn the death, suicide is a devastating act that can cause severe emotional distress. If you have recently lost a loved one to suicide, consider the following tips to help you through this difficult time.

Don’t give guilt or anger a foothold

In the aftermath of suicide, it is common for family members to feel a range of emotions from guilt to depression to anger at the person who has died. Loved ones may ask themselves what they could have been done to prevent the tragedy and become overwhelmed by guilt. If you have lost a family member or friend to suicide, the most important thing to realize is that the death was not your fault. Oftentimes, suicide is a direct result of mental illness and severe depression, which cloud a person’s ability to see the world accurately.

Realizing these fundamental truths – that your loved one was suffering from a mental illness and that their death was not your fault – can allow you to understand and sympathize with your loved one. Free yourself from guilt and anger and embrace compassion. After a loss, it is often helpful to participate in healing actions. For example, tell the story of your loved one’s life, find ways to honor their memory, and cultivate compassion for others who suffer from mental illness.

Find a good therapist

Grief therapy can be helpful for anyone experiencing the pain of loss, but for those who have lost loved ones to suicide, it is particularly beneficial. The traumatic nature of suicide makes loved ones more susceptible to intense psychological distress, and professional help is required in many of these cases. The counseling helps suicide loss survivors see the situation more clearly, and a trained therapist can help you to understand the psychiatric problems your loved one faced. He or she may also be able to help you recognize unhealthy patterns of thinking that will help you to grieve in a healthy manner.

Surround yourself with people you love

Stay connected with the people in your life who matter to you. Isolation breeds unhappiness, especially after a traumatic event. If you are a person of faith, visit with people in your spiritual community. Invite friends over or go out to social events. Talk to family members often, and look for opportunities to socialize with others. Those who have lost loved ones to suicide often struggle with depression in the months after the loss, and studies indicate that social interaction is a great way to decrease depression. Friends and family members can keep you anchored in a routine, and their love will provide you with a sense of safety, security, and familiarity.

Join a support community

In addition to staying in contact with close friends and family (or especially if you don’t have close friends or family), you may want to consider finding a support community. After a loss, you may feel totally alone. Joining a support group will help you realize that you aren’t alone and will allow you to form new connections that will give you strength and encouragement as you travel down the road to healing.

Groups such as Survivors of Suicide Loss (SOSL) allow you to hear the experiences of others who have lost loved ones to suicide. They also give you the opportunity to share your thoughts (if you wish to). You might find that expressing your feelings in a welcoming and sympathetic environment helps you work through the loss and provides the encouragement you need to continue your journey.

Be patient with yourself

Don’t give yourself a grief schedule. There is no rush, and there is no time frame for grief. You have experienced a loss that is enormously painful, and it is normal to find yourself experiencing periods of deep sadness long after the loss. Allow yourself to cry or express frustration when you need to.

You will never stop missing your loved one. But over the course of time, you can find ways to enjoy life again. Remind yourself that time will make your situation more manageable. In the meantime, accept every emotion you feel, and understand that it is okay to be upset. Accept yourself in every situation, and strive not to compare your grief feelings to the grief feelings of others or set unrealistic expectations regarding how you feel. The grief journey is not linear, and even after you feel much better, you may experience occasional grief bursts. By allowing yourself to feel your emotions without judgment, you can make a great deal of progress on your grief journey.

Establish the legacy of your loved one

In the aftermath of suicide, find ways to remember the positive impact your loved one had on the lives of others. You may want to participate in certain rituals to honor their memory, such as attending a prayer vigil or gathering with loved ones to share your thoughts about the person you’ve lost. Through stories and memories, remind others of the meaningful life your loved one lived.

Do you remember your loved one helping others in a time of need? Or a time when he or she accomplished something extraordinary? Search for funny or happy memories with this person and share their story with others. If you feel comfortable, you may even start a blog, or find another way to write about what your loved one meant to you and those around you. The fact that the death hurts indicates that the one who has died brought joy to other people. Sharing the story of his or her life can be an important healing step on your grief journey.

Grief and Professional Help: When to Consider Therapy

By | AfterCare, Grief/Loss

Grief is normal. It hurts to lose someone dear to you, and it makes sense to acknowledge this pain. Everybody must go through a grieving process when losing a loved one. The grief journey is an indicator that the person who passed on was dearly loved. But what happens when the intensity of grief will not subside? What if you find yourself unable to cope, even though many months or years have passed since your loss?

Complicated Grief

If you find yourself unable to function in daily life long after the loss of your loved one, you may want to consider the possibility that you are experiencing complicated grief. While grief is a perfectly normal, healthy response to the event of loss, complicated grief is a psychological problem that, if left untreated, can severely impact your quality of life.

Receiving Help

If you think you may be struggling with complicated grief, treatment is available. Grief counseling can be a useful resource for dealing with complicated grief. A trained counselor can give you the tools that you need to start enjoying your life again. It is important to realize that counseling is not an attempt to make you forget about the life of your loved one or diminish their legacy. Rather, it is a way to help you accept the reality of their death and make tangible steps to get to a point where you can find joy in life.

Rational Thinking

Counseling can be especially beneficial if you find yourself suffering from extreme guilt, anxiety, or fear. Getting an outside perspective could help you to see when your thoughts become irrational. For instance, if you are someone who blames yourself for the death of a loved one, hearing a fresh perspective might allow you to see things differently. A liberating insight from a therapist could provide just the boost that you need to get back to finding joy and meaning in your life.

Accepting the Reality of Loss

Of course, it is unhelpful and unrealistic to believe that we will ever fully “move on” or “recover” from a loss. Even if this state of mind could be achieved, it wouldn’t be desirable. You will always remember the person that you loved, and the knowledge of their loss will always be painful. This knowledge falls under the category of grief that is considered normal. The pain of loss is part of what it means to love.  But if your thoughts of your loved one border on obsession, and if long after your loved one has passed, you find yourself ignoring everything except for these thoughts, then you may be struggling to accept the reality of the loss. Grief therapy can help you get to acceptance, and can provide you with advice on how to carry this experience with you as you continue to navigate your life journey.

How Do I Know if Counseling is Right for Me?

Studies suggest that people who are struggling with complicated grief respond better to therapy than those who struggle with normal grief. For those who are still on their grief journey, time is the most important factor in the healing process.  So how can you be sure that therapy will be useful for you? Since there is no set time frame for working through the grieving process, at what point can you reasonably estimate that your grief has become complicated?

There’s no definitive answer to these questions. You have no way of knowing with absolute certainty if counseling or the mere passage of time will be the best approach for your mental health. But if you feel that a significant amount of time has passed and that you are still unable to cope with daily life, it couldn’t hurt to give counseling a try. At the very least, you’ll have a trained professional to talk to, an experienced person who will listen as you get some things off your chest. This simple step could end up making a great difference.