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Sorting Through a Loved One’s Possessions

By AfterCare, Planning Tools

If you have lost a loved one, you may dread the day when you have to give away your loved one’s favorite shirt, well-loved books, or old golf balls. Possessions are tied to events and memories, and when you come across an item that was part of a loved one’s identity, you find yourself in a lose-lose situation: it hurts to keep it and it hurts to part with it.

But there are ways to make the sorting process more bearable. Sorting through a lost loved one’s belongings is never easy, but by developing a strategy, you can make it much more tolerable. Here are some tips that might provide you with some peace as you face this daunting task:

1. Develop a Game Plan

Man making a plan in a notebook

Start by giving yourself some structure. Diving into such a big project without a plan will leave you overwhelmed and exhausted. There are plenty of ways to create a game plan that works for you. Make a list of what needs to be done and organize your goals. Separate the items you need to clean into groups and move from group to group. Or you could designate each room as a separate job and have an individual strategy for each room.

2. Set Small Goals

Woman holding a notebook and pen and thinking about goals

After the loss of a loved one, cleaning can be physically and emotionally draining. For this reason, it’s important to pace yourself. Completing any task, big or small, can create a sense of satisfaction, so break one task into five and have five moments of victory! Be sure to take plenty of breaks between tasks. Or you can develop a reward system for yourself. You can grab a coffee after finishing a certain closet or take a TV break after finishing a room.

3. Sort as You Go

Clothes sorted into keep, donate, and discard stacks

You’ll cut down on a lot of excess time and energy if you sort the items into piles as you go. You may want to designate areas or boxes labeled “Keep,” “Donate,” “Give to a family member,” and “Throw away.” Then, you can place things in the appropriate areas. Sorting items while you’re cleaning will help you decide on a clear goal for each item and make the project more manageable.

4. Set a Quantity Limit

As you look over your loved one’s possessions, you may be tempted to keep too much. So, in addition to setting goals for completing your project, set goals for your ability to let go. You don’t have to get rid of everything; however, there is no way you can keep every item that has meaning to you. The best way to decide what to save is to write a short list of items ahead of time that you can’t imagine parting with and set specific limitations for each type of item you will keep.

5. Assess Each Item for Future Worth

Which items are the most meaningful to you? When you first look at your loved one’s possessions, everything seems important. And when you decide which items are most important, how do you know if your loved one would want you to keep them? Determining what to keep and what to part with can be extremely difficult. There are no fixed criteria to help you decide to hold on to item A and let go of item B. It’s ultimately up to you to decide. Remember your loved one’s connection to the possession and try to determine if you truly need to keep the object. If not, consider donating it.

6. Invite Friends to Help

younger woman supporting her mother

Going through your loved one’s possessions can be a daunting task. If you’re struggling to tackle the sorting process, you could invite close friends to help out. It’s essential to surround yourself with people who can provide emotional support. Your support system can help you make decisions, provide an extra set of hands, and encourage you when things get hard. If you decide this is a personal project you’d rather complete on your own, that’s fine, too. Still, consider planning time to be with others during breaks or right before or after sorting. Falling back on a support network can be extremely helpful when facing emotionally difficult tasks.

7. Find Peace with the Decisions that you Make

Sorting through your loved one’s belongings can put you in an emotionally vulnerable place and can lead to self-doubt. Remember: there is nothing to feel guilty about! Letting some things go is not an act of betrayal. On the contrary, it is a gift to your loved one, a tribute. Maintaining a healthy attitude is key. Know what you are doing is necessary, and view it as one more way to honor the person you love.

Cleaning out a loved one’s home or possessions after a loss can be stressful, so go easy on yourself. Remember the importance of what you are doing, and keep a positive mindset. Don’t rush through the project, and above all, leave no room for guilt. Love yourself just as you loved the person that you lost. Know that this is a challenging project and that your best effort is more than good enough.

Older man in yellow shirt sitting on his couch as he talks on phone and looks at form

Understanding Social Security Survivor Benefits

By AfterCare, Planning Tools No Comments

After the death of a loved one, you may not feel like applying for Social Security survivor benefits right away because everything feels overwhelming. However, if you do put it off, please know that some benefits aren’t retroactive. That means you will lose them if you don’t apply quickly. But before you can apply, you have to know what to do. Let’s take a few minutes to discuss what you need to know, so you can apply for survivor benefits with the Social Security Administration as seamlessly as possible.

Social Security card in the foreground with paycheck in the background

How much are Social Security survivor benefits?

For those who have lost a spouse, Social Security pays out a special one-time lump sum payment of $255 to the surviving spouse of an eligible recipient. If there is no surviving spouse, an eligible child can receive this one-time payment.

Any other additional monies due will depend on the earnings of the deceased. The more he or she paid in Social Security, the higher the benefits. However, depending on the surviving spouse’s age and circumstances, they may not receive financial assistance right away.

Mature woman sitting at home, drinking a cup of coffee and holding a picture frame as she remembers a lost loved one

Who is eligible to receive Social Security survivor benefits?

Social Security survivor benefits can be paid to an eligible:

  • Widow or widower – Full benefits at 60 or older (50 or older if the spouse has a disability that started before or within 7 years of the deceased’s death).
  • Widow or widower – At any age, if the surviving spouse is taking care of the deceased’s child who is under the age of 16 or has a disability.
  • Unmarried children – Until the age of 18. However, an unmarried child can receive benefits longer if they have an ongoing disability that started before the age of 22.
  • Dependent parents – At the age of 62 or older, if they received at least half their income from their deceased child.
  • Divorced spouses – A former spouse can receive benefits under the same circumstances as a widow or widower, if the marriage lasted 10 years or more.

For guidelines on what constitutes a disability, click here.

Focus on application form, shows hand with pen filling out the form

What information do you need to provide?

To receive survivor benefits, you will need to provide the following information at the time of your claim:

  • Proof of death (e.g., death certificate)
  • SSN (both yours and the deceased’s)
  • Dependent children’s SSNs (if applicable)
  • Deceased’s birth certificate
  • Marriage certificate (if you’re a widow or widower)
  • Final divorce decree (if you’re a surviving divorced spouse)
  • Military discharge papers (for military service before 1968)
  • Deceased worker’s W-2 forms
  • Bank name (if direct deposit is an option)
  • Forms SSA-3368 and SSA-827 (if you are applying for disability benefits)

Older man in yellow shirt sitting on his couch as he talks on phone and looks at form

Where can you get more information about Social Security survivor benefits?

You can call 1-800-772-1213 (TTY: 1-800-325-07780) to report a death or apply for benefits. (Note: you cannot report or apply online.) Representatives are available from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Monday – Friday. If you’d like to speak to your local Social Security Office, click here to use an Office Locator and find the contact information you need.

Another great resource is the Social Security Administration website: ssa.gov. They have everything clearly lined out, so it’s a go-to spot for all of your questions.

Here are a few links that will help you along the way:

Overview of Social Security Survivor Benefits

Widow, Widower, or Divorced Spouse Benefits

Dependent Child Benefits

Mother or Father Benefits

How to Apply for the Lump-Sum Death Benefit

Social Security Office Locator

What Should I Say to Someone Who is Grieving?

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

Let’s be honest, it’s hard to know what to say to someone who is grieving. It’s not because they are difficult to talk to or that you’re a poor conversationalist. Most of the time, our discomfort boils down to the fact that we don’t deal with death on a daily basis (and therefore, don’t have much experience with how to talk about it), and we don’t want to say the wrong thing. That’s why it can be helpful to have a plan in place when you know you’re going to offer condolences for a recent loss. To help you prepare in advance, let’s review some helpful tips and useful phrases.

woman kindly holding another woman's hand in caring gesture

Tip #1: Acknowledge their loss

Perhaps one of the most straightforward yet necessary things you can do is acknowledge their loss. They have experienced something truly heart-wrenching, and your simple acknowledgement and sympathy can go a long way.

You can choose a phrase that feels natural to you, but a few options are:

  • “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
  • “I heard about your dad. I’m so sorry.”
  • “I can’t imagine how hard this must be. I’m so sorry.”
  • “I was so sorry to hear about your loved one.”

Mother and daughter sitting on couch, sharing memories

Tip #2: Share a memory

If you had a personal connection to the person who has died, it can be sweet and meaningful to share a memory. One of the ways that we work through feelings of grief is by reminiscing about the memorable moments. Oftentimes, the grieving person may share the same story more than once, and that’s okay. It’s needed and necessary. So, sharing a story of your own, when possible, can be a perfect addition to your condolences.

A word of caution: if the grieving person seems very fragile, ask permission before sharing a story. Also, only share positive memories in your condolences. While it is important to work through any negative feelings, wait for an appropriate time. Your condolence is not the time.

Here are a few suggested phrases:

  • “I remember your mom’s sense of humor. She always had us laughing.”
  • “My favorite memory of your sister was when…”
  • “Would it be okay if I shared a few stories with you? Things that I remember about your grandmother?”

Adult man and woman sitting across from each other, woman talking while man listens

Tip #3: Give them the opportunity to talk

If you don’t have a story to share or don’t feel comfortable doing so, you could instead provide a chance to talk. As mentioned, talking about the person who has died is a necessary part of the grieving process. Be a safe person to share with and engage in active listening.

A word to the wise: Don’t offer advice or compare their experience to your own grief experiences. You may have gone through a similar loss, but you aren’t necessarily feeling the same things. Every person grieves differently, so instead, simply listen, comfort, and be present. If they ask about your experience, then feel free to share.

A few useful phrases you could use are:

  • “This must be so hard. Would you like to talk about it?”
  • “I’m here to listen if you want to talk. I’d love to hear about your loved one.”
  • “When I lost my mom, it helped to talk about her. I’m here to listen if you want to talk.”
  • “I’m here for you.”

Two young, female friends sitting on a couch, one sad while the other offer support

Tip #4: Validate their feelings

Most people try to keep their emotions under control in public settings. However, you can show extra kindness by validating, normalizing, and recognizing their feelings. Grief is hard, and really, we need to let out the emotions welling up inside. Once again, be a safe person. Don’t try to “fix it” because you can’t. Instead, offer a nonjudgmental space. Let them express what’s going on inside. Be compassionate, caring, and gracious.

What does this look like in words? Here are a few thoughts:

  • “Whatever you’re feeling is okay. This is hard.”
  • “You don’t have to keep it together around me. It’s okay not to be okay.”
  • “I don’t know what you’re feeling, but I’m here to listen if you want to share.”
  • “I wish I could make things better.”
  • “I wish I had the right words to say, but please know I’m here for you.”

Two older men sitting on a couch, one comforting the other who is upset

Tip #5: Stay away from cliches or platitudes

One thing to remember as you offer condolences is to stay away from cliches or platitudes. They are rarely helpful, and often, they feel hollow and impersonal. In some cases, they may even be harmful. For instance, saying “Everything happens for a reason” is intended to be comforting, but really, what possible reason could there be for this person’s death? Especially if it’s a sudden or unexpected death or someone who is still young.

Here are some phrases to STAY AWAY from:

  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “Look at what you have to be thankful for.”
  • “It’s part of God’s plan.”
  • “He’s in a better place now.”
  • “At least…” (…you can get married again, you had time together, you can have more children)
  • “This is behind you now. It’s time to get on with your life.”

Man delivering crate of groceries to older woman

Tip #6: Take supportive action

Following a loss, it can be hard to keep up with the everyday things. Grief takes a lot of time and emotional headspace. In fact, it’s not uncommon to forget things when you’re grieving. That’s why it can be kind to offer practical help. But don’t leave the responsibility on the grieving person. In other words, don’t say, “Call me if you need anything.” Instead, say, “I’m going to drop off a casserole for you on Tuesday. What time should I drop it off?”

Here are some ways you can provide practical help to someone who is grieving:

  • Shop for groceries or run errands
  • Mow the lawn
  • Drop off a casserole
  • Help with insurance forms or bills
  • Take care of housework, such as cleaning or laundry or taking out the trash
  • Watch their children or pick them up from school
  • Look after their pets
  • Go with them to a support group meeting
  • Accompany them on a walk
  • Take them to lunch or a movie
  • Share an enjoyable activity (sport, game, puzzle, art project)

Sometimes, just being a friend is exactly what they need and doing normal activities together can make things comfortable for both of you.

man in brown sport coat hugging woman, focus on man's back and woman's hands as they hug

Tip #7: Give them a hug

Physical touch is powerful, and often, it says more than words. The grieving person may not feel like talking, and that’s okay. Instead, offer eye contact and a sympathetic expression. Squeeze their hand or shoulder. If you’re family or a friend, give them a hug. If tears come, let them come. Don’t let the tears bother you. Don’t try to stop them or make a joke to lighten the moment. Sometimes, it’s best to just sit and be and let the emotions come. And if you are willing to sit and be present with them, that’s a gift.

Young woman video calling with older friend, checking in on her

Tip #8: Check in

Even after you’ve offered your initial condolences, consider taking it a step further. People in grief need support for months and sometimes years following the loss. To let them know you care, you can send a thoughtful gift. Reach out on special dates, like birthdays and anniversaries. Offer childcare or a lunch date. Text or call to ask how they are and if there’s anything you can do to help. Write a card or invite them to a day at the spa or the golf club. There are many ways you can support them in the days and months following a loss. Just make sure to follow through and let them know you’re available.

Before we go, remember – no matter what you say – it doesn’t have to be perfect to be supportive. You don’t need to take their pain away – that’s impossible. If they don’t open up right away, don’t force it, but also, don’t steer the conversation away from the death. Let things happen naturally. The grieving person simply needs you to show that you care and that you love them, no matter what they are working through.

For most suggestions on how to support a grieving friend or loved one, read:

10 Caring and Creative Sympathy Gifts

8 Simple Tips for Writing a Meaningful Condolence Letter

6 Things You Should Never Say to a Grieving Person

6 MORE Things You Should Never Say to a Grieving Person

7 Tips for Helping a Grieving Friend

Sympathy Cards: What to Write & Examples

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

Sending someone a sympathy card is a thoughtful way to show your support and let the bereaved know that you are thinking of them. But what should you write in a sympathy card? It can be difficult to know what to write to someone who has lost a loved one, but sharing a thoughtful message is a good way to encourage the bereaved.

To help you express your condolences in a thoughtful and meaningful way, we’ve put together some ideas for what to write in a sympathy card. Your relationship with both the deceased and the person who is grieving will affect how long or short your note is, so just use these ideas as a starting point.

Here are 5 ideas for what you can write in your sympathy card:

older woman comforting her adult daughter

Express your condolences

Often the first step in writing a sympathy note is expressing your condolences. This can be as simple as writing “I’m sorry for your loss” or “Please accept my condolences on the loss of ____.” Focus on offering words of comfort and support, like “I’m here for you if you need to talk” or “You’re not alone in this. I’ll be with you every step of the way.”

Keep in mind that sometimes it is better to say nothing at all than to say something that might upset or offend the bereaved person. If you had a strained relationship with the deceased, it is perfectly acceptable to simply express your condolences to the family without further comment. More neutral statements like “I am so sorry for your loss” or “My deepest sympathies go out to you and your family during this difficult time” can be a good way to express your sympathy for the family’s grief without being dishonest about your feelings.

Don’t shy away from using “death” or “died” in your condolences. While substitutions like “passed away” or “didn’t make it” may feel softer and more considerate, acknowledging someone’s death is an important part of the grieving process. As long as your tone is gentle, using the words “death,” “died,” or “dead” is acceptable.

Examples:

  • I’m so sorry for your loss.
  • My deepest sympathies/thoughts and prayers go out to you and your family during this difficult time.
  • I will miss ____ very much.
  • I’m thinking of you in this difficult time.
  • You’re not alone in this. I’ll be with you every step of the way.

Share fond memories and appreciation of the deceased

If you were close to the deceased, you can also share fond memories or express your appreciation for them in your sympathy card. Reading about your gratitude for the deceased can help the grieving person feel connected to their loved one and may bring some comfort during this difficult time. As you share stories, be sincere – if you don’t have positive memories of the deceased, it would be better to simply offer your condolences.

When sharing memories, highlight the deceased’s qualities or mention how they made a positive impact on your life. You can also share a story that illustrates how much the person meant to you. As you share your memories, keep it relatively short and make sure that your focus remains on the deceased and not on yourself.

Examples:

  • I’m so grateful I had the chance to know ____ and his/her kindness and compassion.
  • ____ was always so kind and helped me through [situation].
  • I always smile when I remember [memory].

man in a blue shirt offering his hand to help someone up

Offer to help

If you want to offer help to the grieving person in your sympathy card, make sure you are truly willing and able to follow through. It can be difficult for someone who is grieving to ask for help, so offering your assistance can be a nice gesture. But only offer help if you are actually willing to commit to it – otherwise, your offer may do more harm than good.

When you offer to help, do so in concrete ways. Saying “Let me know if you need anything” is vague and noncommittal, and many people won’t feel comfortable asking for help. Think of a specific way you could help, like cooking a meal, doing yard work, providing child or pet care, or listening and talking with them.

Examples:

  • If you need someone to look after ____, I’m always available on the weekends.
  • I know I’m far away, but if you want to talk, I’m just a phone call away OR my number is ____.
  • I’d love to bring over a meal for you and your family. Just let me know what day would be best for you!
  • I know you have a lot going on, so let me know if you need someone to pick up groceries or help with chores. I’d be happy to help.

two girls comforting each other

Avoid making comparisons or minimizing the loss

When you are writing to a grieving person, it is important to avoid making comparisons or talking about yourself. This can be difficult, as you may want to share your own experiences to empathize with the person you are writing to. However, writing too much about yourself can take away from the focus on the deceased and make the grieving person feel like you are dismissing their grief. Remember that everyone grieves differently and what worked for you may not work for them.

You should also avoid saying anything that might place blame on the deceased or trivialize the feelings of the bereaved. For example, don’t say “I’m sorry for your loss, but at least he lived a long life.” In general, it’s a good idea to avoid adding a statement that starts with “but” after offering your condolences.

Also, try not to use clichés and platitudes such as “Everything happens for a reason” or “They’re in a better place now.” These phrases may be well-intentioned, but they often fall flat and can even come across as insensitive.

Phrases to avoid:

  • I know how you feel.
  • When I lost ____, I…
  • Everything happens for a reason.
  • It’ll get better.
  • They’re in a better place now.
  • It was his/her time.

person writing a note in a sympathy card

Add a personal sign-off

When you sign your card, you may or may not choose to include a short sign-off. If you do include one, keep it personal and informal. While the classic “Sincerely” may seem like a good option, it could seem overly formal. Use a sign-off that expresses your sadness and your support for your friend.

Examples:

  • With love,
  • Praying for you,
  • With sympathy,
  • Thinking of you,
  • Sharing your sadness,
  • Here for you,

To make your sympathy note personal, consider which of these ideas you should include. It’s okay if you can’t think of a story to share or don’t know how you could help the bereaved. If you are struggling with what to say, keep things short and simple. A short, kind message means more than one that rambles or focuses on the writer. Focus on being sincere and kind, and your grieving friend will appreciate your thoughtfulness.

How Creativity Can Help You Deal With Loss

By AfterCare, Grief/Loss

Your way back will happen very slowly. Almost like a whisper. You will be OK. Not the same. But OK. Not you. But still you. – Christina Rasmussen

Sometimes talking about our grief isn’t enough. Maybe our words don’t fully say what we want them to say. Or they don’t capture the depth of what we feel. This is why creative expression is such an integral part of the human experience and an excellent way to process the painful feelings we encounter, especially during times of grief. For many, participating in creative self-expression can help bring deep-rooted, complex emotions to light.

As part of your grief journey, you might consider taking up an activity that allows you to express yourself creatively. For many of us, painting comes to mind first, but you don’t have to take up painting if you don’t want to. There are many ways to express yourself creatively and tap into what is hiding below the surface. For example, you could: draw (pencil, pastels, ink), paint, sculpt, scrapbook, keep a grief journal, take photographs, garden, write poetry or prose, cook, bake, take up calligraphy, compose music, restore a car, woodwork, or create a memory quilt or box.

In the end, the final product doesn’t matter. The healing value is in the doing. You don’t have to be good at something to take it up as a vehicle for healing. In other words, you don’t have to be a writer to keep a grief journal. You don’t have to be a painter to use watercolors or oils. You don’t have to be a photographer to take beautiful pictures. All you need is the motivation and the desire to see if creative expression will help you.

Here are a few reasons why delving into your creativity may help you deal with loss.

1. It helps you express things you might not be able to put into words.

We all know how it feels to be at a loss for words. Creative expression allows us to become more aware of how we actually feel. In the creative process, we slow down a little and think about our emotions, actions, moods, and behaviors. There may be something going on inside that we don’t realize is there until we take the time to explore it.

2. The creative options available to you are wide and varied.

As mentioned above, you aren’t limited in what medium you choose as your creative outlet. An Australian woman did choose to paint and is now exhibiting her work, while another woman created works of art made from the clothing left behind by the son she lost. Eric Clapton, a musician who lost his young son in a freak accident, used music to help him deal with his grief. No matter what form of expression you choose, the results can contribute to the healing and reconciliation you come to regarding the death of the person you loved.

3. It’s a safe way to express your emotions.

Grief can bring out a myriad of emotions. Some of your emotions may even make you nervous or afraid. Using your creativity to deal with loss is a way to safely express yourself. No other person needs to be around when you create, unless you want them to be. It’s a time when you can choose to be alone to constructively explore what’s in your heart and mind. Your work is as private as you want it to be, and even if the emotions that reveal themselves are ugly, it’s better to get them out than to have them bottled up inside, waiting for a moment to burst.

4. It’s something you can control in a world that may seem out of control.

When we lose someone we love, our world is rocked. Things that felt safe and secure before may now feel shaky and uncertain. Depending on the depth of the loss, it may feel like everything is spiraling out of control. By taking up a creative habit, you create an opportunity where you can exert a certain level of control over at least one aspect of your life. It’s your work, and you make the rules. Throughout the process, creativity may become a reliable friend – a means of self-support during a time of confusion and pain.

5. It provides you with an opportunity to engage with others who are grieving.

Some will choose to engage in solitary creative expression. Others will take the opportunity to participate in collective creative expression. If you decide to paint, you might join a group of other painters who are going through loss. If you decide to write poetry, you could join a writing group focused on grief. You are not alone in your journey – so many others are also dealing with grief in their own way. You may find a kindred spirit in a class who will come alongside you as you grieve.

6. It is beneficial to your health.

It has been discovered that self-expression, particularly the arts, can actually help relieve feelings of stress, fear, and depression. The body calms during the activity, which, in turn, contributes to reduced blood pressure and even releases chemicals in the brain to decrease some types of depression. By allowing the emotions building up on the inside to find outward expression, you are actually allowing your body to relax, resulting in less strain and better health.

7. It helps you remember that there is still beauty in the world.

No matter which medium you choose to interact with – photography, journaling, woodworking, painting, etc. – at some point you will make a realization: there is still beauty in the world. The flowers are still delicate, the mountains are still impressive, and people are still worth knowing and loving. Even in grief, you will have good moments – days when you remember that life can be good. When those days come, don’t reject them. Embrace them. Remember that life can be good again…not the same but still good.

A brief note regarding creative expression and children in grief: Creative expression activities (most often arts & crafts) are very helpful for children experiencing grief. Children have a difficult time identifying what they are feeling, much less putting it into words. Arts & crafts allow them to communicate without words and provide an opportunity to release their emotions and express their thoughts.

If you’d like to give creative expression a try, you first need to pick an activity that appeals to you – even if you don’t think you’re good at it! Then, for three or four consecutive days, spend at least 20 minutes a day doing your chosen activity. After a few days, evaluate how you feel and if you’d like to continue. Fully embrace the activity during the trial phase and express yourself fearlessly. Your emotions are important, and they need to be expressed so that you can move forward.

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, anniversary, Mother’s Day, 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.

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