Category

Grief/Loss

The Benefits of a Grief Journal

By | Grief/Loss

Grief is an inescapable part of life. For many, grief is associated with losing someone dearly loved. However, it is important to note that grief is not always associated with losing someone; you may be grieving the loss of a job, the collapse of a dream, or the breakup of a relationship. As human beings, we possess deep, complex, multi-faceted emotions, and it’s our responsibility to learn how we individually need to process those emotions. If you are facing a season of grief – whether you’ve lost someone you loved or are experiencing some other pain – keeping a grief journal might be the answer to helping you cope with and process your feelings.

I know now that we never get over great losses; we absorb them and they carve us into different, often kinder, creatures. – Gail Caldwell

Why Should I Keep a Grief Journal?

1. Writing things down can often make you more aware of what you are feeling. For some people, they don’t know what they are feeling until they write it down. Putting thoughts and emotions into words forces you to slow down and gives you an opportunity to deeply reflect on, and perhaps better understand, the emotions within you. It’s a method of self-reflection and can reveal things you haven’t consciously thought about.

2. For those mourning a loved one, you can journal to remember them. Recall your favorite memories. Record their favorite colors, smells, foods, places. Write down what they meant to you and why. Create a narrative of your relationship with them and how they impacted your life, the good and the bad. In your journal, if it’s helpful, you can even write directly to the person you’ve lost, saying whatever you feel needs to be said.

3. A grief journal gives you a safe and judgment-free place to explore your jumbled thoughts and feelings, to find ways to remember your loved one, and to record your ongoing journey through grief. Often, it’s comforting to look back and see just how far you’ve come from day one. Sometimes, people may feel like they aren’t making any progress at all, but when they have something tangible to look back on, it’s easier to see the progress they’ve made.

4. There are no rules. This journal belongs to you, and you can utilize it in whatever way you see fit. There may be days that you don’t feel like writing. That’s okay – you can also draw, color, paint, glue, or create something else in the journal’s pages. It’s entirely up to you – it’s your space.

5. Journaling can actually improve your physical and emotional health. By putting your thoughts and feelings into words, they come into sharper focus, and you can outwardly express what you inwardly feel. Among other things, this outward expression, this releasing of thoughts and emotions, reduces stress, which improves sleep.

Selecting a Grief Journal

Ultimately, you should choose a grief journal that appeals to you. However, if you’d like some tips, here are a few questions you could ask yourself before making a purchase.

  • How big or small do you want it to be (i.e. easily fits into a backpack, purse, or pocket)?
  • Do you want it to have writing prompts included or not?
  • Do you plan to use the journal to record your grief journey exclusively, or do you want to use it for multiple purposes?
  • Will you add art to your writing or use a special pen? If so, you might consider how thick the pages are so the ink doesn’t bleed through.
  • Do you prefer ruled or unruled paper?
  • Would you want the journal to include quotes or information about grief and loss?
  • Is it important to you that the journal appeal to you visually?
  • Would you want a journal that carries meaning for you, such as one that depicts something your lost loved one valued (i.e. favorite animal, work of art, color, etc.)?

Also, it’s not a requirement that you handwrite your grief journal. If you prefer, you could type it or even dictate it. The simplest way to keep a digital journal is to open a Word document and start typing, but there are websites online that offer a place to record your grief journey. Another option that may appeal to some is creating a blog where thoughts are recorded and shared with others.

Grief Journal Writing Prompts

You can find writing prompts online easily, but here are a few to get you started.

  1. Think of a word that reflects how you feel today and explore it. What does the word mean to you? Why do you feel that way? How would you describe how you’re feeling to someone else?
  2. Find a quote that speaks to you and mull over it. Write down why you chose that particular quote and what it means to you.
  3. Spend time remembering your loved one – days you spent together, things they loved.
  4. Write down things they used to say and why you remember the words so well.
  5. Write a message to your loved one.
  6. Ask yourself open-ended questions, like:
    • “The things I miss most…”
    • “A color that makes me think of you…”
    • “This memory always makes me happy…”
    • “I wish I knew…”
    • “Today, my grief feels like…”

Feel free to add your own prompts and make the journal personal and intimate. It’s about you, your journey, your grief, your loss.

Write what comes out and don’t be ashamed of it. Some of the things you feel may be unexpected or scary, and that’s okay. Giving voice to your feelings will help you identify them, take responsibility for them, and eventually, release them. Nationally respected grief expert Alan Wolfelt believes that we never truly get over grief, but instead, we become reconciled to it. We learn what life looks like beyond our loss. He puts it this way, “To experience reconciliation requires that you descend, not transcend. 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.”

The Unspoken Grief of Pregnancy and Infant Loss

By | Current Events, Grief/Loss

Pregnancy and infant loss is all around us. Mothers, fathers, and families the world over have felt the pain of losing a lovingly anticipated child. No matter how the child is lost – miscarriage, stillbirth, sudden infant death syndrome, complications, birth defects, or unexpected events – the grief is real and deep and living.

Noted grief educator and counselor Dr. Alan Wolfelt attests to the reality of the deep pain that accompanies the loss of a child. He says, “With the death of your child, your hopes, dreams and plans for the future are turned upside down. You are beginning a journey that is often frightening, painful, and overwhelming. The death of a child results in the most profound bereavement.”

But sadly, the society we live in is not always as compassionate and understanding, particularly in relation to pregnancy and infant loss. There are certain types of losses that go largely unacknowledged by society or are not given public expression. These losses are mourned in secret and are often not spoken of. We even have a name for this type of grief – disenfranchised grief. Dr. Ken Doka, who coined the phrase, describes it as, “Grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned.”

To the many mothers and fathers who have lost an infant or a child in the womb, society may not acknowledge the gravity of your loss, but your loss is significant and worth grieving. Your grief is not something that should be swept under the rug or spoken of in whispers. It is real, and it is important.

So, as you move forward in your grief journey, as you mourn the loss of the child who carried many of your hopes and dreams, remember these things:

You have the right to grieve your loss

Despite what society may say, your loss is real and legitimate. You have the right to grieve. Every parent has hopes and dreams for their baby, and when the baby is lost, those deeply cherished wishes are crushed. You are left with a hollowness in your heart. But remember this – your baby was special, unique, and you have a right to mourn what will not be.

You have the right to talk about what you’ve been through

Find people you trust or others who have experienced a similar loss and talk with them. Share the weight of your grief. You don’t have to walk through this journey alone – you can invite others in. By talking about the loss, you help us all move toward being a society that acknowledges the depth of pain associated with pregnancy and infant loss.

You have the right to feel whatever it is you feel

Grief expresses itself in many different ways. Shock, denial, confusion, yearning, guilt, sadness, depression, to name a few. None of these are wrong. They are all normal. In fact, there’s no “right” way to grieve. For every one of us, the experience is different. So, embrace whatever it is that you feel – don’t push it away. We must go through the pain to move toward healing and reconciliation.

You have the right to be physically and emotionally weary

Grief is hard work. All of the emotions swirling inside, often not finding expression, sap your energy. You may find it hard to sleep, and as a result, feel tired and overwhelmed. In some cases, people may even experience physical symptoms like headaches, nausea, and weight loss or gain. Please know – this is a natural reaction. The body is in distress, the same as the mind and heart. Be kind to yourself as you grieve.

You have the right to grieve differently than your partner

Since there’s no “right” way to grieve, it stands to reason that no two people will grieve in the exact same way. But just because your grief and your partner’s grief don’t look the same doesn’t mean you aren’t both grieving. Give each other room to grieve. Give each other grace to grieve differently. And move toward each other, rather than away, as you process this profound loss in your lives.

You have the right to be unashamed of your loss

Despite what society or insensitive people around you may say, your loss is legitimate. You have every right to feel deep emotions. You have every right to mourn what might have been, what you hoped for. Do not try to hide what you feel. Openly express what your baby’s loss has meant to you. If others don’t understand, that doesn’t mean you should try to conceal your grief. By no means do you need their permission to grieve.

You have the right to have your loss acknowledged

You do have the right to have your loss acknowledged, though you shouldn’t go around demanding that people do so. Forcing people into something is never truly successful. Instead, find comfort in the knowledge that your loss is worth acknowledgment, and because it is, awareness groups all over the country are working to bring it out of the shadows and into the light.

You have the right to experience grief bursts

A grief burst is a moment when something triggers a surge of grief. The trigger could be anything – your due date, another baby the same age as yours, a quote, a movie, an article of clothing. These bursts are a normal and natural part of the grieving process. Don’t be surprised when you experience them and find someone who knows your struggle to talk with when they occur.

You have the right to cherish your memories

There are many ways to cherish your memories. Collect keepsakes – ultrasound photos, handmade items, a lock of hair, photos, etc. – and create a memory box or scrapbook. Write your thoughts and feelings down or write letters to your baby. Have a piece of jewelry made with your baby’s initials or birthstone. Start a tradition that brings you comfort.

You have the right to move toward your grief and heal

Like any grief – recognized or not – you have the right to grieve and to heal. Dr. Wolfelt tells us that we never get over a death; instead, we learn to reconcile ourselves to the loss. He states, “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…. The unfolding of this journey is not intended to create a return to an ‘old normal’ but the discovery of a ‘new normal.’”

If you take nothing else away, know that your loss is significant, and it is heartbreaking. You have the right to mourn the loss of a child much loved and gone too soon. Grieve in whatever way you need so that you can find healing, peace, and reconciliation.

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.

 

Young boy embracing his military father, American flag draped over father's shoulder

Suicide Prevention and Mental Health: What Can We Do to Help Our Nation’s Veterans?

By | Grief/Loss, Loss from Suicide

September is suicide prevention month, and one of our nation’s most vulnerable populations are our own veterans and military personnel. Veterans embody qualities such as bravery, sacrifice, and dedication to a greater cause—all qualities we value deeply. Yet even as they fought for our freedom, many military members have found themselves suffering alone, and in silence.

Veterans today are facing one of the worst mental health crises we have ever seen. According to a 2014 Veterans Affairs study, it was discovered that an average of 20 veterans committed suicide every day. That same year, veterans accounted for 18% of ALL suicide deaths but only accounted for 8.5% of the total population. Why are the numbers so high? And practically speaking, what can we do?

We can support our veterans by actively seeking to understand the challenges they face and become part of the solution. Here are a few things we can do to help our nation’s veterans and active duty military:

Woman comforting male solider, who looks distraught and has a hand to his face

1. Be Aware of the Signs of Depression

If you are a veteran, or if you have a loved one who is a veteran or active duty military personnel, be aware of the signs of depression. Depression is a very serious illness, leading to feelings of sadness and loss of interest in activities once enjoyed. In some cases, depression causes mental and emotional problems. If these problems occur, it can lead to an inability to function in the home or the workplace.

For veterans and active duty military members, depression may have a variety of causes, such as the death of a friend or fellow service member, traumatic events like combat or injury, preparing for deployment, or transitioning to civilian life, to name a few. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, one in every ten older veterans (ages 65+) are currently battling depression, which is more than twice the percentage found in the general population of the same age.

What you can do: There are many ways that the friends and family can help a loved one who is battling depression. Working with a professional counselor or psychologist can help. In addition, new activities such as exercise, dietary changes, and getting enough direct sunlight can relieve symptoms.

American military uniform with American flag patch lying on wooden surface. Stethoscope lying beside it.

2. Educate Yourself about Traumatic Brain Injury and Its Effects

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is becoming increasingly more common among our military personnel as the methods of warfare evolve. In simple terms, TBI is a blow to the head that causes a disruption in brain function. For veterans and military members, this may occur during drills or as the result of a bomb blast.

Some cases register as a mild concussion, but in severe cases, TBI leads to changes in behavior and memory recall. The severity of a case is determined by how long consciousness is lost, how long memory loss or disorientation may last, and how responsive the person was after the initial injury. According to an article by PBS, “Those who go untreated may find their symptoms worsening over time, with some patients at risk for depression, substance abuse, severe anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, Alzheimer’s and suicide.”

What you can do: Be supportive and encourage TBI sufferers to seek professional support. In the meantime, remember that there are many others out there who are supporting a loved one living with TBI, and you can learn from their journeys.

Older man, fingers to lips, staring toward camera, looking sad

3. Recognize Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Its Symptoms

More than anything, it’s important to remember that PTSD is common and affects more than just military personnel. Absolutely anyone can suffer from PTSD. However, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, the percentage of persons suffering from PTSD is higher in the military than in the general population. For those in military service, PTSD has many root causes. Most commonly, it is connected to combat exposure, terrorist attacks, and sometimes physical assault. There are four major types of symptoms: 1) reliving the event, 2) avoiding situations that are a reminder of the past, 3) negative changes in beliefs or feelings, and 4) feeling wired all the time.

What you can do: When you see your loved one struggle, it’s hard to stand by and do nothing. Two practical actions you can take are: 1) offer to go to doctor’s visits with them so you can be familiar with medications and the doctor’s advice in addition to offering support and 2) encourage contact with friends and family to help create a support system. Additionally, as you try to encourage your veteran, seek out the resources available to bring them back to good mental health.

Young male soldier, sitting in a field, helmet in lap, knees drawn up, face pressed to helmet

4. Understand the Threat of Suicide

There has been a significant spike in veteran suicides since 2005, and according to recent research, the most common reason given for contemplating suicide is a desire to end intense emotional distress. Research continues to explore the link between PTSD cases and suicides. As noted above, veteran suicides make up 18% of ALL suicides, even though veterans constitute only 8.5% of the population. The numbers are staggering. A recent study from the Public Health Department revealed that veterans who were deployed have a 41% higher suicide risk than the general population while non-deployed veterans have a 61% higher risk!

What you can do: The best things you can do are to educate yourself on the signs of suicide risk, familiarize yourself with available resources, and encourage your loved one to seek the help and support they need. If you have lost a loved one to suicide, remember that everyone deals with grief differently. For helpful suggestions for processing grief, find resources online, join a support group and/or set up an appointment with a grief counselor.

African American soldier staring solemnly toward the camera

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Talk About It

Active military members are less likely to seek out mental health services and support. This is mainly because they fear for their jobs or don’t want to be viewed differently because they are struggling. A stigma still remains regarding mental health issues, though the Defense Department has taken deliberate actions to reverse this viewpoint. Veterans, though not in active service, also struggle with this very real stigma. Move forward with actively educating yourself on these mental health challenges. Don’t be afraid to talk to loved ones about their mental health or to express your loving concern. They need your support and understanding.

6. Draw Encouragement from the Success Stories of Others

The Department of Veterans Affairs has created a helpful website called Making the Connection. This website is filled with excellent resources and information regarding symptoms, support groups, and treatment. But most of all, real veterans share personal struggles of their fight for good mental health. Find encouragement and inspiration in their stories of struggle and victory.

With the trauma associated with military service, it is no surprise that our veterans are struggling. Educate yourself on the symptoms and look for ways to support veterans physically and emotionally. In closing, a reminder. The men and women of the military safeguard our freedom every day. Let’s work together to safeguard their mental health by becoming knowledgeable, capable, and ready to act. Our veterans deserve to live full and meaningful lives after their years of service to our country.

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.

 

10 Caring and Creative Sympathy Gifts

By | Grief/Loss, Helping a Friend in Grief

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.  – Henri Nouwen

When someone we know and care about loses someone they love, it’s hard to know what to do or say. Some will write a condolence letter, others will attend the funeral, and still others will send a sympathy gift. There are even those who will do all three. It is most common to send flowers as a sympathy gift to the family, and in recent years, to give a memorial donation to a specified charity. These are excellent ways to offer sympathy to a grieving friend. However, there are other options. Not all of them are items to purchase. If you are interested in a few non-traditional ways to support a grieving friend or family member, maybe these 10 out-of-the-box gifts will inspire you.

1. Photos the Family Doesn’t Have

If you possess any photos of the person who has died, you might consider making a copy and sharing it with the family. Not only will it be an image of someone dearly loved, but it will be a reminder that their family member is remembered and missed. If you have access to a lot of photos, you could even put together a thoughtful collage and send it to the family with a condolence card.

2. Self-care Items

It’s important to take care of ourselves in times of grief and loss. When we lose someone, we may experience a wide range of emotions: shock, numbness, fear, sadness. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, respected grief expert and counselor, says, “Good self-care is important [when you’re grieving]. The ‘lethargy of grief’ you are probably experiencing is a natural mechanism intended to slow you down and encourage you to care for your body.” We must nurture and take care of ourselves in emotionally draining times, so self-care items are an appropriate sympathy gift: bubble bath, moisturizing lotion, perhaps gifting a manicure, pedicure, or massage.

3. House Cleaning/Lawn Care

If you’d like to help in a very practical sense, you can offer to clean house, mow the lawn, shop for groceries, or some other helpful task. In general, we all have a tendency to say, “Don’t worry; I’ll get to it,” but during times of grief, it takes an extra measure of energy to accomplish even the most routine tasks. They may say “no” because they don’t want to inconvenience you, but show them that you aren’t inconvenienced, that you sincerely want to help. Be firm and gracious in your reply. “Please, I want to do this for you. Is Wednesday at 2pm okay for you?”

4. Grief Journal or Sketchbook

For some of us, we process our grief best through writing it down, allowing ourselves to pour the emotions out on paper. Others need to sketch or paint their emotions, using various colors to depict different emotions. Creative expression is an effective tool for expressing externally what is sometimes stuck internally. If you know that your grieving friend is a writer or an artist (and even if they aren’t), this might be a good avenue for self-expression, and therefore, an invaluable gift.

5. A Book About Grief

Sometimes it’s helpful to hear about others’ grief journeys, receiving courage and inspiration from their stories. It’s also beneficial to remember that we are not alone in our grief – we are not the only one who feels a deep sense of loss and bereavement. There are many books available about grief since it is something that every single person on the planet deals with at some point in their lives, though an often noted classic to consider is A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis.

6. Message Jar

Everyone’s grief journey is different. No two journeys look the same, and we should not expect them to look the same. While the message jar may take a bit more time for you to create, it will provide encouragement to the grieving for a longer period of time. For this idea, you need a jar (you choose the size, color, decoration, etc.), and then, using small slips of paper, write 31 notes with words of encouragement to your grieving friend. After receiving the jar, your friend or family member will have an entire month’s worth of comfort and encouragement from you.

7. Something for the Kids

With this one, it will all depend on the child and their age. Perhaps a stuffed animal for a small child, a remembrance necklace for an older one, or if you know the family well, something even more personal and meaningful. Your options are unlimited. You could bring favorite foods, books, a specially made Christmas ornament to honor a lost loved one, and so on. As you seek to comfort your grieving friend’s children, they themselves will also be comforted.

8. Babysitting

Offering to take care of the kids for an evening is another practical gift you can give to a grieving family. The adult(s) may need time to think and process through overwhelming emotions, which can be very hard to do with little ones around. Time alone, or just the opportunity to go do some things solo, can be a rejuvenating and life-giving gift.

9. Vacation Time

Our jobs do not stop even though we are grieving. Some companies provide bereavement days, though it may be restricted to the loss of specific people, usually immediate family. If you are close to a grieving co-worker, and your company allows it, you might consider donating one of your vacation days to a friend who needs a little extra time to grieve. Of course, it will all depend on if this is possible and if you have days to spare, but it’s an option worth consideration.

10. Your Presence

While some people do want to be alone in their grief, your presence is important. Not your advice or your own grief experiences, but your presence. Silent. Waiting. Present. Available. We all need to know that someone cares, that someone acknowledges our grief and our right to grieve. Consider how you can simply be present and available to someone in grief, and when they are ready, a listening ear to someone who simply needs a friend.