While our culture is death-obsessed in the morbid curiosity sense, we are also a grief-avoidant society. I learned this when my mom died.
I was in college and quickly realized it was taboo to actually share how I was feeling or to talk about the loss, or how I wasn't in that young adulthood frame of mind that is so often associated with college and a new era of increased freedom.
People, it turns out, so often don’t like to be around folks who are sad, nor do they know how to help. Instead, they avoid the topic (and sometimes the person) altogether.
This leaves the bereaved feeling as though they are without a voice.
At least, that is how I felt, and I’ve since used that experience to shape my life and the lives of others.
Today, I help individuals and families understand that while they may fumble over their words, neither grief nor helping those who are grieving is about saying the perfect thing.
It’s about engaging, listening, understanding, providing comfort, and using words when necessary.
It is about not avoiding the experience. It is about embracing the experience, same as you would other major life moments like a birth, graduation, or marriage.
After all, death and grief mark our lives in the same way as do the more joyful life events.
And, death gives all of our life events their inherent meaning.
Grief, then, is worth experiencing. It is necessary to experience. And, we can't avoid it anyway –– not without serious mental and physical repercussions.
The Importance of Self Care
Everyone grieves in their own unique way. Our individual personalities play largely into how our unique grief journeys are paved.
There are also many kinds of loss, including losing a loved one to death, divorce, a break-up, terminal illness, substance abuse, etc.
Some experience loss suddenly. Some have been expecting it.
No matter how you’ve found yourself in the depths of grief, this emotion is complicated.
And it becomes even more complicated when we stuff it down, avoid it or try to ignore the pain or the reality of what has occurred.
For so many of us, we like to continue on with life as though the grief doesn’t exist. We hide it and our wounds with numbing agents including alcoholism, workaholism, over eating, and a variety of other tactics.
You already know these aren’t healthy. You can feel that in your body. And it’s why self-care is so important and necessary. Self-care is multidimensional, more than just physically caring for yourself.
Let’s use this time together, then, to do a deep dive on what grief looks like so that we can reset expectations, and then talk about how to weave in self-care (via self-care tips!) as a vital part of a new normal in which grief (and joy!) exists.
What It Looks Like to Grieve
Rumi once said: “The cure for pain is in the pain.”
Like a good hunt, it is essential that we move toward the pain, not around it. The idea is to address the pain, not avoid it.
And there are a variety of ways to do this. Grief may even look or feel different each day.
- It doesn’t have to persistently be melancholy – though it can be if that’s what you want.
- It doesn’t have to persistently be lonely –– though it can be if that’s what you want.
What it does need to be is a grieving process and release. A few examples of grieving well that provide such a release are:
- Crying or laughing about a past memory.
- Talking about our loss and sharing the memories with others.
- Writing about it or writing a letter to them, or even keeping a journal.
It is important to take the time to slow down and remember the relationship, the person, and how your time together changed both of your lives.
You can do this right after someone passes away, or years later. There is no time limit on grief.
Here are a few options to help bring up those memories, and give you an outlet for sharing them:
- Consider looking through pictures and old articles, take inspiration from your memories and create a way to remember or honor a loved one in your present life.
- Consider giving a gift or donation in honor of a loved one, to something they loved and that gave their life increased meaning.
- Continue to honor their birthdays. Make a seat for them at the table. Light candles. Talk to them.
- Join a support group, online or offline, or even use a text message service.
- Meet with a licensed counselor and address the loss. Again, this can even be done from the comfort of your own home, over the phone or text messaging.
19 Example of Self Care Activities to Try When Grieving
Self-care is a purposeful activity that promotes our physical, emotional and mental health. Self-care can lead to:
- A relaxed mood and improved state of mind.
- Improved thinking, organization and personal relationships.
- Clearer understanding of where we are mentally and physically, and the ability to address our personal needs before we tend to others.
There are many ways to engage in activities that promote self-care. All that is needed is being mindful in your daily routine by adding a personal expression to the every day.
For example, here are a few ways I do this on a regular basis as a form of on-going self-care:
- Over the past few years I have decided to mildly express myself by wearing fun socks that are expressive and make for good conversation. This adds a flare to getting dressed in the morning.
- When I cook, I often will put on Italian dinner music and calmly take my time preparing and cooking the meal with a whole new outlook.
- Last year, I decided to take my phone calls while walking outside. This allowed me to get up and out of the office while still remaining connected to my work.
Thankfully, with a little creativity, self-care can be integrated into even the most mundane of activities.
Here a few other grief and self-care activities to consider:
1. Walk outside.
Go for walk outside. Let you mind wander. Even better if you can do this near or around nature because green space is proven to reduce stress levels. From the study:
"People living closer to nature also had reduced diastolic blood pressure, heart rate and stress. In fact, one of the really interesting things we found is that exposure to greenspace significantly reduces people's levels of salivary cortisol -- a physiological marker of stress.
"Forest bathing is already really popular as a therapy in Japan -- with participants spending time in the forest either sitting or lying down, or just walking around. Our study shows that perhaps they have the right idea!
2. Call a friend.
The #1 way those who are grieving say they cope is surrounding themselves with friends and family members.
And that doesn’t have to mean physical presence. Pick up that phone and call or facetime a friend.
Ask them if you can vent, and just get some of those thoughts swirling in your head out to someone else.
Or, if you don’t feel like talking, ask them to talk –– to tell you about what’s been going on in their day, that nothing is too trivial.
3. Listen to music.
For so many, music can be healing while grieving.
- Some folks like to listen to sad songs and cry it out.
- Others prefer instrumentals where they can just let their mind wander.
- Others, still, prefer to listen to a playlist created by the person who passed away, as a way to remember them and their memories together.
Whatever you do, know that the music you choose is there to help –- whether the help it provides is crying, laughing, remembering, or even letting out some anger at the situation.
4. Write in a journal.
Writing and journaling are tried and true coping with grief tactics for so many. Some folks journal by way of writing letters to their loved one who has passed away –– like Phil does for Alan.
Others write to put those thoughts on their head on a piece of paper, and then to read it back to themselves a bit more objectively, being kinder to themselves. This is a great way to reframe your inner thoughts.
A good exercise, if this sounds up your alley, is to follow this format:
- What are three things you thought were beautiful about yesterday?
- What are you grateful for today?
- If you accomplish only one thing today, what is the thing you want to accomplish?
- If you could say one thing to someone, who would you say it to, and what would you say?
5. Go for a bike ride.
Similar to getting outside and walking, going for a bike ride can let your mind wander and get you out in greener spaces where studies have shown stress is naturally reduced.
Plus, biking can take you further than walking –– perhaps to a lake that isn’t too far, or to a favorite spot of yours or your loved one’s.
Just remember to bring some water along –– and maybe even a snack!
6. Join a bereavement support group.
Grief support groups can be so incredibly helpful! Consider seeking out a group that is focused around grief and something.
For instance, is there a group out there that describes themselves as “a bunch of grievers with dry humor.” Maybe that fits your personality! Or, maybe they take bike rides, or also do a book club.
Look for a group with which you already share a common interest beyond the grief, and allow that hobby and those new friends who understand exactly where you are to build a new normal.
7. Read a book.
For some, reading fiction can help take their minds off of things for a little while. For others, reading non-fiction can be helpful.
I’ve known many folks who will read books about cremation, for instance, after a loved one is cremated as a way to understand that entire journey –– like Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.
Others prefer to read sad novels about loss as a way to indulge their emotions. Other, still, prefer to read books about grief itself –– like Option B, Let’s Talk About Death Over Dinner, or It’s OK You’re Not OK.
Whatever you want to read, go for it! Remember, this is your grief journey.
8. Take a bath.
Make some time for yourself to pamper your mind, body, and senses.
Run a warm bath, light candles, add in some soaker salt, close your eyes, and let the thoughts and emotions come –– and then go.
Repeat to yourself, “I am here. I am OK.” as a way to stay present though what may be very difficult emotions. Let the water help wash you of the extra baggage, if only for 30 minutes.
9. Meet with a professional counselor.
You can meet with a grief counselor or therapist.
Again, remember that this is your journey. You can do whatever you want with it as you face the emotions. The only option not available is sweeping it under the rug.
10. Make music.
Similar to listening to music, if you are a musician (or even a novice!), making some sound and getting your emotions out in song, beats, or a new skill (I see you beginners!) is a great way to channel some of the strong emotions that come up as their grief settles in.
You can even create your own music if you have zero musical abilities with tools like Wave.ai!
11. Set a realistic goal and share it with others.
You can do this in your grief support group, with your therapist, or with friends and family. Journal about it, too!
Start making small promises to yourself, have friends and family help you keep it, and begin to build that inner muscle to trust yourself. It is such an integral part of the grief journey!
Perhaps you could even leave little notes to yourself throughout your home, as small reminders, encouragement, and compliments.
12. Pet a furry creature.
Small, furry creatures with their big ol’ eyes spark something primal in us that releases feel good chemicals in our brain. Head on over to that pet adoption center and say hi to the pups and kittens there.
Ask a friend with a dog if you can come over, or watch them for them for a bit.
Animals so often can sense our deep emotions, and can be healing for us by just sitting in their presence. They already know how to sit in the suck of difficult times, listen, and love.
13. Sit in nature.
OK, we’ve talked about walking in nature and biking is nature, but guess what –– you can also just sit in nature! Yep –– you get the same stress-relieving benefits of greenery and nature just by being outside.
If you can’t pull yourself up to do anything else –– take it outside. Look up at the trees and the clouds. Think about what is out there beyond. Think about what it all means –– this life and this consciousness.
It is often in the asking, not the answering, that the coping and healing can come.
14. Read or watch something funny.
Read or watch something funny, or something comforting. For some, The Office is a go-to TV show. People can put it on and drift back to the earlier times when life seemed less complicated. Better yet, it makes them laugh.
What’s your show?
15. Engage in a small act of kindness for yourself or others.
This self-care grief tactic is powerful, and recommended by organizations like HealGrief. They call this Kindness in Action, and it was inspired by a young woman who was dealing with the loss of a parent while in college (recognize that story?).
“Create a Kindness in Action campaign and ask others to support you. It’s simple: Set a Goal – 1//day, 5/week, daily/month. Be Creative, Share Photos and Videos of your Kindness in Action. Invite others to JOIN. Tag others to be KIND. Inspire them to SUPPORT our goal.”
16. Write a letter.
Write a letter to your loved one, to a politician to change a policy in your loved one’s honor, to a friend, to someone who has influenced your life positively –– whatever it is you do and to whomever you write the letter, be specific.
- Recall details.
- Send it in nice envelope.
- Practice your signature.
Use this writing as a way to get to better understand your inner thoughts on the topic.
17. Let out a sigh.
This might sound like an easy one, but it’s worth it! Remember to BREATHE, and then remember to let out sighs, or deep breaths.
Use the most basic of our bodily functions to move the grief, to feel it and release it, and to give your body a break –– and a big jolt of oxygen.
If you are new to meditation, try out apps like Calm or Headspace, which can be incredibly helpful.
Also, try to meditate outside and knock a couple of these self-care and grief ideas off at the same time!
19. Consider going on that trip you've been talking about.
Traveling while grieving can be a good way to see everyday things with new eyes. You don’t have to go far –– even just taking a new street or route home can be helpful.
Or, you can go really far –– and take that trip you’ve been wanting to take.
Use it as a moment to reconnect with yourself, to get to know that inner voice cheering you on, and quiet the one that some in the grief space call your IC (inner critic).
There are also grief retreats you can go on to connect with those who are experiencing a similar point in life.
This list can go on and on and on. No matter what you do, do it for YOU and what helps you love others.
How to Create a Self Care Plan
Like most remedies, the first step is admitting we need help. I believe we are built for community and are better together. When we connect with those we trust, we can begin to work through the difficult pieces of grief through the support, love and company of others.
Relationships are designed to be mutually beneficial with give and take.
Often when it comes to receiving love, we actually defer and tend to try to go as long as we can in our own strength before realizing we are deeply in need.
Creating a self-care plan will allow you the preventative time and energy to take action when you need it the most. The process of creating the plan is therapeutic in that it allows you to take the time to reflect on the past, consider the future, and make the most of the present.
When I designed the self-care plan, I note the following five key components –– and then personalize it for the individual.
1. Identifying personal needs and values.
In this step, the goal is first to identify your personal needs and values. Often, it is necessary to talk about personal needs and values from before the experience that induced grief. And then even from before that.
Our personal needs and values change, especially after a big event like a loss.
Give yourself time to change your mind, and to tap into how you are feeling now, and what your needs and values are as this new grief becomes part of your life.
2. Boundaries in regard to relationships and time.
It is important in this step to be honest with yourself about a few things.
- First, does being around people energize you or deplete you?
- What types of activities do you like to do with people, and which feel like chores?
- Do you do a good job of verbalizing your boundaries and needs, in a way that others can hear you?
For some of these questions, it may be helpful to ask close friends and family to get an objective point of view.
3. My support system and circle of trust.
Who is it that you lean on and trust? Are you doing a good job of letting them know they are one of the few within your circle of trust?
Do you need more folks in that circle? Are there people who want to be in the circle, but aren’t for reasons that don’t hold up? Are there people in it that shouldn’t be –– with on-going examples of why?
4. Community resources and creative outlets.
What resources do you have available to you? Have you done any research? Which organizations or programs were recommended to you, and by whom?
Which sounds like something you might be interested in? Which sound like ones you would have been interested in before –– but are having trouble being motivated by now?
5. Personal and professional goals.
Where do you want to see yourself in the future –– in a few weeks, months, years? And do those wants line up with the path you are on now?
If not, what actions can be taken? If so, how can you make space for any unseen obstacles, challenges, or changes?
Common Barriers to Self-Care While Grieving
When thinking about taking the time to do something well for yourself or others, you may realize other factors may get in the way.
- The Weather: When you can’t walk outside, consider going to the mall or local university.
- Digital devices: Netflix and social media are great, however they may keep you from experiencing other pieces on your plan. Remember that variety is the spice of life. In other words, don’t get stuck on electronics!
- Feeling low: When my mom passed away I remember being with my closest friends a few weeks later and laughing about something unrelated and feeling guilty for laughing. It’s okay to laugh while you are grieving.
- Permission to try: Many people live most of their lives afraid to try due to an irrational fear of failure. Give yourself permission to try new activities and even to meet new people. You may be surprised what you are capable of!
- Living outside the bounds of accountability: Share your plan with others. Ask them to hold you accountable and to check in to see how you are doing.
- Learning to say no to others! In order to say yes to your self-care and grief you will need to learn to say no to some things. Keep in mind that time is an invaluable resource and the ability to say yes will at times requires us to mindfully say no.
- Ditch the List: Many people live by their lists. Lists and seemingly important obligations that you set for yourself may be holding you back from personal growth and healing.
Create and celebrate margin in your day. Ask yourself: what’s the best use of my time and what is the best yes right now?
But What If I Don't Want to Practice Self Care While I Grieve?
It may not seem ideal; however, taking care of yourself while grieving is not a luxury it’s a necessity!
People refer to grief as the gift you never wanted. How can grief be a gift? The loss is not the gift. The gift is what has happened through you, to which you could never truly be the same again.
It was through watching the written story of superheroes that I discovered there is a pinnacle moment when something traumatic and often tragic happens. Although they will never be the same, they can choose how they will respond.
That was the moment I realized we can choose how we respond to our loss. Whether in my office or in a crowded room my message is clear:
- Take the time to work through the pain and recognize what it looks like to grieve.
- Surround yourself with a loving community and see how you have been changed by loss.
- Embrace the gift and learn to use your superpower.
It was not until years later that I realized this gift was never meant for me or for you, but to those around us. You and I have superpowers.
Now it is our time to embrace the gift and choose how we will respond to the new normal.
Where do I Begin and How Does This Work?
Find something on the list above that you enjoy doing. What helps you relax or perhaps makes you feel alive?
Choose an activity that engages your well-being and supports your entire state as you work through the grief. When possible, consider enjoying the activity in community with at least one other person.
This plan can radically change your life, especially when you share it with others.
Research has shown that when you take specific actions including writing it down and sharing it with others you are far more likely to accomplish what you have set out to achieve.
When it feels like you can’t go on anymore - ask for help and rely on the plan. Remember: We are not stuck. We are living in the new normal.