I love good food and good wine. I love to socialize. I love to entertain. I love to make comfort foods for my family and friends. But I, like anyone else, must be careful that I don’t use food to avoid feeling what I need to feel. Yes, people use food to avoid their feelings. They may also attempt to avoid facing their feelings by using exercise, sex, drugs, and alcohol. All are red flags!
The one thing in life that I know for sure is this – the journey takes unexpected turns! Our best-laid plans for success, happiness and eternal bliss can be derailed when unforeseen events or situations occur. No one chooses pain. It would be rare for a bride and groom to exchange vows anticipating that their perfect union will end in divorce. It is doubtful an entrepreneur would choose to open a business if they knew it was destined for bankruptcy. More importantly, although we accept death as a part of life…none of us chooses to bury our spouse or lover, our child, a sibling or our parents. Yet, it happens to millions every day.
Death, divorce, separation and transitional losses thrust us into a chaotic world of fear, sadness, guilt, shame and even, anger. Life feels out of control, because it is. How you adjust or cope with these enormous changes is often reflective of how your family coped with tragedy when you were growing up. Did death bring your family closer together, or did it pull you apart? Were you encouraged to talk about your feelings when your grandma or favourite aunt died? Did your family suspend life when a painful situation transpired, or was the norm for everyone to keep busy and get back to school and work as soon as possible? In defence of your parents and grandparents … if “stuffing the pain” was their normal reaction, understand that their response was handed down to them by their parents. It is up to you to break the cycle!
The grief journey is not time-specific, nor is it predictable or orderly. You may experience some of the feelings mentioned earlier, or you may experience all of them. You may even experience several of them more than once. These emotions may be short-lived or they may go on for some time. Moreover, they can resurface weeks, months and years later.
There is no way to get beyond your grief except to go through it. There are no shortcuts. Having said that, the mourning-avoidant culture we live in, encourages us to get life back to normal as soon as possible. Anyone wanting to attempt to dismiss the pain of loss can find plenty of opportunity to immerse themselves in work, school or outside activities. Others go to a further extreme by self-medicating with chemicals, alcohol and/or food. None of this will get you through the grief. Instead, your body, mind and spirit are at risk and ultimately, the grieving process is prolonged.
When tragedy such as a death happens, it is important to suspend life and allow ourselves to move slowly through the grief. It is not easy. Grieving and mourning are hard work … and there is a difference between the two. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Founder and Director of the Colorado-based Center for Loss and Life Transition explains it this way, “Grieving is how we feel on the inside. Mourning is how we express it on the outside.” Taking time to reflect on your feelings, acknowledging your loss and its impact on your life and finding safe and appropriate ways to express your pain are key elements in doing this work.
Grieving requires a tremendous amount of energy and effort therefore, self-care is critically important. Proper rest, nutrition and light exercise will assist in keeping your energy level to where it needs to be. However, it is common to experience disrupted sleep patterns, a decrease or increase in appetite and to overlook our intake of water when grieving. The following suggestions may be helpful as you walk the path of healing
Gentle exercise will help relieve the stress. Do not overdo it. Taking a ten-minute walk in a park, near the water, or around your neighbourhood can help lift your spirits. As you feel stronger a 30-minute workout, three times a week at the gym will continue to help relieve the stress and increase your vitality. Taking time for an energy break is not being selfish – it is a necessity.
Eat a Balanced Diet
Eating a balanced diet can be a challenge at the best of times. Food is a very social part of our culture and when a family experiences tragedy, the community rallies by bringing offerings of cheesy casseroles and gooey desserts. Do not stress yourself about this initially; just approach these foods with some caution. As you progress along the journey, make a conscious effort to balance your intake of sugar, caffeine and alcohol. These substances provide only temporary relief if you are feeling sad or agitated. Our bodies dehydrate when we are grieving so be sure to have an ample supply of water within arm’s reach and keep sipping throughout the day – even if you don’t feel like it.
Get Proper Rest
Sleep does not come easy when coping with a tragedy. Sometimes, it is the silence in the night that makes it hard to sleep. If this is the case, try playing soft music in the background, running a small fan in the bedroom, or even leaving the television on with very low sound. If your spouse has died and you find it difficult to be in the bed alone, treat yourself to a full-length ‘body pillow’ to cuddle with… you can even wrap a piece of your spouse’s clothing around it for comfort. Try to rest throughout the day by taking several short naps to make up for the sleep you have lost during the night. Fatigue is a common aspect of grief. Your body needs to rest often.
Allow Yourself to Feel
It can seem overwhelming to ‘sit with your feelings’ but it is very important to allow your feelings to surface. Find ways to acknowledge and honour your loved one who has died. Keeping a journal can be cathartic. Having a friend that you can call on any time of night or day is a gift. Cry – and cry often! Crying is a natural cleansing action and one of the ways in which we can get our feelings from the inside to the outside. I tell others this constantly, “Nobody ever died from crying. But people have died from a broken heart.” Remember… you cannot rush the process. Go slow!
Consider Outside Help
There is no shame in seeking professional help. Often, an outside perspective is useful in sorting out our feelings or coping with the grief. You may find that one or two sessions with a counsellor or attending a peer support group with others who have had similar experiences can be comforting and help you to understand your feelings. Having to take a step back from the outside world does not mean that you are weak – it is what we are supposed to do when we are grieving. Follow and trust your instincts!
Hug Yourself – Often!
Grieving and mourning are hard work! You cannot get through the journey in one night or one month. Each person will move at their own pace and in their own way. Give yourself permission to take as long as you need. Understand that you are doing the best you can.