Grief: How to Help Yourself & Others Without Losing Your Mind

by Carly Newhouse, LMSW

Grieving is a painful, confusing, scary, and overwhelming time for just about everyone. Whether you are grieving the loss of a parent, spouse, sibling, child, friend, mentor, or a more distant figure, the process of coping with loss is windy and unfortunately adheres to no set timeframe or rules. Grief affects every aspect of your life – physical, emotional, financial, spiritual, and sexual. While everyone’s grief reactions and circumstances are unique, gender, culture, religion, and socioeconomic status often play a role in how we as individuals internally and externally cope with loss.

As women often assume the role of caretaker for family and friends, it can be especially difficult for them to properly care for themselves amidst all the other needs and responsibilities that come up during sudden or expected loss. Unsurprisingly, this level of pressure and responsibility can exacerbate grief’s already inherent difficulties. Here are some tips to help you nurture yourself during this painful time:

  • Grief is exhausting emotionally and physically. Even if you feel like you are doing nothing all day to justify your exhaustion, grief takes a massive toll. Take care of your health by eating balanced meals, avoiding alcohol, and maintaining your regular sleep patterns (if possible). It’s a good idea to call your doctor if you are experiencing difficulty eating or sleeping for more than a few weeks.

  • Grief is overwhelming and often leads to impaired concentration. As such, make sure you are taking care of your finances by setting up auto-pay for all applicable accounts, meeting with a financial counselor to make a financial plan that addresses your current needs, and keeping a list of all outstanding financial decisions that need to be addressed. Remember, taking care of your finances is an important part of caring of yourself during this painful time!

  • Give yourself permission each day to spend some time grieving in whatever way feels most helpful and authentic to you (crying, screaming, talking about the loss, looking at pictures, taking a bath, exercising, etc.).

  • Many people experience a voracious need to continually revisit the details of the loss; talking about these details over and over again until you can process them can be therapeutic.

  • Avoid making any major changes or decisions until some of the harsher aspects of your grief have passed, since grief may impair your judgment.

  • You do not need to hide your grief from your children! They know you are in pain, and that is okay for right now. Encourage your children to talk, write, or draw a picture about what is happening in your family depending on their age. These can be therapeutic activities that will help them process their feelings around the loss and open up space for you to speak openly as a family.

  • It is critical to contact 911 or a mental health professional such as a social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist if you feel in danger of hurting yourself or someone else. Even if you are not currently at risk, a mental health professional can help you work through this loss in a holistic, supportive way.

Here are some helpful tips for those of you helping someone else through the grieving process:

Follow the NURSE model for exhibiting empathy:

  • Name the emotion the person is displaying (sadness, fear, panic, numbness, anger, guilt, loneliness, helplessness, emptiness, confusion, relief, etc.);

  • Understand and acknowledge what the person is sharing with you;

  • Respect how the person is coping and honor the hard work they are putting into getting through the day;

  • Support the mourner in whatever way they need (emotionally, practically, spiritually); and

  • Explore the person’s understanding of the loss and help them set concrete, achievable goals to begin moving forward;

  • Approach the person reeling from loss by asking them “how are you feeling today or right now” instead of “how are you feeling” as a blanket statement. Without minimizing the timeframe, this question can feel simultaneously overwhelming and delegitimizing to someone working through loss.

  • Mirror the persons “loss language” by using the name of the person who died, validating and normalizing the mix of emotions of this particular loss, and being open to hearing details about the loss as many times as needed.

  • Help those grieving make meaning of their loss through rituals (releasing a balloon, planting a tree, lighting a candle, writing letters) and legacy building activities.

Remember, you can and will get through this dark time with the love and support of others and your own internal resources. You have the strength, courage, and patience to persevere!

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