Imagine you have the flu. A coughing, sneezing, runny nose, sore throat, fever and body aches kind of flu.
You go to the doctor hoping for a prescription to get you out of your misery. Instead, the doctor says there is nothing that can be given – the flu must simply run its course.
I hate when this happens. When I go to the doctor and I’ve paid my copay, I hate leaving there with nothing to show for it but the sickness I walked in with.
I feel this way sometimes in counseling those who are grieving. While I know how important it is for the bereaved to speak, tell their story and be heard, I have also wondered how many times they’ve left thinking that for all our talking, their loved one is still gone, and nothing is going to change that.
So that’s where this flu analogy comes in. Because like a flu that needs to run its course, grief brings with it its own signs and symptoms.
They can include:
- changes in sleeping or eating patterns
- inability to concentrate or lack of focus
- loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- feelings of isolation
For most people, especially those in the early or acute stages of grief, these symptoms will look familiar. I will offer that for the most part, these symptoms are present with their highest intensity in the early days of a loss (recognizing that “early” is a relative term and that everyone’s timeline for grieving is different). Meaning, the hope would be that as a bereaved progresses and moves forward in their grief journey, these signs and symptoms should ease and soften.
Those who may be further along in their grieving often attest to this notion that “feeling better” means feeling more like themselves again. Their loved one will always be gone and the ache that goes with missing them will never leave. But their sleeping, eating, concentration, patience, and return to finding pleasure in their pastimes will slowly return.
For those who aren’t as far along, who are in the throws of the grief/flu that is still running its course? What would the doctor say?
We may not be able to cure the flu but there’s a lot we can do to manage the symptoms. For a sore throat? Drink tea. A bad cough? Try a lozenge. Stuffy nose? Use nasal spray or a humidifier….
You get the idea. In regards to the symptoms of grief, consider the following:
- Trouble sleeping? Try a change in your nighttime routine. Take a bath, lower the lights, try guided imagery, breathing exercises or soft music.
- Having a hard time concentrating? Limit multitasking. Even if you were the master of this before, consider doing everything one thing at a time. Make lists, delegate when you can, ask for help.
- Feeling irritable? Try yoga or meditation or a good old fashioned counting to ten. If the people you are feeling irritable with are close family or friends, try being honest. Let them know you are having a tough day. It’s harder to be annoyed with someone if they can offer you love and compassion in return.
- Grievers do better with a healthy amount of busy. But if the things that they used to enjoy no longer bring joy (perhaps because it’s something they did with the person they lost) it may be time to find something new. This is a tricky one. With limited energy, the bereaved may not feel very motivated to go out and find new activities or new people to do them with. Start small. Something local, something that has little time commitment. Ask friends what they’re into and maybe try doing it with them. Think about something you may have always wanted to try or have been meaning to do. If you don’t have the energy to do it now, doing some research or making a plan for the future can be enough to get you moving in the right direction.
- Feeling isolated? Again, a tough one, because being isolated doesn’t mean being alone. It can mean feeling alone with our closest friends and family. Usually because a griever feels that no one can understand what they’re going through. This is where finding good support comes in. A grief support group, a counselor, activities at church, or of course, making a connection with our online grief support group on www.griefincommon.com.
- Exhaustion. This isn’t the same thing as being tired. Exhaustion is the accumulation of overthinking, being overwhelmed, and not getting enough rest. Grieving a loss takes a lot of our mental energy, and in the midst of this we’re still expected to focus on work, family, bills, laundry. Sometimes it may feel like too much. Because exhaustion is typically caused by a combination of things, managing this symptom will involve much of what has been presented already. Focus only on what’s right in front of you. If a task you are handling feels like too much than take a step back and come back to it later in the day or even another day. Make time for yourself, schedule rest when you can, accept help when it’s offered.
In the end, what it takes to move toward healing is different for everyone. But a focus on managing the symptoms that accompany grief may give the bereaved a tangible plan and, perhaps for the first time in a long time, some sense that they could have a little control of their life again.