Help for the Slow Process of Healing in Grief

Healing in grief is slow. So slow that it would be easy to think that it’s not happening at all…like your hair growing, or your nails.

Every day there is growth and progress, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way and most people wonder when they’re ever going to feel better.

What’s important to know is that there are some things that will help keep the healing process moving along. We just need to know what they are.

“Is there any magic to this?” a griever once asked me. “Something I can do to feel better NOW?”

It had been six months since his wife died. And I had to tell him that unfortunately, no – there isn’t any magic or secret to healing in grief. I think for many it can feel like there’s an answer somewhere. Some secret they don’t know, or something other grievers have figured out. And if they just ask the right question, perhaps somehow they’ll find the right answer.

Grief is full of questions.

Why me? Why him/her? Why now? How did this happen? How could I have prevented it? What could I have done differently? Why didn’t I do more?

And the question I probably hear the most, “how long am I going to grieve?”

My short answer: forever.

Because you will forever love the person you lost. And for as long as you are alive you will forever wish they were here too. Because of that, there will always be some part of this grief that lives in you.

So what does it really take to get through the slow process of healing?

While there isn’t any magic to it, I think it’s important to understand what it really is to “get better” in grief. And what it isn’t.

Getting better doesn’t mean being less sad. It also doesn’t mean missing your loved one any less, or crying less often. You can be tearful every day and still be on the road to healing.

To me, “getting better” means feeling (even just a bit) more like yourself. If you were an avid reader before your loss, you may find you’ve found it near impossible to even pick up a book. When you do start to read again (and you will) that’s how you know – you’re getting better.

So if that example of “getting better” sounds feasible or even something you would hope to personally achieve, what does it take to get there?

PATIENCE

If there was a gift that I could put in a box and deliver to the door of every person who has just experienced a loss, it would be patience. This is a tough one, simply because of the nature of grief and all of the changes that come with it.

Exhaustion. Irritability. Lack of focus. Asking a grieving a person to be patient may feel like asking for a lot. But it can be a goal. An intention for the day, or a mantra. Patience with ourselves, the process, and the people who don’t understand. While it may be the gift I’d like to give away, I think it’s perhaps one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves.

FAITH

For some, this is as straightforward as turning to a belief system or faith community that has long been a source of strength. But this isn’t (or doesn’t have to be) religious. It’s about believing in SOMETHING. Something we’re going to care about, believe in, or tether ourselves to.

It can be a faith in nature, and the belief that no matter how desperate life may get, we can count on the sun rising and setting every day. It can be a belief in the goodness of people. The people who have been there for us, or surprised us with their kindness and giving. It can be the faith we have in words, and the power they have in our healing. Whether we do that verbally by sharing our authentic grief with others, or by placing the words on the pages of a journal – the belief that expressing ourselves can help. We can have faith in the healing power of music, or the comfort of our dog’s presence.

Whatever it means to you, turning to faith is usually about a search for the answers that can be so hard to find. And sometimes we just need to feel like there is something out there that we can believe in and hold on to, while we do our best to make it through the early days of loss.

UNDERSTANDING IMPERMANENCE

This may be a term less familiar to some. It’s often used in Buddhist writings as a way explaining the cause of suffering. Whether we’ll admit it or not, most of us go through life becoming very comfortable with the way things are. Striving for happiness. (Hopefully) finding it. And then staking our future happiness on the hope or assumption that everything good in our life won’t ever change. Yet that’s all life is: change. It’s constant. Our own body is in constant change, shedding almost 40,000 skin cells an hour as it grows and regenerates itself. We can’t see changes this small but they are all around us.

Impermanence can help explain both why we suffer and what it’s going to take to get us through. Sadly, the good times in our life can’t last. We grow older and lose the people we love. But grief and the deep pain that comes with it is impermanent too. Because you are constantly in change, how you feel right now isn’t how you’re always going to feel.

If the changing nature of life means the high times don’t last, it must mean that the low times don’t either.

A CAPACITY FOR HOPE

I’m not going to lie, there are just some people who are born (or raised) with a greater capacity for hope than others. But it doesn’t mean it’s out of reach for the rest of us. And it may just be one of the single most important emotions one could hope to cultivate in grief.

Hope sounds so big. But it doesn’t have to be. We can actually begin with the hope for hope. If we don’t feel it now, we can simply hope that some day we will. And we need to realize that it doesn’t have to be so big, or grand. Hope can start as small as a grain of sand and that may be all we need to start the process of what comes next.

STAYING OPEN

A few years ago I was teaching yoga, and there was one class I offered specifically for those who are grieving. I knew the slow and relaxing movement and breath could help those who are suffering, but I wondered what I could offer that may be of more help.

I found a book on grief yoga, and what I read forever changed the way I viewed the toll grief can take. The writer described a griever’s tendency to hunch over and roll their shoulders forward, in a motion that can only be viewed as despair, and an unconscious movement of the body to protect and shield the heart from further hurt.

Of course it makes sense to want to shut down and close ourselves off after we’ve experienced significant loss. When feeling so much it may feel like we don’t ever want to feel again.

Imagine the windows of your home. In the winter we have to keep them closed to protect ourselves from the biting, frigid air. But with the thawing of a warm and beautiful spring, those same closed windows that initially protected us will only serve to stifle us.

Healing comes not from being closed but being open. What worked in the beginning doesn’t necessarily work for the duration, and healing in grief means flexibility and adaptability while remaining open to possibilities.

A FOCUS ON ACTION

Specifically, turn your focus to the belief that your actions can make a difference. This is a tough one for many grievers. As they look to their days and what it is that may make them feel better, a conclusion often reached is -what difference does it make? I can play golf with friends, sure – but when I come home my wife is still gone. So why bother? This thinking can create a cycle of despair that’s easy to get into, and hard to get out of.

Breaking that cycle can come in the form of another question. “What’s the alternative?”. We already know what this life looks like. The one of inaction. Where we feel stuck and hopeless. So what would it be to try something new? Could it make today even incrementally better? And while it won’t bring a loved one back isn’t a goal of making this life we have even a fraction more tolerable something we’d want to strive for?

Believe that your actions WILL make a difference. That trying something new, or different or creating a change in routine can actually help. The alternative is that things stay exactly as they are, and if you are finding that intolerable, maybe it’s time to make even a very small change.

FIND SOMEONE WHO NEEDS EVEN MORE HELP THAN YOU DO

I say it all the time: the healing is in the helping. It’s hard to understand that, especially in the early days of grief. And especially when we may feel so helpless ourselves. Yet, getting out of our own heads and into that space where we can help others, can create a shift in our lives in a way that few other things can.

There’s no wrong way to do this. Some will go big and start a foundation in a loved one’s name- fighting for a cause, like a search for a cure, or to help those suffering with mental illness or addiction. But it doesn’t have to be so ambitious to make a difference to you and the one in need of help.

Volunteer at a library, school, or animal shelter. Help a family member or neighbor get to their doctor appointments. If you used to love to cook for your family and don’t do it anymore because it’s “just you”, find a community organization feeding those in need and offer your talents and time.

To encourage the process of healing: try something new.

A new perspective. A new routine. A new mindset.

And yes introducing anything new may mean stepping outside of your comfort zone. But in grief, how “comfortable” is it really?

Believe that it will make a difference. Whatever that “it” is – have faith and trust that there are things out there that you can start today. Believe that you can take action in this slow process of healing. And believe that it just may make today and tomorrow a little more bearable.

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And remember, we’re here to help be your guide on the road toward healing. Here’s how…

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