How taking care of yourself can help you to manage your grief.
Today's guest blog has been written by Ms Dawn Kemp, Independent Celebrant.
September is self-care awareness month, and in these challenging times, it is relevant to us all - and especially pertinent to those who are dealing with a bereavement.
As a professional funeral celebrant, and formerly a psychology lecturer and life coach, I’m interested in how to blend these approaches to the experience of mourning. To help you (or a friend or family member) do a daily ‘check in’ on your own wellbeing, here’s a little tool-kit I created that spells out the word ‘self-care’.
- Grief can disrupt your sleep pattern and sleep quality, which can spill over into your daytime wellbeing. Try to establish a ‘sleep hygiene’ routine – keeping where possible, to a set time and your chosen wind-down rituals, to help condition both body and mind to expect sleep. If you wake up in the night, to break an association between being in the bedroom and lying awake ruminating, get up for a little while. Perhaps make a warm drink, and go sit somewhere else. You might do something to occupy your thoughts that isn’t too demanding – light reading or a puzzle. You may feel like napping during the day, but keep it short, or it could disrupt your night’s sleep.
- A little exercise can boost your sense of wellbeing, and also help with better sleep. You don’t need to go to the gym, or undertake anything extreme, just build in some regular daily activity appropriate to your body’s needs and capabilities. At home, you could try chair-based exercises, or do something gentle and calming like t’ai chi or yoga. If you prefer something more physical, try an online cardio or strength workout. Outdoors, a jog or a walk, alone or with a companion, might lift your spirits. If you don’t feel up to seeing people, pick a time you can go out when it’s less busy, and then you can appreciate some quiet time to blow the cobwebs away.
- After a bereavement, it isn’t uncommon to feel anhedonia – the loss of joy in activities you once enjoyed – or to feel guilt at doing something pleasurable. There’s no need to force yourself to continue social activities and hobbies if you’re not ready, but it may surprise you that you can still find enjoyment in life. It takes nothing away from the legitimacy of your grief. The Latin phrase ‘Memento Mori, Memento Vivere’ reminds us not only that we shall all die, but that we need to remember how to live. Perhaps there was an interest you shared with your lost loved one, or an activity that reminds you of them. It may be cathartic to continue it still in their memory. If that is too difficult, choose something else that was always a favourite treat for your ‘me time’.
- Whether you lose your appetite completely, comfort eat or drink, or find your eating habits alter in some other way, remember all of these are ‘normal’ reactions to change. Be mindful of what is healthy, and try to make sure you stay well hydrated and eat regularly enough to stay strong and healthy. When we see a friend is suffering acute grief, it’s easy to say “If there’s anything you need, call me”, and mean it; but the griever may not feel like reaching out. It can help to be proactive - take a dish or groceries round to them, arrange for a takeaway, or invite them out for a meal, so you know they are receiving some sustenance.
- There is much administration to deal with following a bereavement, and you may spend a lot of time answering the phone and dealing with paperwork, as well as receiving visitors. For some, this ‘keeping busy’ is a distraction from thoughts and feelings, but for others it can create additional strain. To break out of this state, a change of perspective can help. Find somewhere you can designate your ‘safe space’ away from it all – whether that is your favourite spot in the garden or a park, or going for a drive in the car – and build in a little escape there whenever you need it. It could become part of your daily schedule, so you have a familiar structure, rhythm, and ‘normality’ to your day.
- When we are faced with the anxiety of difficult situations, we often try to manage our feelings before we deal with the situation itself. This is emotion-focused coping. Change takes an emotional toll on us, and we regulate our feelings in both positive and negative ways. Adaptive strategies would include talking to a friend about our feelings, or writing them down to unjumble them. Or we could distract ourselves with a good book or film, listen to meaningful music, or spend some time practising mindfulness. Negative emotion-focused coping is where we make choices that aren’t healthy, and may cause us secondary problems, such as substance use. If you feel you need to use alcohol or recreational/prescription drugs to cope, do seek your doctor’s advice. Similarly, don’t be afraid to ask them for help with any of the other physical, mental, and emotional effects of bereavement.
- Task-focused coping addresses the causes of stress and attempts to mitigate them. If there are stressors in your life outside of bereavement that place excess demands on your physical and emotional resources, edit them out - if you can. Ask ‘Is this both important and pressing?’ and if not, put it aside. Reassure yourself you can revisit it another time. Ask ‘Will this matter to me in a week/month/year?’ and if it won’t, decide if it needs to concern you at all. Delegate what you can to family, friends, neighbours, or a colleague. If you have a support network, accept their help in dealing with chores or work. Record a voicemail message and set up an automatic email reply if you need some quiet time, but try to keep the lines of communication open with at least one person, so they know you’re OK.
- Release yourself from expectations of how you ‘should’ feel or react. The course and experience of mourning will be unique to you. You may be immobilised by shock, or feel raw from searing sadness. You could be angry at yourself, others or your loved one, be racked with guilt, or experience relief. These could change by the day or hour, or persist for a long time. There is no ‘right’ way to grieve, and it doesn’t have an expiry date. It isn’t something to ‘get over’; it sits with you, and you adapt and learn to live with it, in your own time and manner. There are bereavement and counselling services that can help both in a crisis and in the longer term – the journey is yours, but there are always others who can support you.
Be kind to yourself. Take care.
For more information on the work Dawn does as an Independent Celebrant, visit her website here.