I’m often met with confusion and outright disbelief when I mention the words ‘grief’ and ‘positive’ in the same breath. And I get it, because let’s face it, grief is the antithesis of happiness. In fact, the word grief, has its roots in the Latin ‘gravare,’ which means to make heavy or to burden.
When our loved one dies our whole world, our sense of who we are, is ripped from underneath us. We’re left broken and bewildered and the pain that we feel - that deep, aching sense of loss, begins to smother us. Day to day life becomes a matter of survival, of mere self-preservation. We just want to get through it, without expending any additional effort. Our tanks are empty. We simply don’t have anything left to give.
How on earth then, are we supposed to grieve positively?
In this blog, I’ll discuss how grieving positively is not about dismissing or minimising our grief, on the contrary, grief is hard work. It has to be felt and we have to learn to sit with our discomfort in order to understand what it is we need. I’ll explain how grieving positively involves us actively reconnecting with ourselves and figuring out how to meet our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual needs, in a way that works best for us. It requires us to actively engage in our grieving journey.
Now, I appreciate how impossible that sounds. I know first-hand how hard it feels to do this when we have been decimated by loss, but it is possible. And it is so important to learn, in order to find an easier path through our grief.
I believe that historically, as a society, we’ve never really been taught to meet our own needs or prioritise self-care. I don’t think it’s something that has ever been regarded as necessary. We have however been encouraged to soldier on, to put on a brave face, to push through pain, to take on more, to sacrifice our own needs for those around us. We have come to believe that compassion towards others may come at the expense of compassion towards ourselves. And that somehow, that’s ok. Soldiering on seems to have become an accepted part of our collective conscience.
We exist in a society today in which more people are suffering from anxiety, stress and burn out. The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly exacerbated this, but let’s not fool ourselves. This burnout has been creeping up on us for some time. Work demands, family commitments, the rising cost of living, the growth of an image conscious society and the pressure we feel to showcase our best life have all culminated in this collective exhaustion.
And yet, we push on. We keep re-setting the bar for ourselves, higher than it was before. We push to achieve often unobtainable goals within unrealistic timescales and then we berate ourselves when we fail to attain them. We criticise our choices and we judge our actions and this leads to us feeling disappointed in ourselves and with the world around us. We often plough into setting new goals or kick-starting the next plan and in doing so we rob ourselves of time to just breathe, to be still and look back on what we have achieved with pride.
We often feel helpless and uncomfortable when confronted with challenging situations and find it’s easier to dismiss our thoughts or those of others, instead of acknowledging how we or they are feeling. We don’t mean to be unempathetic or sound shallow. We’re trying to be helpful, to make things better, to propel ourselves or others forward and keep going. However, this toxic positivity, this tendency to always look for the silver linings and ignore the discomfort and challenges we or others are facing is damaging. When we ignore our feelings, or supress them, we start to disconnect from ourselves. We lose the ability to really get to know who we are, what we need and how we can help ourselves.
Part of grieving positively is about learning to elevate the importance of self-care in our own minds. It’s about re-framing our mindset and being prepared to put in the work to identify what it is we need and how best we can meet those needs. This could mean meeting our short-term desires such as enjoying a lie in or indulging in a long soak in the tub, or satisfying our longer-term needs such as setting boundaries, establishing priorities and re-defining our purpose.
The notion of self-care lies at the very heart of my re-empowered widow method. This is a method I have cultivated based on my own experience as a widow, my learnings from other widows, and courses that I have attended throughout my grief journey.
My three-stage approach to dealing with grief is designed to help you reclaim control over your life. It aims to make your grief journey a lighter and more positive experience – a journey in which you are not simply immersed in sorrow and heartache but during which you learn to connect with yourself, listen and act upon your needs and reshape a new, purposeful life beyond your loss.
When we lose our loved one, life as we knew it is obliterated. We go from being strong, independent women, nestled in stability and living lives full of plans, hopes and dreams, to a world in which, overnight we feel incredibly lost, vulnerable and exposed. Our sense of strength evaporates as we’re faced with a life we no longer recognise nor feel we have much control over.
The first stage to my approach involves relearning how to live in a world which is so entirely alien to us, by first unlearning everything we thought we knew about our lives and ourselves up to that point and developing a whole new way of thinking and being.
The second stage focuses on rediscovering ourselves. It encourages us to be self-reflective, to take time to think about who we are now, what our values are, where we fit in and where we might want to head in the next chapter of our lives. It encourages us to look after ourselves by reconnecting with the world around us and the people in our lives. It focuses on us setting new priorities, re-drawing our boundaries and developing habits that will sustain our wellbeing.
The final stage focuses on reimagining our future and exploring how we find purpose and create something meaningful after our loss.
I truly believe that it’s only by actively engaging in our grief journey, by putting in the work required to identify our needs and understand ourselves better that we will learn how to nurture ourselves and in doing so, pave the way to a more positive grief experience.
So how can we grieve positively? How can we re-discover our power and take back control over our lives?
It’s very easy when we’re grieving to ignore our pain or berate ourselves for what we’re feeling rather than using it as a useful indicator of what our mind and body need in that moment. Emotions are often defined as negative or positive, but I believe classifying them as good or bad is unhelpful. I believe it’s how we respond to them that’s more important. When we push away feelings of heaviness, sadness and fear, when we ignore them and bury them, they don’t actually disappear. They continue to resurface. Until we get curious about them and figure out their root cause, we won’t be in a position to understand what we need to do to allay them. Turning towards our feelings, especially ones that make us feel uncomfortable can be both scary and exhausting but it’s worth doing to help move you forward and through your pain.
Equally, giving yourself permission to enjoy what feels good is also vital. Although our pain enables us to retain a connection to our loved one and allows us to honour and remember them, it can also anchor us to our grief and prevent us from moving forwards. And it’s at this point that our pain no longer serves us. So, when we have moments of joy, however fleeting – indulge them. Allow yourself to feel good, grant yourself the permission to have fun, for you cannot sit in your grief forever. Feeling good during your grief journey doesn’t diminish your love or your loss. It means you are looking after your needs and that’s something to celebrate. Go out with your friends, connect with your family, take a walk-in nature, journal, meditate, eat some good food, or just sleep and catch up on rest. And whether it’s just that you’ve managed to get out of bed or make a cup of tea or break into a smile upon seeing the sunshine, recognise that achievement. Whatever it is that makes you feel restored and happy, that nourishes you during your journey, learn to make time for it. Only by giving ourselves permission to enjoy what feels good, will we be able to bring greater positivity to our grieving journey.
Try to understand and accept the duality of grief. Life can be ugly. It can be messy, dark, chaotic and unforgiving. But at the same time, it can hold moments of intense joy and hope and fill us with gratitude and optimism. It’s so important when we grieve to recognise and honour both. The existence of both, often simultaneously, is a natural part of the grieving process and in order for us to find a more positive path through our grief, we need to get comfortable with that. Many experiences during our grieving journey will feel bittersweet and although that may feel uncomfortable or alien to us, one doesn’t diminish the other. Both are real and we need to create the space to allow both in.
One of the first things I tell those I coach is that you can’t expect the grieving process to be smooth sailing. We’re not going to learn to lean into our emotions or celebrate our happy moments overnight. We’re not going to wake up one morning and just make our peace with the complexities of grief. We are never going to grieve perfectly. There is no ‘correct’ way to work through your grief and there is no timeline. Grief is so individual. It affects us all in very different ways. What’s most important when we grieve is that we learn to create awareness around our own thoughts, habits and behaviours, that we learn to reconnect with ourselves and take the time to figure out what works for us and what doesn’t.
We’re not going to have it all planned out and we’re not going to have all the answers. This journey of reconnection and rediscovery isn’t going to be without its challenges. I still have moments where my inner critics creeps in, where I get scared, where I doubt myself and feel desperately sad. I continue to have moments where I feel extremely guilty and give myself a hard time for leading a happy life, for building new memories, for watching my daughters grow up, all without Simon. Survivor’s guilt doesn’t disappear completely and when it re-appears it’s important to try not to push it away but to sit with it, however uncomfortable it feels.
The aim is not to get to a point where we have our lives perfectly in order, where we never again have a negative thought, or feel sad. It’s not to live a life without guilt, during which nothing scares us, where we suddenly feel invincible and we never put a foot wrong. That’s not realistic and it’s not achievable.
We are human. We’re going to get it wrong; we’re going to try things that don’t work or that in hindsight you wish you hadn’t done. Grieving positively is about accepting the mistakes we have made, the decisions we have taken and being kind to ourselves – understanding that we did the best we could at the time, with the very best intentions. It’s about making peace with the way we are feeling and taking time to understand our emotions and therefore ourselves better and in a way that permits us to come to terms with our loss in a more productive, less painful way.
Adopting this approach to my grief, facing everything I have been through head on has been tough but so rewarding. It has taught me so much about myself, my life and what I need to help me feel fulfilled. It has revealed parts of me I didn’t know existed and I don’t think I ever would have discovered. It has allowed me to focus on what I need to better steer my grief.
Grief is unbearably hard. It’s exhausting, overwhelming and relentless. However, if we can learn to put ourselves at the centre of our grieving journey and take time to understand how we’re feeling and what we need and act upon the discoveries we make, we can create a more positive grieving experience.
Whilst this approach is not easy and forces us to sit with our pain and discomfort, it’s only by actively engaging with our grief and treating ourselves with the kindness and compassion we so often show others, that we can learn to mitigate the pain it brings and navigate it in a more constructive way.