Grief is unbearably heavy. It consumes us. It decimates our lives and it can bring us to our knees. And sadly, when faced with such intolerable pain, there is no ‘one size fits all’ guide map, no magic wand that grants us instant relief and no sure-fire way to feel better.
But, during my own journey through widowhood, I have learnt that there are three things we can do to help ourselves grieve more positively and more constructively and that will ultimately determine how well we do in life after loss.
In the following blog I will identify these factors and explore how they can help us to steer our grief, influence our ability to find peace, love and happiness and support our search to create something truly meaningful after loss.
One of the biggest determinants of how well we fare during our grief is how fully and openly we embrace our support systems. Yes, the responsibility for healing after loss, ultimately rests on our shoulders. Sadly, nobody else can take that on and do this for us. However, grief needn’t be a solo journey. We can choose not to travel it alone. Reaching out and connecting with those around us and accepting help and support when it is offered to us, can prove an invaluable lifeline.
Support systems can take many forms: family, friends, work colleagues, neighbours and even parents on the school playground. They become our invisible community, bolstering us and helping to carry us through our grief.
In the early days, grief is so raw. We can feel numb, exhausted, broken and confused. Whether it’s staying the night and offering comfort, helping with childcare or cooking and delivering meals, having others by our side can make the days fractionally more bearable.
During the grieving process, when exhaustion and despondency set in, it can be tempting to shut down communication with others and push them away. However, by accepting support and allowing people in, we can learn to rebuild that sense of connection with the world around us. It can help us to get through each day and navigate each bump in the road, slightly more easily. By learning to draw on the strength and advice of others, we can better shape and guide our decision-making, which during grief can become cloudy and muddled.
In addition to shutting down communication, we may also reject help that is offered to us because we don’t want to be perceived as incapable of coping or as a burden to others. However, donning a superhero cape whilst battling grief is not to be encouraged. Yes, at some point we will have to find our feet after loss and grow comfortable with our daunting, new ‘normal’, but this will take time. Healing does not happen overnight. Recovery is a long and arduous process and as we go through it we’ll need to be nurtured and nourished by our support systems, to be reminded that life can be good again, that things will improve and that we will get back on our feet.
It’s true that some people are more fortunate than others. Some people’s tribe, their community might be bigger. Their family and closest friends may live in the same town, making it easier for them to show up and offer their support. But what cannot be forgotten is that humans are by nature social animals. Compassion and empathy are deeply rooted in human nature. Centuries ago we lived in communities; indeed in certain communities today, entire families pitch in to raise the children. We are stronger together. History tells us so. As such, even if we don’t have friends or family close by, we can still rely on the compassion and support of those around us including neighbours, colleagues and our children’s school community - to avoid healing in isolation.
So, how do we learn to let others in? It starts with self-awareness. Recognising that we are struggling and that we need someone to help scoop us up and shoulder some of our pain, is the first step towards accepting help. However, whilst being aware of our need for help is one thing, seeking and accepting it when it’s offered is entirely another, for the latter requires self-compassion. Until we believe that we are worthy of other people’s kindness, accepting any form of support can be difficult. By being brave and honest about how we’re feeling and what we need and by accepting that we are deserving of the love that others show us, we can start to lean on our support networks. There are some wonderfully good and kind people in this world. Letting
them in could transform our grieving journey.
Following the loss of a loved one, often the most powerful and influential voice that a person hears, the one that speaks louder than anyone else’s is our own. The nature of this internal dialogue not only shapes our grieving journey but also impacts how successfully we build a meaningful life after loss.
Everyone reacts differently to loss. For some, the passing of a loved one as painful and shattering as it is, gives rise to a fierce determination not to let grief define them and a desire to fight the ‘victim’ label. Whilst they may not have a road-map to recovery, they nurture an innate belief, deep down, that they can and must rebuild their life in a way which honours their loved one. Such a mindset enables them to make choices that accelerate their healing.
However for others, grief can leave them feeling broken, abandoned and stuck with the thought that they will never be happy and that their life, as they know it, is over. Although fully understandable during the early days of grief, should such internal dialogue continue over time, it can become very damaging, for the more it is repeated, the more self-fulfilling it becomes and sadly, this can end up becoming the truth they live by.
So, how do we change this narrative? How can we shift this mindset?
Gaining clarity on the type of life we envisage for ourselves, can be a useful starting point:
Reflecting on these questions and achieving some consensus around them, can encourage us to adopt a more positive outlook and actively desire a better life for ourselves.
Drawing on inspiration from others who have endured similar loss and transformed their lives, can also become a catalyst for change. Reaching out to others and listening to their stories of change can sometimes spark the realisation that the ability to determine our own future lies within us and that by taking purposeful action and harnessing our potential we can shape our destiny.
The death of a loved one can take away so much from us. It can strip away our sense of security, stability and purpose. But, our life needn’t be defined by it. Believing that we deserve more, desiring a good and meaningful life for ourselves is a hugely important part of our healing. We may not know how we’re going to build this life, how it’s all mapped out and what decisions to take, but that’s okay. Just believing that an exciting new life awaits us and that it can be whatever we want it to be, simply having the desire to figure it out somehow and in some way, will guide us well through our grief.
Following the death of a loved one, fear can immobilise us and close our hearts and minds to the amazing possibilities that exist. It can sometimes feel easier to root ourselves to what we already know, what we have grown comfortable with – even if it is not what we truly desire, because contemplating change in the midst of grief is scary. It’s unplanned, the outcomes remain unknown and it involves having to push ourselves to a level of discomfort we often do not feel prepared for. To shut ourselves off from this and to want to cling on to our old life is perfectly natural, indeed
But not all change is bad. The death of a loved one, as painful and heartbreaking as it is, can usher in so many wonderful, positive changes and present new and exciting opportunities for growth: meeting someone new, moving house or starting a new career. Whilst all of these opportunities may feel overwhelming, even impossible during the early days of our grieving journey, none of them need to be explored immediately.
Just making a conscious choice to look forward, even if we’re not ready for things to change at that moment, to simply be open to the fact that at some point these opportunities may be something we choose to explore, will enrich our healing journey and encourage us to pursue a brighter future. It may even reveal parts of ourselves that we didn’t know existed – an inner strength and a quiet resolve to achieve things we never thought possible.
Consider this analogy. A person is in a park, swinging gently and cautiously on a swing. The park is both familiar and safe, if not a little soulless and empty. They start to hear the hustle and bustle of life beyond the park walls – of unfamiliar but exciting sounds and slowly they begin to wonder whether life could look any different, or feel any better. However, their fear of heights prevents them from swinging any higher to take a look.
As the sounds beyond the wall entice them further, their fear starts to subside and their legs swing out harder. They go higher and faster and it’s scary and uncomfortable. But suddenly as they crane their necks, they get a glimpse of what’s over the wall. And it’s beautiful. The view goes on for miles, as far as their eyes can see and it’s brimming with exciting new opportunities to explore and people to meet. Whilst they are not yet ready to jump off, to fly over the wall and immerse themselves in this new world, they’ve faced their fears and glanced at what’s possible. And that’s a start.
Whilst grief can feel insurmountable, there are three things we can do to improve our bereavement journey. Learning to accept the support of others, shifting our internal narrative and opening ourselves up to new opportunities, can help us adopt a more constructive path towards our healing and help us reimagine our lives after loss.
However, taking purposeful action whilst coping with grief can feel impossible and as such, one of the kindest things any bereaved person can do for themselves, is reach out and ask for help.
If you would like to find a supportive community of people who ‘get it’, please come and join my free Facebook group, ‘Widows Rising’, for widows, widowers and surviving partners.