January 31, 2016

5 Essential Coping Strategies after a Loss—How to Survive the Numbness.

hanging on letting go grief sadness alone

Even as a grief coach, some personal losses still knock me to my knees.

It’s something we are never quite ready for. And yet when that reality hits, you still have to get through those first hours and days—the arrangements, the questions, the family, the decisions—all when you can barely hold a thought in your head.

When my mother died suddenly when I was 25, it utterly wiped me out. I got a phone call at midnight and my world turned upside-down. Then I had to call my father and tell him, while shaking and screaming and going into shock. The next few days were an incomprehensible whirlwind of calling and thinking and going and doing, when all I wanted to do was crawl in a hole and stay there. But I couldn’t do that yet…I was in charge of her estate and the responsibilities were all mine. It felt soul-crushing.

So how do you take care of yourself and get everything done and not go insane in those initial days? Here are the things that I have found truly help, after having now been through over 30+ major losses—these five essential strategies stay the same.

1. Self-Care. It may sound obvious, but eating can easily just slip our minds. Grab a bite, have someone bring you take-out, or send a friend to the store. You must have fuel for your brain and body to think more clearly and to not become light-headed. Water is essential, too, you have to stay hydrated. I know I often just forget to eat in stressful times…or I “stress eat,” which is also not the best idea either. A little chocolate or a drink might not hurt, but I try not to go too crazy.

If you are taking medication, make sure you don’t miss doses. Set alarms, on your phone or computer, use post-its or have a friend remind you. Don’t give your body more stress to cope with than it already has.

And finally, do try and sleep—I know it’s tough. But don’t deprive your mind, body and spirit the chance to just rest. Naps are an excellent invention and can do a world of good. Just put your head down…crying yourself to sleep is perfectly acceptable.

2. Be Gentle With Yourself. There is simply no way to make perfect decisions or remember everything or not fall into blunders or miscalculations. Of course you don’t know what to do or what to do first. You are under a ton of stress and shock. So please be gentle, loving and compassionate with your inner self and your heart—and forgive yourself for being human.

3. Lack of Focus and Faulty Memory are Normal. You may forget simple tasks, you may lose things constantly, or trail off in the middle of a sentence. This is totally understandable, given the circumstances. I often talk about how after Mom’s death, I couldn’t drive—not just because I couldn’t remember how, but my focus and reaction time were completely off, plus I didn’t remember where anything was. I handed my keys to my boyfriend at the time and told him and my friends not to allow me in the driver’s seat.

The memory issue often causes people to honestly ask if they are going crazy, as their “normal” goes completely out the window. No, you are definitely not crazy—you are heartbroken and you are suffering, and I am so sorry this is happening to you. This phase does ease as the shock wears off, and the initial days pass.

The best coping approaches during this time are to let other things and people do the remembering. Just like with the medication, write notes, put reminders in your phone, or designate someone as your extra brain. Did someone order the food? Did you eat today? Who is getting Aunt Gina from the airport? Let your loved ones (the ones you can count on) help you with the details. And keep breathing.

4. Honor Your Emotions. Emotions go all over the place during these heightened times, and they really do run the gamut. Some people may burst into tears and that is expected and totally okay. But what if we start laughing? Or make inappropriate jokes? Or fly off the handle in rage?

We really have to allow for a lot of latitude, for ourselves and for others, because we cannot know how we will respond, and people respond in very different ways. But if we find ourselves laughing, that is just another way of releasing the tension and expelling the stress. We may get the hairy eyeball from certain folks, but it is not written anywhere that we must be doleful and somber through this entire process. Honor what you feel, let it out, take a deep breath and keep going.

5. One Minute at a Time. Finally, remember that you only have to take things one choice, one minute, one breath at a time. Especially because our emotions, memory, mind and spirit are disconnected and out of sync, we have to work to stay grounded and get through this painful period. Just do one thing, get through that, breathe, praise yourself for that success, breathe again, and then move on to the next decision or action.

Something no one talks about with grief is that time gets very weird. It slows down and gets very stretchy, such that a day may feel like forever. This may last longer than we think after a loss and it takes some getting used to. But it is absolutely normal and happens to so many grievers. So when people tell you to take things one day at a time, I say no, that’s an eternity. One minute is enough—only do what you can manage right now.

Loss and change and grief are universal.

We all lose those we love, whether over a long period or like a bolt of lightning, like my mother. We also lose jobs and friendships, move, have health struggles, financial crises and so much more. It’s a great opportunity for compassion and support, of yourself and your nearest and dearest. I wish I had known these things 20 years ago, but we don’t talk about this well in our culture, if at all. I think it’s time to change that. What do you think?


Author: Claire M. Schwartz

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Florent Chretien/Flickr

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