January 14, 2020

9 Ways to “Put on your Oxygen Mask” when you’re Struggling through Grief.

If you’ve ever flown on an airplane, you know the instructions:

“In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.”

If you experience a decompression at 30,000 feet, you have maybe 30 seconds before you start losing consciousness. That’s why we’re instructed to take care of ourselves first, then wrestle the oxygen mask on a scared child.

In 2010, my 42-year-old wife died suddenly in a pedestrian accident. I was left with our two boys—ages four and seven—to care for. Our metaphorical airplane had experienced an explosive loss of cabin pressure and we were descending rapidly. I knew I had to take care of our children, and I had to take care of myself.

I had to put on my oxygen mask.

Our caring friends and family can help us, but there is only so much they can do. Thus, it is important to help ourselves. Below are a few things that have become my “oxygen mask” over the past decade:

Sleep: Eight hours a day, every day, and going to sleep about the same time each night is key. Everything else works more easily after I get the sleep I need. There is mounting research on the benefits of sleep and the harm from a chronic sleep deficit. Go to your favorite internet search engine and type in “benefits of sleep” or “sleep deprivation” and you might be surprised by what you find.

Exercise: You don’t need another essay on the benefits of exercise. I will simply share this: exercise helped with my grief. I was able to take some of my despair, loneliness, and anger, and transfer it into weights and running. You can join a gym, but you don’t have to. There are enough low-cost or free apps and YouTube videos for at-home yoga, core work, resistance training, and so on that don’t require a gym membership or even leaving the house.

Diet: The food we eat plays a huge role in our overall health. This isn’t about losing weight, but about staying well. Processed and sugary foods can set up energy crashes and make us sluggish. When I’m on my game, my diet is mostly plants, no soda, no added sugar, tea (not coffee), and light on the meat, with seafood as my preference. There are many different diet plans out there you can research. More than anything, really, is cultivating mindfulness about what we put in our body.

Watch the alcohol: After my wife died, I drank—a lot. And it helped—at first. Then it didn’t. Over time, the costs rise, both in terms of money and the emotional and physical toll it takes. Alcohol, and other drugs, are powerful medicines and when we use them without the guidance of a healthcare professional, we do so at our peril. If you think you have become reliant on alcohol or drugs to get through your grief, talk to someone right away.

Massage: Taking an hour to myself to relax was wonderful. It was a momentary escape from the grief I was living with and the endless list of “to-dos” as a single parent. Massage can get expensive, but there are options that can bring the cost down. I used to go for a simple chair massage at our local mall. There is also a massage training school near us that offers lower-cost massages with students. Search for what options are available near you.

Acupuncture: About 20 years ago, I discovered the benefits of acupuncture for chronic aches and pains. After my wife died, I found it helped with my grief. I don’t really understand how acupuncture works, but it does—I always feel better after a session. Perhaps it is the state of mind I have to put myself in as I prepare for needles to be stuck in my skin, like a variant of mindfulness meditation. I don’t know. This is one practice I’ve continued over the years. My insurance also picks up most of the tab, leaving me with a $30 co-pay, which makes it more than worth it.

Therapy: Truth be told, it works and many insurance plans cover some aspects of therapy. In the days and weeks after my wife died, my therapist was someone I could count on to just listen and be non-judgmental. I learned so much about myself through the nearly three years of therapy. About a year and a half ago, I returned to my “grief” therapist to help me deal with my own ongoing needs. And I found it really beneficial to return to a therapist I had a history with.

Meditation: My goal each day is to meditate for 10 minutes. When I do meditate, it helps calm my restless mind and keeps me more focused on the present and less focused on the past, which I can’t change, and the future, which won’t change by my worrying. I’ve found that there are a number of apps—some free, some paid—that can help you start your practice.

Rituals: Grief is chaotic, but rituals offer predictability and consistency in times of upheaval and chaos. Whether it is the gym every Tuesday and Thursday, or the same meal on Sunday, or sitting in the same place each morning for five minutes and meditating, rituals can offer anchor points that help us mark time and slowly, but consistently, move through our grief.

Grief doesn’t go away, but it changes, and hopefully these tips can help you metabolize your sorrow. Whether you are grieving or just have to take care of others, I hope you’ll pay attention to your own needs.

Maybe you’ve discovered your own ways of “putting on the oxygen mask.” I’d love it if you shared those in the comments.


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