Reconnecting with Life After Loss (One step at a time)
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You’ve been there before. Heck, we’ve all been there.
It’s been a long week, you’re tired, the weather’s not that great, the newest season of House of Cards was just released on Netflix, and it it utterly impossible to imagine anything as enjoyable as changing into your pajamas, ordering a pizza, opening a bottle of wine, and snuggling in for some quality couch time. Sure you made plans to meet up with friends, but it’s okay to cancel just this once.
Fast forward and you’ve rescheduled those plans. You’re due for some quality time with friends, but the same couch is tempting you come hither. “Come sit on me” it says, “Netlflix awaits. And, oh, what is this? Why its a big comfy blanket.” It’s decision time friends, what will you do? The easy thing (give into the couch) or the harder thing (see your long lost friends)?
Even if making happy hour isn’t a regular concern, I bet you engage similar in battles on a pretty regular basis.
Round one: Make healthy dinner vs. grab take out
Round two: Go to the gym vs. “no thank you!”
Round three: Call a friend and make plans vs. don’t commit to doing something you might not want to do later
Round four: Sign up for that class vs. self-doubt and cynicism
Ideally, you would always decide to to invest your energy in the things that bring you fulfillment, enjoyment, satisfaction, and connection, even if these things felt challenging. But being realistic, we know that most people opt for the easier choice from time to time, even if it isn’t the wisest.
This may be especially true when you’re grieving, because when you’re grieving you have a whole slew of reasons for taking shortcuts, disengaging, and withdrawing socially and emotionally. Here are a few:
- You feel distracted or as though you can’t focus on anything other than your loss/grief.
- You feel like you have to conserve your energy to deal with the emotion and stress of grief.
- You feel as though the things you once enjoyed now seem meaningless or unimportant.
- You disengage from activities because they remind you of your loved one.
- You feel anxious about seeing people/social interaction.
- You feel anxious about running into grief triggers.
- You feel anxious about becoming emotional in front of others.
- You no longer feel like a capable and competent person.
- The world no longer feels like a safe and reliable place.
- It feels safe and comfortable to not push yourself.
- Engaging in activities feels like a betrayal or as though you’re “moving on”.
- You think you will feel better in time, so you decide to stay at home and wait it out.
It’s protective and adaptive, when you only have so much energy, to focus it on the places where it is most needed. It’s normal to let some of your day-to-day routine fall by the wayside during times of hardship and crisis. However, one should be mindful of how much they are cutting out and for how long. There is often a fine line between temporarily disengaging and more harmful long-term social and/or emotional withdraw.
Consider this, disengaging from previously fulfilling and enjoyable activities can contribute to depression. The Society of Clinical Psychology notes that “When people get depressed, they may increasingly disengage from their routines and withdraw from their environment. Over time, this avoidance exacerbates depressed mood, as individuals lose opportunities to be positively reinforced through pleasant experiences, social activity, or experiences of mastery.”
Although depression and grief are different, both experiences may cause someone to retreat from life. In either scenario, those who disengage effectively cut themselves off from sources of support, coping, and positive emotion and may ultimately end up feeling worse.
One therapy that has proven effective in treating depression is called behavioral activation. Very simply, through behavioral activation depressed clients increase their engagement with activities that provide them with opportunities to experience social support, wellbeing, positive feelings, and confidence. Following a similar line of reasoning, we might assert that the more one chooses to engage with life, even though they’re grieving, the more opportunity they will have to process their emotions, connect, receive support from others, and experience positive feelings.
Before you get overwhelmed, we are not talking about going “back to normal” or a complete reintegration with your “normal activities”. We’re talking about actively choosing small and worthwhile activities and deliberately planning to do them. Let’s talk specifically about this means.
What have you stopped doing since experiencing the death of your loved one? More specifically, what do you no longer do that you used to previously enjoy or find fulfilling? These may be things that you stopped doing because you don’t have the time, they require too much effort, they remind you of your loved one, or they seem less fun. These are things like walking your dog in the evening, going to church on Sunday, getting a hair cut, cooking dinner a few times a week, art, listening to music, coffee with a friend, journaling, finding daily gratitudes, new hobbies, 20 minutes of exercise, going to the movies, reading, going on a vacation, scrapbooking, building something, volunteering.
Now what if I told you that by deliberately deciding to do these things again, or by choosing new things to try, that you might start to feel a little bit better? Or that by doing these things you were actually, in many ways, coping with your grief? Some outlets – like supportive friends, journaling, advocacy, art – help you directly process your grief related emotions and experiences. While others are simply healing in that they help you connect with others, feel a sense of mastery or fulfillment, allow you to feel calm and at peace, increase your physical wellbeing, or simply help you to feel human again.
I know these things seem small in comparison to your big problems and stressors, but one way to think of coping is as small steps on a very large staircase, where each step could potentially help you feel a little bit better.
Ask yourself, what does a typical day currently look like?
Literally, write your hour-to-hour schedule down and ask yourself:
- What is filling up your time?
- Is it filled with a whole lot of nothing or is it filled with way too much?
- In looking at the activities, how many feel draining?
- Be honest, how much of your day is scheduled around worries, anxieties, and the need to avoid?
- How many activities are there in your schedule that help you (1) take care of yourself (2) directly cope with your grief (3) feel positive feelings?
- What used to be a part of your schedule that you’ve now stopped doing?
Make a plan.
If you’ve cut out activities that used to be an important part of your life, things that had inherent value, then it may be time to schedule them back in. Now, some of these activities may no longer feel pleasurable, perhaps because nothing feels pleasurable, they may remind you of your loved one, they require effort, or because they force you to confront difficult emotions. You should consider scheduling them in anyways. Once you get over the hump/your fears/anxieties – whatever it is – you may find that these activities are worthwhile again.
Next, consider what other positive/constructive/therapeutic activities you could begin to work into your schedule for the first time. Are there coping tools you’d like to try? Are there ways you want to honor and remember your loved one? Are there physical health issues you’d like to work on? Think about these things as well.
After you’ve taken stock of your schedule and the types of activities that are missing, it’s time to schedule them in. Literally, schedule them in to the hour. You may want to think about your day leading up to the activity as well. For example, if you want to go to the gym at 10am but you typically sleep until 9:30am, you may need to schedule an earlier wake up time and a breakfast time as well. Be realistic and be honest with yourself.
It may help you to ask other people to keep you accountable. Ask someone to do the activity with you, or at least ask them to follow up with you to make sure you did it. If you have a counselor or support group, talk to them about your plans and ask them to ask you how it went next time they see you.
As they say, “just do it”.
Don’t give in to your excuses, rationalizations, or reasons why not. And if you are skeptical, then prove us wrong. In other words, just try it and see.
In the moment, pay attention to how you are feeling. Comparing yourself to how you felt at your worst, not your ideal best, do you feel any better? If the answer is yes, good! If the answer is no – I feel worse – then ask yourself why because this may be useful information as well.
Be prepared for it to be difficult at times.
After someone dies, some of our most valued and fulfilling experiences are often colored with a tinge of pain. Part of coping with grief is learning to tolerate and work through painful emotions so prepare to feel frustrated and to doubt yourself and to feel all sorts of emotion – but please believe it is worth it in the end.
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