Reconnecting with Life After Loss (One step at a time)

If you prefer to listen to your grief support, check out our podcast on this same topic.

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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. 

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Getting started:

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.

Implement.

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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COMMENTS

DavesWidow

Posted on March 31, 2016 at 3:34 pm

Sounds good in print. Not happening in real life. Just trying to keep breathing, doing my job at work, raising my son, and counting the hours til I’m done.

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Eleanor

Posted on March 31, 2016 at 3:54 pm

Hey DavesWidow,

I hear you. We know that sometimes it’s just a matter of making it through the day. I hope that in time you are able to find a little space for self-care and coping. As a widow and a mom you really really deserve it.

Hang in there 🙂
Eleanor

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Raymond

Posted on November 4, 2016 at 11:31 am

Yep, I (we) made a plan, that didn’t turn out so well. Not inclined to start making plans again.

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Julie

Posted on March 31, 2016 at 6:26 pm

Aww this is such a good post, thank you for putting into words how I so felt in the first few weeks/months after my dear Mum died. I did hide away to start with, I just couldn’t handle social situations, but I worked out what worked for me, what I felt comfortable with, and seeing people individually is what felt OK, and explaining to people what I needed helped too. And simplifying my day to schedule in small achievable activities, walking a dog was one of the most valuable and healing things I did, it made me get out, gave me some gentle exercise, be in the fresh air, be in the world, even if it was in my own grief bubble. If you haven’t got a dog maybe walk a neighbours dog or a friends, dogs are the best medicine for sadness. It’s been a few months now since I lost my Mum and things are starting to feel a bit more meaningful, I am starting to find joy in things again, this is so healing and so reassuring and reading What’s Your Grief posts everyday has been a huge help too, thank you guys xx

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Corrina Shilling

Posted on March 31, 2016 at 6:33 pm

Hello Eleanor, I’ve only just started to subscribe to your very helpful site. Your message today is so helpful to me. My 21 year old son was in an accident 8 weeks ago and tragically died. Your message reminded me that I’m actually doing too much and need to relax and it’s ok not to do everything. I know it’s small steps, im trying to fit 100 in a day, working, going to gym, baking, walking with friends, chatting on the phone, that’s just in one day, no wonder by Friday im burnt out! Today I’ll meditate. Thank you Corrina

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Suzy

Posted on April 4, 2016 at 2:29 pm

Corrina
A great meditation online is the Oprah/Deepak 21 day meditation

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Corrina Shilling

Posted on March 31, 2016 at 6:47 pm

Hello I’m not sure how the video above attached to my message, it has nothing to do with me Corrina

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Jane Donohue

Posted on April 1, 2016 at 7:57 am

Terrific website and podcast- thanks so much. My 24 year old son died 6 years ago as a result of an unnecessary accident. What I have found is the need to “reconnect with life” countless times over, finding the things that work sometimes- a dog, the gym, the right people, gratitude journal, etc. It is not a linear experience. My ultimate goal is to make the remaining time I have as good as I can, but this is the challenge of my lifetime. When other stressors occur, not just the grief, it makes it much harder to deal. Again- many thanks for your work.

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Jane Donohue

Posted on April 1, 2016 at 7:58 am

I did not post these videos in my comment

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Eleanor

Posted on April 1, 2016 at 9:10 am

So….now that the video this has happened twice it makes me think we’ve cause an internet bug of some sort! We’ll look into this!

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Vanessa

Posted on April 1, 2016 at 11:39 am

this came at such a great time for me. i am still grieving my parents sudden, unexpected deaths. it’s been 6 months for Mom, 5 months for Dad so i’m still new at this lol. early on & i realize it’s still early on for me but i was really good at forcing myself to go out when i needed to. there were some days where i wasn’t going anywhere and i accepted that. i’ve found myself slipping back into that pattern over the last month where i am rushing to come home & stay home. i avoided church this Easter because that just reminded me of Mom. we grew up in church, my Mom was a big part of the church we went to so Easter, shopping for Easter clothes & what not brings back so many great memories. i didn’t want to fall apart in church so I made sure I stayed far away on Easter Sunday lol. i stayed home & i was fine with that, it was too soon for me. again though even i am realizing that I’ve fallen back into my pattern of avoidance & doing nothing so thank you again for a timely podcast & blog. i shared it with my sisters & my niece

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Tammy S

Posted on April 13, 2016 at 9:43 am

Vanessa,
I too feel your pain. My dad died suddenly in September and my mom 4 1/2 months later ( I say of a broken heart). Easter was also so hard for me as I too grew up in church. My dad sang in the choir all my life. Three days of hearing them again for the first time since his funeral was so hard. ( I’ve avoided the mass they sing at and attend another time.) I still can’t look at the choir or his empty seat! Good Friday my daughter, my sister and I sobbed our way through mass. And following Holy Saturday service I broke down into the arms of a long time family friend. Church is so hard, but I know I need to be there. And I know my parents are with me there as they always have been ( still hard). I’m struggling too with everyday life, the reality of being coexecutor of their estate and my grief. I’ve found a great grief counselor who is helping me on this journey along with close friends. I pray you too may find someone to help you on this journey. It was a friend who sent me a copy of one of the article posted on holiday grief that I found this site and you! My best friend who’s parents died 5 days apart encourages me with taking baby steps on this journey we both now travel. Another also told me ” to give time…time”. So I have hope to come out on the other side of my grief. Will I be the same, no. But I’ll come through it.

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Vanessa

Posted on April 17, 2016 at 1:14 am

I’m sad that we are in this club that I didn’t sign up for. It helps knowing there are others in my situation but also makes me sad that we have this in common. I have yet to step foot in church since their deaths. I fall apart sometimes walking past any church lol. I’m exercising more & it’s helping me feel less depressed plus no one told me about the grieving 20! I’m working on losing some of this grief weight. Day by day is all we can do

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Vanessa

Posted on April 1, 2016 at 11:40 am

i also didn’t post a video 🙂

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Diane

Posted on April 2, 2016 at 1:05 am

Excellent article. Thank you

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alice morgan simmonds

Posted on April 2, 2016 at 2:19 am

This post kind of bugged me. Implied is there is a right way to go about reintegrating into the outside world after a major loss. We are all so different and I tend to be more introverted. If I had forced myself into activities, social things before I was ready, and felt even worse about myself, with some of the implied things in this article. I.e, my retreat is not ‘ normal’, I am wasting opportunities, the class is better than the sofa, I would have been even more depressed. I think grief has it’s natural course in each of us it is a very individual process. I could not do anything much the first year after my husband died suddenly, social activity, classes, etc, were very stressful and if I had pushed myself, I do not believe it would have been self loving or self respecting. I took my time, and believe me, got some flack about it, but I trusted my needs and my process. It’s been 2 years now and I am very active, engaged, enjoying life and my body is well and whole. It takes time and I question anything that seems to push an agenda. Sorry, I know this article was meant with good intentions, it just seems a bit one sided and doesn’t consider the interior wisdom that lives in each one of us. Let the process of healing take time is my advice. Grief is a season and we need to wait while things heal, going underground is natural, in my world.

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Litsa

Posted on April 4, 2016 at 4:15 pm

Sorry this is how this post read to you, because that feeling that bugged you is something that bugs us a lot and we do our best to try to be clear that we definitely don’t think there is a ‘right’ way to deal with grief! Eleanor wrote this post and, as you probably know if you have followed us for a while, she is defitinely an introvert and shares a lot of the experiences you describe. Though I am more of an extrovert, we both tend not to be “joiners” so we usually try to have a range of coping ideas that are specifically about doing things that aren’t all about being social, joining, etc. Part of the reason that we do share posts like this one now and again is also because we are not always the best at getting our of our own way. There is so much value in trusting our guts and our own grief process, but many people (me being one of them) are our own worst enemy. Sometimes we start to push ourselves in the time and way we need it. And sometimes we don’t – we let the healthy isolation turn into unhealthy isolation, or we get stuck in a pattern and allow ourselves to stay stuck by feeling entitled to be stuck- I am the queen of that, in fact! :). This post doesn’t push much – walking the dog, getting a haircut, listening to music, cooking dinner once in a while. It is pushing little small things, not big social things. But it does push a little because, in all honesty, we believe that sometimes you need a push. Some are lucky enough to have their grief progress in a positive way through time and their process, some aren’t and it takes a bit more conscious effort. It isn’t that any things are the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ things to be doing, it is that sometimes we need to raise our conscious awareness of what we are doing. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment – I am sure you spoke what others also may feel reading this post, and we hate the idea of people feeling that. If you haven’t read these posts, you might find they resonate a bit more with your experience.

http://www.whatsyourgrief.com/the-unprecedented-nature-of-individual-grief-trading-answers-for-understanding/
http://www.whatsyourgrief.com/pressure-to-get-over-grief/
http://www.whatsyourgrief.com/introverts-and-grief/
http://www.whatsyourgrief.com/whats-grief-style-aka-coping-kind-crazy/
http://www.whatsyourgrief.com/fathers-day-sulking-without-apology/

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gloria

Posted on April 4, 2016 at 10:19 pm

The posts I find the hardest to read are probably the ones I need to read the most. I think we need to pushed, a little, or we may remain stuck in a horrible hole. & who knows, we may or may not remain there. Some days, some minutes I think I will, how does one survive the loss of a child, your life, your love, how will I???? I just don’t know??? So I read these posts, and try to get some positive from them. And there is always something, you just have to look. Thank you Litsa & Eleanor for going where it is so hard to go to for us who are suffering from loss. I am grateful for all of these posts and this site and for all the comments. We all are where we are. Just trying to survive the horror of losing those we have loved so much.

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Suzy

Posted on April 5, 2016 at 4:07 pm

Gloria
I too lost a child…my son and there are days when I feel i will never be happy again and then today I got googled grief support groups and grief therapists
I am going for an assessment tomorrow at grief support center near my house…all run by trained volunteers. They have groups and one on one help to process this grief. I have hope that I can get through this…as the article said, just a small action can help and all I did was google and pick up the phone

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Suzy

Posted on April 5, 2016 at 4:09 pm

Oh, and there will be no cost…I have never heard of this place since I have never needed it…

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gloria

Posted on April 5, 2016 at 4:18 pm

Suzy,
I have been going to Compassionate Friends and seeing a therapist. Along with reading WYG, parent loss Facebook pages, reading grief books and talking with supportive friends. Even with doing all the “right things”, I am still suffering, and know I will, on some level, for the rest of my life. I lost my Laura in June, 2015. Learning to live this new life, without her, will be a lifelong journey. But who does know what small action can make a difference?? I feel any small joy I find, gives me energy to continue when they pain is too bad. One day, one minute at a time.

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Elsie

Posted on April 8, 2016 at 6:15 am

I have struggled the will to engage in life without a sense of peace since I was raised by a narcissistic mother. The after effects of losses as my parents marriage fell apart, my father openly admitting he was gay, my mother made multiple serious suicide attempts. I triumphed by at least getting married and having a beautiful daughter. However my husband and next relationships were also replications and I discovered the awfulness of repeating patterns unconsciously. Until my oldest sibling, my brother died at 52 from acute illness. The weeks before he died, my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and my sister is agoraphobic and while both alive I can’t bear to visit either now. I took care of people including my own patients until last year when the person I had found strength in died; she had been the last remaining relative whom I loved. My daughter is now away for graduate school and I treasure knowing she’s in the world. So I have great admiration for those of you who lost a child. I don’t believe in recovery, life changes us and as many have said, it is only in moments that I can notice my strength or how much opportunity I’ve had that I couldn’t make the most of. That’s tragic as we all have fate mixed into this.,I do believe that seeing myself as someone who can still give to the world or maybe even get closer again to others may be possible. I am so thankful I’ve learned what grief is, I thought it was just me. I also studied trauma theory in depth and now I can only read this site. I’m thankful I found it.
Avoidance is a hateful defense,It has robbed me of many days and joys I’m sure. But multiple losses or just one tremendous one, doesn’t make a difference. Knowing you absolutely must function and doing what this post discussed builds self worth a tiny bit at a time. I had made many gains so I know it works to be in the world as best you can.
I do know my life history and current alone state frightens others. i have to pretend and work hard to be at peace with myself. No one can do more but I wish for more every day. Wishing doesn’t make anything happen. I’m craving family and have done so for a lifetime. What’s under my nose Is what I need to tend to. We’ve lost our loves or in my case I wasn’t loved, I was utilized or adored or batted around; for another persons needs.
I grieve for all of us who know we have had joys taken away, interestingly I’m glad I know what I need to do. So please keep up the wisdom here. I have been helped by every entry.

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