British author J.K. Rowling, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix painted the picture more vividly: “You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.” And Leo Tolstoy recognized the frailty of the human heart when he wrote in Anna Karenina, “Doctoring her seemed to her as absurd as putting together the pieces of a broken vase. Her heart was broken.”
Right now, following the death of your loved one, it feels as if your heart is–to one degree or another–broken. There are times when the heartache is unbearable and other times when you don’t even think you can get out of bed. So, what can you do to help yourself heal?
You begin healing, not by doing everything you can to avoid the pain of grief; but by focusing your attention on the task of mourning. And because grief work is hard, you’ll need to rest whenever you can. Through this cycle of attentive mourning, you can find your way through your grief, healing your broken heart along the way.
Important Things to Remember
There are some basic tenets about mourning you should always keep in mind. The first is this: your grief, and the nature of the grief work you’ll need to do, is uniquely yours. There are four factors shaping your bereavement experience:
- the relationship you had with the deceased
- the circumstances of their death
- the quality of your support network of family, friends and co-workers
- the sociocultural and spiritual context of your life
You can see how those factors work to make your bereavement experience different from that of others. This uniqueness means you should never compare your grief to anyone else’s: it’s “apples to oranges” as folks say. There’s no benefit in comparison, so avoid it altogether. (You can listen to–and learn from–what other grievers have to say; just don’t “compare”.) There are three other pillars of mourning to remember:
- Always take it “one day at a time”
- As much as you can, stay in the present moment. Don’t slip into the past for very long, and don’t look too far into the future. There’s no real way for you to picture it accurately.
- Do one thing every day to move you toward achieving the four tasks of mourning. Read "How to Manage the Effects of Grief and Stress" for task-related details.
Here are some other suggestions for attentive mourning:
Talk to others. Whenever possible, share your thoughts and feelings with people who care about you. This could mean a weekly chat with a friend, time spent with your pastor; or it may be prudent to join a grief support group, either online or in-person. Contact us for information on local support groups.
Expect the unexpected. Some describe mourning as an emotional “roller coaster ride”. Expect to feel things like fear, relief, anger or guilt; you might even find yourself feeling nothing: you’re numb. Expect to be confused, forgetful and disorganized in your thinking. There’s no predicting how you’ll feel from minute to minute, so don’t even try. Instead, do your best to learn from these emotions. You also should expect to feel “grief bursts” – overwhelming surges of emotion–at unexpected times. This experience was beautifully described by the French novelist Sidonie Gabrielle Colette:
It's so curious: one can resist tears and 'behave' very well in the hardest hours of grief. But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer... and everything collapses." (Source: Goodreads)
No matter how odd what emotion you’re feeling may seem; always remember it’s a normal and healthy expression of your grief.
Stay focused, but remember your limits. Grieving is both mentally and physically tiring. When you feel you can’t take anymore, back off. Get rest; eat well, and cancel or reschedule what appointments you can.
Don’t isolate. All you may want to do right now is to shut everyone out, but this would be counter-productive. Instead, have a modified “open door policy”: allow caring, compassionate people into your life, but exclude those who are less able to be the kind of support you need now. And remember, when you need to take a “time out”, it’s really okay to ‘lock’ your door so you can rest.
Use ritual to make your grieving a sacred experience. Personal rituals which engage the senses – such as the lighting of a candle, beginning or ending the day with a calming yoga practice, journaling or other creative endeavors, even the ritualized use of essential oils–do much to affirm the sacred nature of the transition you’re going though as well as affirm the otherworldly connection you still have with the deceased.
Turn to your faith. If you have a religious background, this is not the time to neglect your spirituality. While the death of your loved one may cause you to doubt your beliefs for a time, or even force you to change your beliefs based on what you’ve experienced; revisiting your spiritual training can be useful to you right now.
Find significance and meaning in your loved one’s death. You’ll never be able to answer all the questions you have (like “Why did this have to happen?”) But in asking the questions in the company of a loving, supportive person or support group, you’ll slowly find the significance of this loss and help yourself heal.
Hang on to your memories, but don’t cling to them. The past is gone and it’s not smart to dwell on it. But the memories you have of your loved one can fuel your grief work. Don’t let your memories fade; document each of them, either using a journal or a handheld digital recorder.
Healing a Broken Heart: It’s Always Work
It doesn’t matter the exact nature of your loss: whether it’s the loss of a job, the end of a marriage, or the death of someone dear; the healing–the “coming back- is hard. You’ve got to keep your focus on grieving attentively and purposefully, at a time when you’re exhausted. Nineteenth century English author Mary Ann Evans, who wrote under the pen-name George Eliot, described the work of grieving this way:
“She was no longer wrestling with the grief, but could sit down with it as a lasting companion and make it a sharer in her thoughts.”
We think it both accurately describes the goal in grieving: to become comfortable with the “now” experience of loss as well recognizing how grief as an ally...a “sharer” of the experience of loss. Grieving requires you to accept the perfection of the status quo. As Valery Satterwhite wrote, it’s important to “know that everything is in perfect order whether you understand it or not” (Source: Goodreads).
It’s also valuable to remain expectant of good things happening to you, including relief from the hour-to-hour suffering of bereavement. When you’re having a difficult day, recall these words, from Sarah Ban Breathnach, author of Simple Abundance: A Yearbook of Comfort and Joy: “Today expect something good to happen to you no matter what occurred yesterday.”
It’s about Time and Focused Attention
Integrating your loss and recovering your enthusiasm for life through attentive mourning takes time. There’s no way of knowing how much time; everyone is different. Just be patient. Accept the fact the death of your loved one has changed you forever; it’s up to you to determine exactly how you’ll be changed.
We’d like to remind you of two things: first, there are other articles on our website which may be of interest to you, including: "Is There a Connection Between Grief and Resilience?", and "The Work of Mourning the Loss of a Loved One". And second: should you need assistance in mourning the loss of a loved one, please call us. We would be honored to help.