Self-care in Grief: The Myth of Keeping Busy

I am very excited to introduce today’s guest author, Nick Frye.  I’ve known Nick since my ‘Tests and Assessments’ course in graduate school.  As the last two people without partners for the end of the term project, we were paired together by default.  Anyway, during the project we found out we had the same MBTI Personality Type (INFP) so we just decided to stay friends. True story…mostly.

Nick is a licensed Clinical Professional Counselor specializing in additions, disordered eating, motivation, and health behavior change  (I stole that description straight from his professional bio), but these aren’t the reasons why we like him.  We like him because he’s the type of guy who is smart and great at what he does, but who doesn’t take himself too seriously, and we are thrilled that he agreed to lend his expertise to WYG for todays post on self-care. Thanks Nick!

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Last year my wife was struck in the head by an old, heavy sofa while helping a friend move. She had quite the bump on her head and a sizeable headache to boot but otherwise appeared to be okay. Over the next few days she began to have increasingly intense headaches, she was having trouble seeing and reading, words weren’t as easily recalled and we began to get scared.

We went to the doctor together and found out that she had received a concussion from that blow to the head and was now suffering with Post-Concussive Syndrome (formerly known as ‘shellshock’) which is a form of mild-traumatic brain injury; symptoms from which may continue for weeks, months, or years after the concussion. The next year of our life was a nightmare filled with intense head and nerve pain, severe depression, outbursts of anger, a change in her personality and frequent visits to the Emergency Room with little improvement in her condition. We were newlyweds married less than 3 months when all this happened.

We lost our first year of marriage.

My wife lost her self.

I lost my wife.

Needless to say we were both grieving these losses. Our lives had changed in an instant and what we thought we had known was turned completely upside-down. We were spinning out of control like a Tilt-a-Whirl helmed by an absent-minded carnie. My wife felt helpless. I felt helpless. What could we do?

During this time period I would consistently receive advice from well-meaning friends and family to “make sure that you’re taking care of yourself” which I interpreted as ‘stay active’ and ‘keep busy’ doing things that will make me feel better. If I can do something that makes me feel good then I will be distracted from all my emotional pain, one more day will go by, and time heals all wounds, right?

So, I took the advice and I kept busy. I did anything and everything that I thought was right and good and healthy for myself. I took up new hobbies, focused on my career, and worked hard every day so that I would come home every night exhausted… but my heart was still broken. I would think to myself “I don’t understand, I kept busy, but I feel worse, not better.” It wasn’t until I allowed myself to acknowledge and express what I was feeling did I begin to recover.

This brings us to the myth of ‘keeping busy.’ When experiencing grief keeping busy only serves as a distraction that buries the pain underneath every activity you can pile on top of it. It only helps to make one more day go by which in itself connects to the myth that time heals all wounds. If this were true when someone breaks their leg we would say to them, “Don’t be upset, time will heal this wound.”

Beyond all this… keeping busy is not self-care.

So, how can we take care of ourselves while grieving? Well, here are a few ways we can truly care for ourselves during this time when we need self-care more than ever:

  • Face your feelings – the painful emotions associated with grief are a natural and normal response to loss. You can try and suppress them or hide from them all you want but in the end this will only prolong the grieving process. Acknowledging your pain and taking responsibility for your feelings will help you avoid the complications often associated with unresolved grief such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and health problems.
  • Express your feelings – the most effective way to do this is through some tangible or creative expression of your emotions such as journaling, writing a letter expressing your apologies, forgiveness and the significant emotional statements you wish you had said, or art projects celebrating the person’s life or what you lost.
  • Feel whatever you feel – it’s okay to be angry, to yell at God, to cry or not to cry. It’s also okay to laugh, to find moments of joy, or to let go when you’re ready. Your grief is your own and no one can tell you when you should be “over it” or when to “move on.”
  • Look after your health but be aware of short-term relievers – these can be food, alcohol/drugs, anger, exercise, TV, movies, books, isolation, sex, shopping, workaholism (the trap I feel into), etc. Most of these are not harmful, in fact some are healthy, but they become harmful when they are used for the wrong reasons… to cover-up, hide or suppress our grief.  Try and get good sleep, try and make healthy food choices, try and be physically active but more importantly allow yourself to grieve as this is the best form of self-care.

I recognize my story of grief involving my wife’s head injury is different than losing a loved one but isn’t it also true that every relationship is unique and therefore we all have our own unique experience with grief? After all, even a well-meaning friend who has had a parallel loss does not know how you feel. What we all do share is the experience of a broken heart because we lost someone/thing we love.

I want to thank my wonderful friend Eleanor for allowing me to be a guest on her blog and to thank you for reading. I can tell you that my wife is on the path to recovery from her head injury though she might always have some lingering effects. We are still recovering, we still experience pain but we also have hope.

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March 28, 2017

7 responses on "Self-care in Grief: The Myth of Keeping Busy"

  1. Thank you for your story. Glad to hear your wife is getting better.

    My story. I found the guy for me. He was great, we got married. On our six month anniversary we received confirmation of his HIV infection. I was stunned. Don’t know how he got it or why, not the issue. Our marriage was changed. He looked well, but I was worried, I may have been infected, that my son from my former marriage might have to live with his father if I died. Nothing was the same, my husband became another person. He wouldn’t share, wouldn’t have safe sex or give affection. I was devastated. Ironically, I had started volunteering with a meals on wheels program for AIDS sufferers. I got help through that group, caring wonderful people. My husband died of leukemia after less that 3 years. My grief was profound. My mother had died from breast cancer when I was seven years old. That grief had never been dealt with as my father was depressed and an alcoholic. I’ve left out many details but got help through many years of therapy, anti-depressants and groups. Life is great again, now 20+ years later. I’m planning my early retirement and a new life in a new state to be close to my son, hope springs eternal. Thank you.

  2. I lost my 30 year old son one month ago today. The only time I get relief is watching movies. The pain is unbearable. I miss him so much it physically aches. The fog I am in will lift they tell me, but the loss and hole in my heart will never heal.

    • Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

      Kathy,

      We should start a movie club for escaping your grief!! In all seriousness, I’m glad you’ve found something that brings relief. I’m so sorry about your son. Indeed it is probably true that the fog will get less dense, but of course you will always have the scars. My thoughts are with you. I hope you have the support you need and please let us know if there’s any way we can help.

      Eleanor

  3. Perhaps you could explain the difference between staying busy to avoid grieving, and being busy to obtain intermittent relief from grieving. My wife of 30 years eventually died at home after a series of remissions from ovarian cancer, and not before I retired, by choice, to become her sole caretaker for the last few years. Being both husband and caretaker, I was inseparable from her, creating an intense and very personal relationship that ultimately ended very suddenly when we ran out of medical options this past summer.

    I find grieving to be helpful and necessary, yet it also is exhausting. I find I can recover from periods of grieving by napping, or by cooking, watching TV, reading, running errands, going to a movie, visiting family, etc. When do deliberate distractions from grieving become a threat to a successful recovery from the loss of an irreplaceable loved one?

    • Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

      Arnie,

      I think the distractions you’ve described – napping, cooking, reading, etc – are excellent ways to find relief from the difficult work of grieving. What you describe sounds more like self-care than avoidance, and self-care is important for everyone (especially grievers).

      I think distractions become a threat to successful recovery when one deliberately throws themselves into work, family, and other activities to avoid acknowledging and dealing with the complicated emotions of grief. When they say “oh, I’m fine” and essentially ignore the need to process and acknowledge their grief.

      Eleanor

  4. Thanks, Nick for your post about “The Myth of Keeping Busy.” Months after my 54 year-old husband died suddenly in 2000, people who were tired of my sadness and tears wanted me to move on. They suggested, “just keep busy, you’ll get over it.” Well, I’m with you on this one, it didn’t help me “move on.” Instead, I threw myself into work and projects around the house. Eighteen months later, I hit the wall, dispelling another myth “get through the first year and things will get better.”

    I was disappointed that life wasn’t easier the second year, it was actually harder. The reality that after the first year I was still alone and that my husband was never coming back, pushed me deeper into grief. The good news is that with support of family, a few friends and a counselor, I began to find my way back. Small steps lead to larger ones. I dumped my feelings into journals. Eventually I rediscovered meaning in life again. In the process, I realized, time doesn’t heal wounds, it’s what you do during that time that repairs your broken life.

    Your list of suggestions are positive ways for people to move through their unique grief process. Again, thanks for sharing this helpful information and hope your wife continues to improve!

    Author of Twenty-Eight Snow Angels: A Widow’s Story of Love, Loss and Renewal

    • Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

      Diane, thank you so much for your response and feedback. You are so right about the whole ‘first year’ thing and the fact that time does not ‘heal all wounds’. There are so many myths out there about grief, I guess we don’t even realize how untrue most of them are until its too late and we are knee deep in it. At least we know, through people like you and Nick who are willing to share their story, that we are not alone.

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