William Shakespeare once said,
“Well, everyone can master a grief but he that has it.”
Now, this may have been true in 1598, but that was before WYG’s ‘Eight-Step Plan for Mastering Grief’! Read on grief friends and you will see that we have demystified and distilled the ever confusing experience of life after loss in eight simple steps.
What? Are you not buying it? Okay, okay…but it’s nice to dream.
Step #1: Recognize that no set of steps could ever tell you how to get over, move on from, let go of, or master grief.
Certain conceptualizations and grief theories make it seem as though life after the death of a loved one is like a board game with a start and a finish. You begin in one place, experience some setbacks and some luck along the way, and eventually, get spit out on the other end. Those who’ve experienced grief know that it’s far more complicated and ongoing. One doesn’t simply sit down to play the ‘Game of Grief’, rather grief is something that must be processed over time and which, for many, will become a part of their ongoing everyday life.
Step #2: Recognize that life will never be exactly the same
After a death, one should expect things to change. Unfortunately, many people believe that life will eventually go back to ‘normal’ or that they will start to feel like ‘their old self’ again. This misconception often leads to grieving people feeling frustrated, weak, or abnormal when, try as they may, they can’t get back to their pre-grief-self. This belief also may lead family and friends to compare the bereaved to ‘normal’ or to hold onto the expectation that the bereaved person will someday fit back into their same old mold.
Remember, it’s okay to change and different doesn’t equal bad.
Step #3: Train your brain, body, and heart to tolerate pain
Pain is unavoidable in grief, yet many people go to great lengths to try and escape it. Avoidance is okay at times, but when used as a person’s one-and-only coping skill it can become a harmful cycle that exists to the detriment of personal healing. Many mistakenly think that if they make efforts to avoid their feelings for long enough these unpleasant emotions will be kept at bay or fade away, when in actuality deliberate attempts to suppress certain thoughts often make them more likely to surface.
If you’re grieving the death of a loved one, you will experience painful thoughts, emotions, and memories and you won’t always know when, where, why, or how. Knowing that these experiences are likely to happen may cause you a fair amount anticipatory anxiety, but instead of spending your days figuring out how to avoid grief triggers, we suggest that you try and learn to tolerate them.
Not sure how? Start here:
- Identify positive coping skills: Identify coping skills that will help you deal with distress, rather than avoid it. Tools like relaxation and mindfulness techniques can help in the moment. So can calling a friend; creative expression (journaling or art); finding ways to put the moment into perspective (finding humor or seeking gratitude), and identifying ways to decompress as soon as the moment has passed.
- Be realistic: Research has shown that people are pretty bad at predicting their emotional responses to future events. Although people are usually able to anticipate the types of emotions they will experience, they often believe negative experiences will be far more painful than they truly are. The anxiety and fear of anticipating and avoiding an event are often far worse than the actual experience.
- Just go with it: Here’s the thing about distressing emotions, most of the time they become intense, peak, and then dissipate. You will probably find that if you allow yourself to stay in the distressing moment that the anxiety and emotion will wash over you and then recede.
Step #4: Learn from the tough stuff. Throw away the bad stuff. Hold onto the good stuff.
Some experiences are hard, but they help you grow. Sift through these experiences and learn what you can from them. When you’re done, it’s okay to let go of what’s left.
Much of life is grist for the mill. That said, some people, behaviors, thoughts, beliefs, and experiences are unhelpful, distracting, or downright toxic. Let these things go as soon as possible.
Finally, some lessons, thoughts, and memories are wonderful, warm, comforting, inspiring, helpful, and so on. Keep these things, hold onto them tightly, and find excuses to relish in them as often as possible.
Step #5: Keep living life one day at a time.
Living the rest of your life without your loved one seems like an impossibility, and living with grief for the rest of your life seems insufferable. Keep getting up and living life one day at a time anyway. Keep learning, keep throwing away the bad stuff, and keep remembering the good. Slowly but surely you’ll find that by living life one day at a time, you’ve made it to a place where forever doesn’t seem quite so long.
Step #6: Let people help you
If you have a support system of people who want to help you, let them! Ask for help, tell them what you need, and communicate. Having (and utilizing) social support is correlated with positive adjustment and increased well-being in people who have experienced loss, trauma, or other hardship.
If you don’t feel that you have a good support system, start here.
Step #7: Find ways to keep your loved one in your life.
For many people, an important part of grieving is figuring out how to have a relationship with the deceased despite their physical absence. People stay connected to deceased loved ones in many ways including through:
- thoughts and memories
- speaking about them
- allowing their memory to help guide actions, values, and decisions
- participating in private rituals
- finding other unique ways to keep their memory alive.
The ongoing role your loved one plays in your life depends on who you are, who they were, the relationship you had with them, and the stage of life you are in right now. Just know that while holding onto a deceased loved one is a normal and healthy part of loving and grieving them.
Step #8: Repeat indefinitely.