One Day At A Time: More Than Just a Grief Cliche

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Litsa Williams

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Recently on our social media, I posted the following quote by Patti Davis:

“It takes strength to make your way through grief, to grab a hold of life and let it pull you forward.” 

I get really annoyed at the zillions of quote images all over the internet, so I am very selective about the quotes I share.  It has to be something that really resonates with me.  So, when someone commented and asked others to share what they felt the quote meant, it got me thinking about why I like this quote.

In case you aren’t staying on top of each and every facebook comment and reply on our page, here was my reply:

"To me 'grabbing hold of life' is the act of getting up every day and doing something . . . anything. So many people can't fathom that they will move forward in grief, but somehow they do. In my mind that is life pulling you forward - you get up in the morning and somehow you do it, one day at a time.  One day you look around and realize that life has pulled you further than you ever thought you would be."

It was writing this reply I realized, at its core, this quote reminds me of an affirmation I love.  One day at a time.  It is almost cliché at this point, but the one day at a time mantra has gotten me through many a dark time.  I struggle with silver linings and overly positive affirmations and over-optimism.  But the Patti Davis quote and this mantra grow from a common assumption for me: surviving (and embracing) the present moment is what matters and in doing so we move forward, even when we don't think it possible.  It isn't always easy, it isn't always pretty. And that's okay.

I feel some of you shutting browser windows in fear that I am descending into abstract, theoretical hooey.  Hang tight, I promise this is real, practical stuff.

On our worst days (and in grief, there are many many worst days) the future looks like a deep, dark, meaningless black hole.  Getting through the day feels impossible, so thinking about the week, the year, the decade, a lifetime without the person we love can incite full-on emotional implosion.  The idea of coping seems like a complete impossibility, while fear, depression, and panic seem a frightening reality.

Probably the most common reference to one day at a time is in recovery from substances, where it has been prevalent for decades.  Interestingly, it has become extremely common in the world of grief too.  One bridge between substance recovery and grief is facing the reality of a future without someone (or something) we cannot fathom living without.  Imagining a lifetime of moments without that person or thing is crushing.  Imagining putting a life back together after the wreckage of an addiction or the devastation of a death feels unspeakably daunting.

Like any good project manager, running coach, event planner or therapist will tell you, even the most daunting obstacles feel manageable when broken down into their smallest parts.  Surviving life after loss feels unimaginable.  Surviving today?  Maybe.

one day at a time grief

Mikao Usui, the founder of Reiki, wrote five affirmations that became the principles of Reiki:

I will never be angry?  inconceivable.  I won’t even try.

Just for today, I will not be angry?  Uhhh, not impossible? I’ll give it a try.

It is amazing what a little reframing can do.  ‘Just for today’ or ‘one day at a time’ doesn’t have to be abstract and theoretical ideas.  Living them can make them very real and very helpful in coping.  So, how do you do it?

  1. Understand affirmations. Affirmations are a tricky topic.  We know in the world of psychology that some research shows overly positive affirmation can actually have a negative impact on people with low self-esteem.  So, just telling yourself that you love and accept yourself can actually end up triggering more negative thoughts!  But we also know that certain kinds of affirmations can actually be very beneficial, especially coupled with other types of coping.  Research has found that “timely affirmations have been shown to improve education, health, and relationship outcomes, with benefits that sometimes persist for months and years”.   You can read more about this complex topic of affirmations here.  But what is important and valuable about the ‘one day at a time’ or ‘just for today’ affirmation is that it isn’t overly positive or trying to cancel negative thoughts.  It is an affirmation of acceptance, accepting that life is difficult and affirming one’s ability to get through just a single day.  This, based on what we know from the research, seems more likely to impact us positively than negatively.
  2. Build your awareness of the present, to help manage the spirals of thinking that drag us into the past and the future. Building mindfulness in day to day life can be tough.  It is training our brain to do something that doesn’t always come naturally- getting control over our thoughts and focusing on the present.  There are lots of activities to help you build mindfulness online, but you can start with my post here.  Then google your way to some more extensive info!
  3. Break huge things into small things. The reality is that, even when we are grieving, aspects of life must go on.  We still have to take care of children, work, take care of estate issues, and a zillion other things.  When the projects are big and the list is huge it can feel easiest to do nothing rather than even begin.  Breaking those huge and daunting tasks into their smallest parts can make things more manageable and doable today.  One day at a time.  Harvard encourages their students to do this with this worksheet.
  4. Write things down. I know, this sounds so obvious and boring.  But when you are in that overwhelmed rut where you can’t face any day to day activities in your grief, we often opt for doing nothing instead of something.  Our list of somethings keeps growing, making the list even more formidable, perpetuating the cycle.  Keeping one list of the many things, large and small, that you need to accomplish is fine.  But don’t let that be your day-to-day list.  Make your day to day list a list of only the things you wish to do today.  Look at only one list each day. Don't forget to celebrate your accomplishments and don't let one off day derail you.  There is always tomorrow.  You can use this list-making to supplement daily journaling.
  5. Stop judging. A key to mindfulness and to the ‘one day at a time’ philosophy is non-judgment.  So often we can’t help but focus on our failures, beat ourselves up, and spot the worst.  Part of ‘one day at a time’ is recognizing the value in strictly embracing the present and making it through the day. We will have negative thoughts, we will have bad days, and there is value in accepting them without judgment or criticism for ourselves.  They are part of life and part of grief.  The best we can do is acknowledge, accept, and move forward.

Okay, back to the quote that brought us here.  “It takes strength to make your way through grief, to grab a hold of life and let it pull you forward.”   Most times we don’t see the strides in our grief every day.  We get up, we work to make it through the day, and as we step into life it pulls us forward.  Slowly but surely. We may slide backward at times. 

We may feel totally stagnant some days.  But if all goes well, at some point we look around and realize holy crap.  I have survived for days, or months, or years when I never thought it possible.  The days have gotten easier when I never thought they would.  It wasn’t about overnight transformations or butterflies or rainbows after the storm.  It was about slowly but surely putting one foot in front of the other.

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9 Comments on "One Day At A Time: More Than Just a Grief Cliche"

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  1. Alyss  October 1, 2022 at 4:43 am Reply

    I lost two second trimester babies in the last year, on 24 weeks and one 15 weeks, for different reasons. My grief is layered and I’ve found im so overwhelmed, I’m glad I’ve found a website like this. 💗💔

  2. Louise  January 16, 2020 at 11:34 am Reply

    I only lost my father 7 weeks ago . He died suddenly in the house in front of my brother. I thought I was fine and now suddenly it’s hit me like a ton of bricks . I’m crying every day now . Feel like I’ve been abandoned

  3. Janet  December 12, 2019 at 7:26 am Reply

    I just don’t understand this , I had the sudden loss of my dear husband November 2014. This year on Thanksgiving marked the 5th year of his passing. I find the holidays to be very difficult.
    I continue to try and do things like I used to for the holidays. It is just that I feel that I am not good enough I feel that something is missing. I find it very hard as I was use to being a couple. Sometimes I feel that I just isolate myself. My heart goes out to all who are going through the loss of loved ones it is not easy. Yes, I smile and get through each day but I can still feel the deep down pain. With winter approaching I dread it.

  4. Kelly  September 10, 2019 at 12:51 pm Reply

    I am such a planner out into the future. I see my friends who live in the moment and I value them for their ability to do that. But I never can see how that can be of value to me. If I don’t plan for tomorrow today, I miss out on what I could have been doing because I was just taking on projects, or people or life events as they’re thrown at me rather than me taking control and personal responsibility to manage my life for myself. But this article tells me how and why the live-in-the moment attitude can be helpful. The one thing life has taught me is that my propensity to try to control things doesn’t always serve me well. This address when and how it does and when and how to leave things alone and take them as they come. Thank you.

  5. Chris Wolfenden  November 22, 2018 at 10:09 am Reply

    I lost my best friend my wife in September this year and yes I take one day at a time,
    My wife was so very very ill and even though it’s a blessing for her no longer to be trapped in a body that no longer worked.
    I’m now reconised having a mental health illness
    So I’m on depression medication with helps to keep my mind calm,
    I also have ptsd which is effecting me every day.
    The only way to deal with this is one day at a time
    I have a puppy and two kittens who need daddy to look after them, so I have responsibilities.
    Working helps to give me a purpose and direction, unfortunately I’m a little bit snappy with people, I don’t mean it yet I notice it myself.
    I find myself crying for no reason if I go shopping and have to visit the personal hygiene area,
    Shampoo nail polish even soap I start crying.
    I am avoiding any thing to do with Christmas as it’s the wrong time of year.
    My poor lass was 53years young and she didn’t deserve to die so young.
    The old saying is that the Good die young.
    If I could of swapped places with her I would have.

    • Molly  February 28, 2019 at 3:57 pm Reply

      I also lost the love of my life in December 2018. Life will not ever be the same for me. I do take one day at a time, it is hard and at the moment I feel lost and have no future. It is a wilderness with no path through it. I can only hope that each day will show me that I can get through this wilderness and not be hard on myself even though it is not at all easy.

  6. Abba  January 24, 2017 at 1:44 am Reply

    What a great post. I figure if I’m up to one day at a time I’m doing great. First I start off with 15 minutes at a time. Then 30 and soon I’m to a half a day. If I’m at at one day I’m doing great. I’ve used this philosophy for countless years and for countless reasons. I love the quote by Patty Davis. It’s so true.

  7. Anne Smith  January 23, 2017 at 3:37 pm Reply

    I lost my older sister in July 2012 to cancer and my 23 year old son in December 2012 to a car accident, I have 2 other children and 2 grandchildren and right after my son was pronounced dead in the hospital I heard bells ring and I knew an angel received their wings, my angel. I knew I had to make it ok for my family and I adopted 1 day at a time and fake it till you make it, it worked for us. Then the poem your dash was read at his funeral by his girlfriend and now our family has adopted that as our motto, we are living our Dash. We do many thing to celebrate my son’s life and we always live our Dash. Thank You for all your wonderful messages. They help <3

  8. Elisabeth  April 10, 2015 at 2:08 pm Reply

    My stepson was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2011. My family is of course still grieving and I am so grateful I recently found your facebook page, podcasts and website. They are filled with alot of good information, some humor, and are thought provoking. Keep up the great work!

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