When grief shatters your universe, it can feel like everything is out of your control. From there, it’s only a short step to feelings of total helplessness and hopelessness. Our brains (self-protectively) naturally focus on the negative, scary, awful things around us, hoping to help us prepare for risk and danger. In grief, something terrifying and devastating has already happened, so our brains are even more predisposed to stress and anxiety. In trying to mental prepare and protect us from any more harm and suffering, it is easy for our brains to focus entirely on what is out of our control and miss the things that are in our control (however small they may be!). It takes a deliberate effort to make that mental shift. One that, unfortunately, is often hardest to make in the moments we need it most.
The questions below are a little nudge to help you see something (anything) you have some control over. Though sounds small, research shows time and again that perception of control significantly impacts our wellbeing. They are far from the only questions – you might have your own questions for these moments. If you do, leave your additions to the list in the comments!
Questions to ask yourself when everything feels out of your control in grief
- Even if absolutely nothing external to me changes, what’s one thing I could do that would feel hopeful or make me smile this week? We often focus exclusively on changing or “fixing” things going on around us. We wish those around us would behave differently. Fight this by taking a breath and accepting the world as it is in this moment, no matter how terrible. Look for one thing you can do, even with everything and everyone else remaining exactly as it.
- Should I eat a snack, drink a glass of water, take a walk, take a nap, or do all four? You might be rolling your eyes, but we’re serious with this one. Our physical state can have a remarkable impact on our mental state. A gray world can look black when you’re tired, hungry, thirsty, or fresh-air and movement deprived. Reminding yourself that you not only can, but should, do some things to tend to your physical state when you’re struggling mentally and emotionally is simple but helpful.
- What is one thing that I’m doing that is helping me right now? What is one thing I am going that is harming me right now? Turning a critical eye toward our own behaviors isn’t always easy. But figuring out what you’re doing that is helping and harming is incredibly important. There are always things that you are doing that are having an impact on your well-being, for better or worse. Once you’ve managed to identify those things, you’re more likely to see ways to change the harmful things and enhance the helpful things.
- If my best friend were in my shoes, feeling what I’m feeling right now, what would I tell them? Our ability to see our own circumstances clearly is often obscured by the tornado of emotions we’re feeling. It’s amazing what new insights your brain will turn up when you suddenly imagine someone you love in your shoes. This is a tried and true tip for many situations when you’re feeling helpless or unsure what to do.
- What is one positive encounter or moment of joy I’ve had this week? We’ve talked so many times about the power of gratitude. This is not sugarcoating or ignoring pain. It is saying that right alongside our pain there are often still things we’re grateful for. Unfortunately, if we aren’t hunting around for them they sometimes get lost in the dark shadow of grief. Forcing yourself to identify the moments of joy or gratitude, no matter how small, does two things. First, it reminds you they exist – even when it feels like they don’t. Second, it reminds you that you CAN find them. You just need to remember to look.
- Does anyone know that I am struggling as much as I am? Many times, the answer is no. We tend to hide emotions, for a whole host of reasons. You don’t have control over other people and if they’ll support you. But you do have control over making sure they know that your struggling and telling them what you need.
- Is it daytime and, if so, am I showered and dressed? Now, don’t get us wrong. We are the first to embrace staying in your pjs all day sometimes. But we’re also the first to remind you that when you feel lower than low and like the the universe is conspiring against you, being unshowered and in your pjs can sometimes make things feel worse. So give it a go. Worst thing that happens is it doesn’t help how you feel mentally, but at least now you’re clean.
- Have I sent myself loving-kindness? Okay, for those who don’t like woo-woo, please stop rolling your eyes. Take it from someone who has been accused of being hyperrational more than once, this isn’t woo-woo nonsense. Loving-kindness is a gentle and easy practice in which you simply repeat certain phrases of loving-kindness to yourself. Our thoughts can pull so hard to the negative sometimes, especially in grief. This isn’t an effort to deny or bypass those negative thoughts. It is just sending yourself the loving-kind thoughts that you wish for yourself . May I be calm . . . may I be peaceful . . . may I be happy. We cannot control what is happening around us. We can’t even control what thoughts pop into our heads sometimes. But we can make a conscious effort to send ourself some positive thoughts for our brain to practice holding. Sharon Salzberg is my favorite teacher of loving-kindness practices if you want to learn more.