Self-Care in Grief: The Myth of Keeping Busy

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Eleanor Haley

For further articles on these topics:

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 addictions, 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 today's post on self-care. Thanks, Nick!


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 from 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 fell 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.

For more self-care suggestions, check out the following articles:

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19 Comments on "Self-Care in Grief: The Myth of Keeping Busy"

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  1. Christine  October 10, 2021 at 5:01 am Reply

    I was 13 when Mum died, and worse still she had been in a psyciatric facility and took an overdose and killed herself. I Didn’t talk about it at school as I didn’t want to be ‘the girl whose mum killed herself’ also it appeared to be a subject of shame and no counsellors in schools in 1973. Two years later Dad died of a heart attack…. Just remember being numb and dumb at school as I couldn’t concentrate. Got put in slower classes
    I stood on the outside watching girls play and gossip later on….. Had a sister much older who looked after me because she had too…. She was bitter critical and judgemental and as well as that had decided I wouldn’t be going to the funerals…

    Fast forward to when my own daughter was 13 in 1996…..i was married with three children. But I seemed to go off the rails with fits of anger, sadness, moaning about nothing, having digs at my husband, being quite nasty etc etc. I didnt realise this was related to myself at 13……!!. All my latent anger, sadness, loss, confusion had finally surfaced…… When my daughter was 16 my ex left me…. So I faced another huge loss, 22 years down the pan because I hadn’t processed grief at 13 or 15…..I had no real choice but counsellor are out there now alongside much more help. Even for specific losses IE By suicide Please go and find it, if suffering…

  2. MMarie  June 11, 2020 at 7:47 pm Reply

    I receive strength from reading these comments. I too lost my husband at an early age, very young children left to care for and I decided to dive deep in caring and doing for them. Sometimes, going fast will mask the problem. the issue is dealing with the grief. Once I faced that, I could slow down. Actually, people deal with grief differently. Smile through the difficult moments, even if you don’t want to. Plan a fun day, or a couple of hours or one hour even. We know that getting over isn’t the right term, but we can go forward and serve as a candle for others, thank God who are going through a difficult time.

  3. Jessica  January 27, 2019 at 10:11 am Reply

    My dad died on Christmas Eve 2016. I was 9 months pregnant at the time so I ended up having my daughter less then a week after we buried him. My baby less than a week old was hospitalized for RSV. At the end of the month I developed a case of bells palsey, all the time not expecting to work because I was on maternity leave. I lost my mom unexpectedly on 01/08/2019 My employee only offers 2 days of leave and because we accumulate so little I did not have any. I went back to work a week after Memorializing her because I was not crying and thought I was okay. 2 days I became very angry, it started as something simple and turned into rage for me. I decided that I was not okay within so I took some days off. I also suffer rom fibromyalgia which flares up due to stress and lack of sleep so of course it is flared. I keep going back and forth with myself about me going back because i need to support my family. I do need to support my family but if I’m not okay my family and work suffers. I decided that I need to take some more time off to address all the feelings that I have going on right now.

  4. REBECCA MACY  March 19, 2018 at 5:11 pm Reply

    i did that… within days, I went out and got a job. I cleaned the ENTIRE house. I moved everything from it’s original space to somewhere else in the home. I felt like I moved, but I was still there. I am going thru the motions of life, but not really.

  5. REBECCA MACY  March 19, 2018 at 5:11 pm Reply

    i did that… within days, I went out and got a job. I cleaned the ENTIRE house. I moved everything from it’s original space to somewhere else in the home. I felt like I moved, but I was still there. I am going thru the motions of life, but not really.

    • Steve  September 17, 2019 at 8:09 pm Reply

      I am not sure that I agree that keeping busy isn’t at least a partial solution. I was married at age 19, and buried my wife 44 years later after a decade of serious health problems. I could write a novel on being a little crazy afterwards. It would be a fun read, and I am sure a few would identify with my attempts to force myself to be over my grief. Lots of distractions including dating, projects around the house, etc. In retrospect as I look back to over two years since I stood at the cemetery, it’s hard to face grief all at once, and distractions are a way to control the speed of the grief process. Is today too much of a challenge to be healthy, then do activities. Tomorrow may be a better day to deal with reality. Grief is like a broken leg (yes, I had one) in that after a while you don’t need the crutches, but you can’t run. Time is a factor. For me, two years seemed to be a breakthrough. I had done the counseling, read books, did this and that, and there was eventually some deep down healing for whatever reason. I was involved in many things, those wonderful distractions, and that gave my mind and spirit time to emotionally heal. I have found that no one really wants to hear my advice on how to make the transition back to “normal” and happy, so I will spare you the details other than the one overriding theory: Never give up HOPE that you will someday no longer be lost in the Grief Forest. Follow your own compass. It may be a different approach than others, it may even be a wrong approach, but love yourself and HOPE that there will be a beautiful sunrise when you get through the darkness.

  6. Ruth  February 3, 2018 at 6:28 pm Reply

    Dealing with grief is much harder than I would like to express. Most people dont talk about it fr various reasons but it seems that most of us go the grief at various points in our lives. I am grateful to b able to process my grief in a positive way. I think self-love and self care are very important during the grief process. Being patient is also a very good skill to have as well. I have found that meeting new people has been found to be helpful. Many people share their stories and maybe one day I will share mine too.

  7. Ruth  February 3, 2018 at 6:28 pm Reply

    Dealing with grief is much harder than I would like to express. Most people dont talk about it fr various reasons but it seems that most of us go the grief at various points in our lives. I am grateful to b able to process my grief in a positive way. I think self-love and self care are very important during the grief process. Being patient is also a very good skill to have as well. I have found that meeting new people has been found to be helpful. Many people share their stories and maybe one day I will share mine too.

  8. Michaela  July 3, 2017 at 7:11 pm Reply

    Hi, to me I have had a very sad life so far and I’m not that old even. My lovely husband aged 42 and dad very sadly and suddenly passed away in 2005. 🙁 my life changed dramatically not the life I intended for myself and our children aged 16 daughter lost her 1st love .:( and 13 son lost his best friend and I lost the love of my life! Devasted was the word I used. Never thought I’d love again or allow myself to be loved by another man after losing my soulmate but 8 years later I met this amazing man whom I loved and was so suited. Couldn’t believe my luck! Only for him to be snatched away suddenly too and very sadly passed away at the age of 53. Only 5 months ago and know what to expect and been thru it got the t shirt even. I’m going thru the usual sadness grief loss of our life together and how things could of been. I’m struggling tho at times. When I’m around my friends I can sometimes cope and I learnt to switch off to try to have some good times! Sorry I’ve gone on a bit.

  9. Debra  March 5, 2016 at 1:04 pm Reply

    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.

  10. Kathy  February 26, 2014 at 1:23 pm Reply

    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.

    • Eleanor  February 26, 2014 at 2:37 pm Reply


      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.


    • Pamela Brown  November 6, 2018 at 6:34 pm Reply

      My son 22, died 5wks ago, after completing his Masters degree. I had to do CPR in the street but was already gone it seems. I have his birthday in 2 wks followed by graduation in Dec. I feel it’s only in the last days I realise he’s not on holiday, he’s not coming back. I got married exactly a wk before and he was so happy, yet my visions are of that night in the street which results are inconclusive

    • Charmaine Tunn  October 18, 2019 at 9:24 pm Reply

      I feel so sorry for you. I too lost my 34 year old son nearly 5 months ago. If I don’t keep busy I feel I will go mad, but even when I am busy I still think about him nearly all the time. I too find meeting new people helps me. I realise that to be distracted may delay grief but I need relief, even short term, or I don’t think I will survive.

  11. Arnie  December 30, 2013 at 3:14 pm Reply

    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?

    • Eleanor  December 30, 2013 at 4:09 pm Reply


      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.


      • Steve  September 17, 2019 at 8:45 pm

        Thank you for your explanation. I may have missed the point earlier. The Grief Monster was too big for me to fight, and I tried many things to confront it . . . serial dating, counseling sessions, reading grief books, hobbies, traveling, etc. In the end, I liked distractions that made me not think about my loss (wife of 44 years). The Grief Monster started showing up less often, usually at 3:30 AM which was the time my wife needed a drink of water and a back rub before laying back down to sleep, which ended up being an eternal sleep a couple of hours later. Fast forward over two years later, and I am a pretty good cook which I never used to do, I do painting which is a hobby I had as a child, I volunteer, I changed churches and I enjoy that, I changed some of the furniture, I eventually met someone very wonderful and we are compatible and have chemistry. I HOPE . . . Yes, that is an important breakthrough to have hope. I haven’t seen the Grief Monster for a while. Something has healed. I still wake up at 3:30 AM once in a while just like an alarm clock goes off, but now I raise my hand and wave at the ceiling. I like to think my wife is just checking in on me, and I know she wants the best for me. It’s our “Hello.”

  12. Diane Dettmann  March 25, 2013 at 7:44 pm Reply

    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

    • Eleanor  March 27, 2013 at 3:22 pm Reply

      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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