Balancing Selflessness and Self-Care in Grief

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Eleanor Haley

For further articles on these topics:

Are you the family member everyone looks to when times get tough?  Are you who your friends call when they need a supportive ear? Are you in touch with everyone else's needs, but kinda clueless about your own?

Guilty? Okay then, this post is for you.

Yes, you.  You know who you are, you do-ers, givers, caretakers, and get-things-done-ers.

You're steady and unflappable, empathetic, sympathetic, compassionate, and caring.  When the going gets tough, you're there making things easier.  You're loyal and thoughtful and you always put those you love first. True, you may spend a lot of time standing around in other people's corners and, yes, your shoulder is usually a little damp from people crying on it, but that's okay because taking care of people is your thing!  Selflessness is a great quality! How could it ever not be a great quality?

I'll tell you how.

You've heard the expression "too much of a good thing", right?  Well, selflessness and self-sacrifice are no exceptions to this rule. In past posts, we've discussed the benefit of conceptualizing emotion and behavior as though it exists on a continuum.  By doing this we see that there's a wide range of normal behavior, but sometimes extreme low points and extreme high points might be considered maladaptive (i.e. not healthy).

For example, let's look at how a parent might balance a child's needs with their own.  On the low end of the spectrum, the parent completely ignores their child's needs and focuses only on their own. This is bad parenting. On the higher end of the spectrum, the parent completely focuses on their child's needs, to the detriment of their own needs. This type of selfless behavior can look like good parenting, but in actuality, it may cause the parent to be less healthy, patient, and empathetic. The same holds true for any type of relationship where someone seeks to support, help, and take care of another individual.  

selfishness vs selflessness continuum

If you are a giver (or, if you prefer, a giving griever), the days, weeks, and months after someone dies may feel especially confusing. On the one hand, you're a devastated mess of emotion. On the other hand, your caregiving instincts have kicked into overdrive. There is so much to do and so many people in need of emotional support!

You've been cultivating your emotional fortitude and ability to remain calm in crisis for moments just like these and so you're (possibly) tempted to shove your grief aside and focus on everyone else.  Beyond that, there are other reasons why you may feel compelled to step into the caregiving role, reasons beyond your natural proclivities.  Consider...

1. It feels good to care for others, to feel needed, and/or to feel useful.

2. You feel pressure to take care of others because...

  • are a parent, grandparent, or another primary caregiver
  • ...if you don't step up, no one else will
  • are legitimately the strongest/most capable person
  • ...other people are looking to you to take charge
  • feel guilty/selfish when you're not helping others
  • have a taker in your midst

3. Taking charge and helping others helps you feel more in control

4. Focusing on others allows you to avoid your own thoughts and emotions

Self-Care for the Giving Griever:

Now, I would never suggest you completely ignore your instincts... That's not what this post is about.  Instead, I'm simply hoping that you will stop and consider whether the above description sounds a little (or a lot) like you. If so, I'm asking you to be cautious.

Giving is your comfort zone, we've established this. While grief is pretty much no one's comfort zone.... It may be far easier for you to ease into what's familiar by telling yourself that there's too much to be done, you will worry about yourself later, or that you have to stay strong for others than it is to allow yourself to feel the discomfort of being emotional, helpless, and out-of-control.

Focusing on yourself may go against everything in your nature and self-care may not be your forte, but as someone who is grieving it is important now, possibly more than ever, for you to strike a good self-care balance.  As this Psychology Today article, 'Is Self-Care Selfish?' notes...

"There is a difference between self-absorbed, narcissistic behavior and sound internal self-care. Self-care is about taking good care of our own feelings so we don't project them onto others, act badly, or cause problems in relationships. Being in touch with our own feelings and embracing them is the healthiest thing we can do."

In order to do your best work as a supportive friend and family member, you have to deal with your own grief and well-being. So how does a giver practice self-care in grief?  That depends on you, but here are a few general suggestions to get you started:

self-care contract example

Subscribing to WYG is an act of self-care.

We wrote a book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
real-life book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.

You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books:

Let’s be grief friends.

We post a new article to What’s Your Grief about once a week. Subscribe to stay up to date on all our posts.

Related Blog Posts

Related Blog Posts

See More

9 Comments on "Balancing Selflessness and Self-Care in Grief"

Click here to leave a Comment
  1. Beth Rosenthal  November 10, 2019 at 11:01 pm Reply

    My mom passed away this past January. She was the do-er, the only person I counted on, the strong one, etc. We were a team or we used to be. She helped me through a life-threatening illness as a child and its many side effects. She was a single mom, with a sick daughter, and I also felt that I needed to make sure that she was OK. When she was diagnosed with an illness in 2009, of course I was there. I got her to go to good hospitals and spent time with her. And cried myself to sleep in 2014, certain that she was dying. And I was heartbroken for my mom because our family isn’t close and no one really understood. She was never in the hospital, so I don’t think people realized how sick she was. She was in remission for a bit and I could tell that she wasn’t well by May of 2018. I was terrified. Although we saw eachother weekly, we didn’t discuss her health a lot. She always had a reason why she couldn’t try this or that. I begged her to try different approaches, but she wouldn’t. I think she gave up and I eventually had to give up, but still never imagined her dying. By October she started talking differently to me, saying ” look at that beautiful face”, “how proud she is of the person I am” and ” I could or couldn’t get married, whatever I want”. In my head I knew what she was doing, but I couldn’t deal with it. Last Nov., she tried telling me that she wasn’t well and I said that I knew. But I put a hand up, like that’s all I can take, and we never discussed it again. And I just continued working, taking care of my health, calling my mom, etc. I spent Thanksgiving, Christmas and NYE and day with her. Dec. 31st to Jan. 3rd were the most horrible days of my life. Seeing her in pain and miserable…..was horrifying. And by Jan. 2nd, I knew. I sang to her on the phone that morning. After our morning call on the 3rd, I called her lousy sister thinking that she’d get something out of mom, but no. I went over after work.I rushed to Whole foods buying supplements for 5 possibilities to help. Although she was in horrible pain , I didn’t ask if she wanted me to call the doctor or go to the ER, because she would have said no. I only stayed a half hour because I had a new TV that was going to be installed. I’m so mad at myself for not cancelling that. I just assumed that my mom would want me to keep the appointment. I was very concerned by our conversation the morning of the 4th. She said that she had a really bad night, we said our ” I love you’s” and she said that she had to go, she “was fading”. I called her MD that morning and left a message. I called her all day, no answer. So I went over after work and found her. She looked like she was trying to get in or out of her bed. So she wasn’t comfortable. I think she died during or right after our phone call.
    All of our friends and family knew how much my mom and I loved and liked each other. In late 2016 I started the first job I ever loved and worked more that I ever did and I also had some serious health issues that needed diagnosing. I was worried about living, myself. I knew that my mom would have wanted to die at home and had a DNR. But I still get overwhelmed with guilt that I didn’t miss work for some of her appointments, didn’t ask her more questions about her life and her health, didn’t buy her more gifts, didn’t ask her what she wanted me to do with some of her things, etc. But I think I did what made her happy. I hope.

  2. Carolyn Cross  March 7, 2019 at 12:34 pm Reply

    Denise, You are so wise. You are my HERO!

  3. Sandra Lawrence  September 6, 2018 at 6:22 pm Reply

    I find that my need to give increases as I age.

    I have had so much grief in my life. My parents died in a car crash six months after my first child was born. My brother was murdered just after my second baby was born. I am in a difficult marriage with a depressed, OCD, and controlling man who causes me massive anxiety and stress.

    Supporting many friends, three grown up children, grandchildren and others I even am a Samaritan!

    Self care is a difficult concept for me.

    The article has given me much food for thought.

  4. Jodie  June 30, 2018 at 12:18 am Reply

    I dint kniw how I stumbled upon this tonight. I had banned fb (honestly banned everything) and my entire past week was this reading to a tee… I now an stuck in between knowing I’m wrong going wrong to my family and to myself. I guess we are all learning lessons. Thank you for sharing this. This may of just saved me. Thank you.

  5. Megan  March 18, 2016 at 9:54 am Reply

    I struggle with this currently. I find myself, a month plus after my sister died, struggling with being honest and not being mean. I have friends who just, well one friend, who just seems to NOT honor or acknowledge how I feel. I don’t know honestly what i want from her- pity? help? I know she can’t help me at all. I was the person who was always there for this friend, listening to her stories about her life, boys, and giving advice (really what do i know?) . And now i find myself often lost between anger at myself and her for feeling bad that I don’t share excitement for her life or actually care about what she shares with me. Why? Because I am stuck in my head right now. Stuck with letting go of who I was with my sister on this earth and now who I am without her. I don’t know who I am without her.
    So how can i help anyone right now?
    I am attending a grief group and I am learning I am the gatekeeper of my grief. I can let others in and I can keep them out. I want to snap and then I know I’d regret it. How do this just seems impossible at times.

    I suppose the question at hand is how do I deal with friends, albeit well intended, don’t get it?

  6. Jane Dunn  March 1, 2016 at 11:21 am Reply

    Such good information! I would like to share this on the Mary’s Place, a center for grieving children & families, Facebook page, but I don’t see a link. Am I missing it?

    • Eleanor  March 1, 2016 at 12:59 pm Reply

      Hey Jane,

      You can share on Facebook either by clicking on the Facebook icon just below the post or by copying the URL in the browser and pasting it directly into a Facebook post. Thanks for sharing!


  7. RoRo  March 1, 2016 at 10:36 am Reply

    This is very good,I appreciated reading this. I relate to this..

  8. Sharon Delany  February 29, 2016 at 5:45 pm Reply

    Perfect guidance for me today

Leave a Comment

YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.