Balancing Selflessness and Self-Care in Grief

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 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 cause the parent to be less of a patient, empathetic, and healthy presence for their child.  The same holds true for any type of relationship where someone seeks to support, help, and take care of another individual.  



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.  And aside from one’s natural proclivities, I can think of a few other reasons why stepping into the caretaker role may be comforting/unavoidable including…

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

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

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

Now, I would never suggest you completely change who you are, 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.  Grief is pretty much no one’s comfort zone and asking for help and focusing one oneself is uncomfortable for many people as well.  So, it may be far easier for you to tell 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.”

Self-care for the giving griever:

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 in grief

Subscribing to WYG is an act of self-care.

So is listening to the WYG podcast.

March 28, 2017

6 responses on "Balancing Selflessness and Self-Care in Grief"

  1. 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?

  2. 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?

    • 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!


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

  4. Perfect guidance for me today

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