The Need for Self-Compassion in Grief

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Eleanor Haley


Imagine you’re talking to a close friend who is grieving and she tells you she’s frustrated because she doesn’t think she’s coping well. You know she has made many active efforts to constructively cope such as attending a support group and journaling about her grief and you believe she has been doing as well as can be expected, but she feels like she has been making very little progress.

She wonders whether she is strong enough to handle her grief and compares herself to others in her grief support group, who she believes are coping better than she is. Keeping in mind this friend typically appreciates feedback – what would you say to her?

Take a few minutes to think about it…doot doo doo…think think think…aaaaaaaaand we’re back.

So, what did you say to your friend?  I’m guessing most of your responses were compassionate, supportive, and encouraging.  Am I right?  I bet I’m right.

Now, I want you to think about a time when you were the frustrated and self-critical grieving person. Even if the content of your criticism was different, the self-reproach was the same.

What, at that time, did you say to yourself?  Did you show yourself the same support and encouragement that you gave to your hypothetical friend above?  Were you even open to your own self-kindness and compassion? If the answer to this question is, “No, I was not kind to myself”, you are definitely not alone.

It’s puzzling, isn’t it? Why do we respond to our friends with understanding, patience, and compassion, but we respond to ourselves as though were hard-nosed football coaches running drills before the big game?

You call that grieving? At this rate, you’ll never feel better!  Now take a lap!

If you think about it, most of us are taught to be kind to others at a very early age, but lessons about being kind to oneself are far less overt. This is an unfortunate reality because self-compassion has been linked to greater levels of things like increased resilience and well-being and lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress. 

As prominent self-compassion researcher and author Kristin Neff has written, “If you are continually judging and criticizing yourself while trying to be kind to others, you are drawing artificial boundaries and distinctions that only lead to feelings of separation and isolation.”

Self-compassion is useful and important, especially during times of difficulty and suffering.  Sadly, I worry many people won’t even make it past the title of this article because they dismiss it as buzzwordy, or because they confuse self-compassion with things like self-indulgence or self-pity. But self-compassion is not the same as pitying or indulging oneself. It’s not self-centered, it’s not weak, and it’s not letting yourself get away with things without a second thought.


 

So…what is self-compassion? 

Glad you asked!

One thing psychologists must do when researching and applying a concept is define and describe it. Sometimes these definitions closely match our understanding of the term in broader society, and sometimes they are a little different.

So, you may have your own ideas about what self-compassion and self-kindness mean, but when we refer to self-compassion we’re referring to it as it’s defined by Kristin Neff who is quoted above. You can explore this concept a little on your own on selfcompassion.org, but we’ll briefly discuss it as it relates to grief below.


Self-compassion is made up of 3 parts…

1.  Self-Kindness: 

Showing self-kindness means being understanding, accepting, and compassionate towards oneself, rather than harsh and critical. Self-kindness does not require a person to ignore their suffering or to immediately let themselves off the hook for their wrongdoing.  Instead, it asks people to approach experiences like these with a more flexible, open, and understanding stance as opposed to one of shame and condemnation.

For many, self-kindness is easy to understand, but hard to live. People often feel their self-criticism is what keeps them in line.  They fear that without it they won’t know when they’ve done something wrong or push themselves to be as good and productive as they can possibly be.  But there’s no evidence to support this notion and such self-criticisms can create stress for the person and undermine their sense of self-confidence and capability.

Grief is an overwhelming experience that challenges a person to cope while simultaneously juggling a complex and complicated life filled with jobs, bills, housework, parenting, friends, family, etc. To make things even more challenging, grief sometimes involve feelings of guilt, regret, shame, low self-esteem, and loss of identity.

So quite often people find themselves struggling with thoughts like – “I’m not strong enough to deal with this.” “I don’t know who I am anymore.” “I should be feeling better right now.” “I wasn’t a good wife/husband/son/daughter/etc” “The death was my fault”  So, grieving people should be especially mindful of their self-critical voice and how loud it has become.


 

2. A Sense of Common Humanity:

Acknowledging our common humanity doesn’t deny our differences, rather it asks people to focus instead on how we are the same.  It may seem abstract to some, but for others, it may be comforting to remember that suffering and imperfections are a part of the broader human experience. Everyone suffers, everyone is imperfect, so we are not abnormal, wrong, or different when we experience these things and we do not need to isolate, separate, or hide.

I think this is especially relevant to grief because almost everyone will experience the death of a loved one at some point in their lives, but people often get caught up in thinking about how their experiences differ. Take WYG for example, we often talk about how grief feels different for everyone and no two people grieve in the exact same way.  We also often hear people comparing their losses, measuring their suffering against another, or saying, “no one understands me (us)”. 

While we don’t deny the fact that no one can fully understand another person’s pain, my question would be, what purpose does focusing on these differences serve other than to further isolate and separate? When we focus on our common humanity we see that, although I don’t know the depths, colors, and shapes of your pain, I do know that you are suffering because I have suffered too.


3. Mindfulness:

I won’t dive too deeply into mindfulness because this is a bigger concept, but we’ve written about it here.  Mindfulness fits into the bigger picture of self-compassion because one must be present with their experiences and emotions in order to offer themselves kindness and compassion. Just like the friend who runs away at the first sign of a tearful lip quiver, if you can’t be present with your own grief, then how can you acknowledge it and offer yourself understanding?


 

Well, I’ve managed to use up all our time talking about the concept of self-compassion without offering you any actual tools.  That’s okay, another post for another day.  In the meantime, I want to challenge you all to show yourself kindness and compassion by following the (very simple) acronym below.

B – Be kind to yourself. We’ve already discussed this one.

R – Respect your body by not overindulging alcohol, drugs, and bad food; by getting enough sleep, and by moving around at least a little every day.

E – Engage with others in big and/or small ways. We’re not asking you to bloom into a social butterfly or anything. Just try not to isolate. If you haven’t been around other people in a while, go to the local coffee shop or go out for a walk and wave to your neighbors.

A – Allow your emotions to ebb and flow. Don’t run from them. Expect that grief emotions will bubble up, their intensity will rise, and they will wash over you and recede.

T – Take life one minute, hour, and day at a time. The enormity of what it means to live life without your loved one is overwhelming, but remember that coping with grief is something that happens bit-by-bit and day-by-day

H – Allow yourself space and time to remember, honor, and to connect with your loved one’s memory and their continued impact on the world.

E – Your critical voice has a lot of expectations about what grief should be like and how you should cope. Remember, there are very few “shoulds” when it comes to coping with grief.  Everyone copes in their own way and at their own pace.  So give yourself a break. 

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Let’s be grief friends.

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69 Comments on "The Need for Self-Compassion in Grief"

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  1. Linda Davis  March 3, 2020 at 5:08 pm Reply

    I am so thankful for this site, and the people who share their stories! BREATHE, will be high on my check list, of what I do or don’t do on a regular basis! It touches on some of my own recent comments, in a big way! I am very self-critical, for starters, always have been, but, in grief it becomes unmanageable at times! I have been writing in my journal, in a manner, like a woman facing her final hours, and I have to get all my feelings out! I wish I could say this as simply as I see it in my mind! I’ll try! I am holding so much anger and resentment inside. I know who it’s towards and why (in a way)! Now, here it is. I have accepted behavior towards me, that has been less than respectful. I have let this happen, due to my own self criticism. I have been tolerant and even caring, only to be put to the back of the line, again! It has brought up these old inferior feelings, except now, they are charged with all this anger and resentment. I’m still very much a grieving mother, yet I let these other feelings get into my tormented mind, things like, maybe I’m just not likable, maybe I deserve all the grief that has come my way, maybe I can never be happy again, or worse I don’t deserve to be happy! When I’m writing it does help, hence the urgency, when I’m having a particularly bad episode. I have pretty much isolated myself, in many ways, but, this site offers help and encouragement to try things, that may help reduce the anxiety of just living day to day! Being aware that I’m withdrawing from those around me, I try to take steps to combat that. Sometimes, I’m even successful! Sorry, this got longer than intended! Thank you, all, for sharing it really does help. New perspectives!

  2. Jo  January 9, 2020 at 10:01 am Reply

    Especially in response to Steve. I am at the other side of 12 years since my daughter died. I gently say to you to let go of expections regarding the length of time that is appropriate to grieve. We all grieve differently. For me, it has taken years to get to the point where I don’t cry every day. Doesn’t mean I don’t live my life. It just means that the hole in my heart has taken years heal. I heard a saying I think yappropriate:

    We never get over it. We just get through it.
    My heart is with you.

  3. chryssie Eleni voreas  January 8, 2020 at 8:10 pm Reply

    Yes Some of us have living losses (my son who is withdrawn from the world) and my brother who died last March…in pain, fear, wawful life and death…I was hard on him over the years because of his nastiness and rage, but we forgave each other at the end…
    I need to find a grief therapist.

  4. Steve Linville  January 8, 2020 at 5:04 pm Reply

    It has been a little over a year since my son died. We were extremely close. The shock of losing him left me starring into space for months. I have been having memory issues. I have been forgetful and slow in my thinking. I shared with a friend yesterday and she said oh, Steve you need to give yourself at least two years or so before things will even out. She assured me that these things are normal with the blow that has been dealt our family. I was encouraged.

  5. Leatrice  January 8, 2020 at 2:15 pm Reply

    Thank You Again😌

  6. Julie  December 18, 2019 at 7:01 pm Reply

    I wish people would stop firing all grief to a death. Grief comes from loss…any loss. Divorced, abandonment, rejection. It’s not just about death that is such a limited view.

    • Cassie  December 19, 2019 at 11:24 pm Reply

      So write your own article. This one is about death. The grief is much much different when the person you love more than anything in the world DIES.

  7. Cheryl  December 17, 2019 at 11:49 pm Reply

    I agree that self-compassion is very important. You brought up the issues I am experiencing. I will practice this daily. My question is this; does grief only involve death? Because my grief is not because of death. I only see it associated with death. My daughter was diagnosed schizophrenic be at 30 years old. She hit the streets and started self medicatung with heroin. This was 6 years ago. I went five years without seeing her or hearing from her. Long story short, I feel like I’m grieving. If not grief what is it?

    • Linda Stuart  December 30, 2019 at 3:37 am Reply

      Cheryl, grief comes with many names. Death, disease, loss of job, family problems, physical and mental health problem, moving or loss of a beloved pet. My ex husband just passed away, followed by my brother. But my most painful problem during this time is my daughter who has borderline personality disorder. She falsely accused me of sexually molesting my grandchildren and has forbidden me to see them. She is now in jail for stealing almost $80K from her employer. All losses are painful. Don’t compare your loss to others. To you it is painful. Take time for yourself. Allow tears, anger, frustration, sorrow, numbness, disbelief, weariness, etc. to come. Sometimes you will think you are going crazy because you cycle through so many emotions. Talk to a trusted friend, sleep, try to eat healthy things, get dressed if possible, bathe when you are up to it. Grief takes time and wears you down. Time, blessed time, will usually take care of most of the pain. If you believe the pain is too deep for too long, get some professional help. Be gentle and non-judgemental with yourself.

  8. Jim Chaney  December 6, 2019 at 11:40 pm Reply

    Have fun

  9. Karen Pearl Coleman  November 17, 2019 at 2:46 am Reply

    My husband died 13 years ago and I thought I would not survive. I did survive and I met a wonderful man 3 years later. We did not marry but we lived together for 9 years until his death 2 months ago. Yes I am a wreck again. I know what all the feelings are but it sure is difficult. I know I will survive and be whole again but it is very difficult.

    • Sandi  November 25, 2019 at 11:54 pm Reply

      You are so brave to go thru it all again. An inspiration for me. I am 71 been going thru the end journey with my hubs for 8 years. I have learned to just do today like never before. My heart goes out to a grieving sister. Sending hugs.

  10. Barb  May 24, 2019 at 8:03 pm Reply

    Perfect timing I needed this information. The memorial for my husband was one year ago and the grief is worse than back then. I’ve found myself self isolating and avoiding any social thing like the plague. I hope and pray I can utilize BREATH in my life.

  11. Sue M  May 24, 2019 at 6:24 pm Reply

    I tried hard to do all those things to help myself after my husband’s death. I wish I had had this website then. These articles should help others. I give this website out to grieving people, and as I am doing so I give a hug if appropriate and I tell give my phone number with the words “Please don’t hesitate to call me. I care and I will help you.”

  12. Jacqueline Biddulph  May 23, 2019 at 9:08 am Reply

    I too needed this. It’s nearly 4 years since my husband died and I still cannot find joy. I am tired, unmotivated and deeply sad without him.
    I do judge and criticize myself for not being better than I am- I have to “breathe” and accept each small step. The time doesn’t matter.

  13. Kandacekandacejohnson82@yahoo.com  February 7, 2019 at 11:58 pm Reply

    I lost my first grandson 4 months ago to gun violence in Chicago. I never thought this would ever happen. But my faith in God is what has kept me going .i pray for the young man because I know God will repay in his time.my son tried everything he could to bring him out of the street.he just did not listen.we can bring destruction on our own self. Life is what we make it.mailboc.mr.bond

  14. helen  January 13, 2019 at 1:13 pm Reply

    My daughter sent me this article – we are both grieving for my mum, her grandmother and have admitted to each other how difficult it can be to accept the need to be kind to ourselves. Great idea, great site – thank you

  15. Wayne M  January 9, 2019 at 2:20 am Reply

    Another excellent article and very relevant.
    I also love the BREATHE acronym and will try to remember it and do it.

  16. Maritza Arce  October 10, 2018 at 7:54 pm Reply

    This article came on time to understand my feelings of anxiety and solitude after losing my sister to Leukemia on 09/29/2018 after 7 months of battle with chemotheraphy. I was always hoping for a cure or healing for sometimes at least 5 years like I read. My sister and I we planned many times to retired in the same retirement home together, although I was 7 years older. My hobby will be e-reading and her hobby will be crocheting. During her illness, she said one day, I don’t think we will retire together because God is calling me and I must get ready for Him. I told her, please don’t talk this way, you’re making me sad and sick to my stomach. We’ll retire together because then we’ll have all the time in the world to talk and share everything together like when we were kids. Deep in my soul I knew I couldn’t stop her, and she couldn’t stay, we both knew God’s will. So one day she said I’m not getting better, the storm is real, I need to tell you that I am graceful to God for given me a wonderful sister. He is merciful by seeing me go under your tender care with so much love, she told me she knew how much I love her, she knew I would do anything to make her well. With much tears in my eyes I cried and hugged her, it was so important to hear her say that she knew how much I love her. I am still dealing with my pains but I am holding bit by bit day by day knowing that she felt my deep love for her.

  17. Sucheta Dasgupta  June 20, 2018 at 12:02 pm Reply

    After the mess I made with the deepest relationship I ever had in my life, after possibly hurting dad irrevocably just before he died, he who loved me so and whom I regarded so deeply, I am suddenly so socially confident and even intuitive, and poised, too, and worry-free. But what is the point, as I have paid the ultimate price. Such a price it was.

  18. Michael sager  June 13, 2018 at 8:14 am Reply

    I am new to this group. It has been over two years since I lost my two step children. They are alive and this makes me so very happy. I am no longer allowed to see them. Once there mother and I divorced that right was taken from me. The pain is so deep and unrelenting at times. I look back and see that I blame myself for everything. On those occasions that I don’t blame myself I blame there mother.
    I am so filled with sorrow and nothing feels normal anymore. The love and joy for life I had cannot be found. I have been running from these feeling and finally understand It won’t help. The crazy thing is while Yes I have been running from them they are inescapable. I ran and ran but never got away from any painful feeling. I remain angry, hurt, betrayed and horribly frustrated. I isolate and sleep so much. Self pity is my best friend.
    I will keep coming back and learning. I will attempt kindness to myself and I will reduce how much i run from this grief and I hope to find something like peace. Thank you all for being here

  19. Shelly  May 29, 2018 at 12:09 pm Reply

    Your articles have been so timely so often for me. This one hit me hard. I’ve been mad at myself for failing to keep up with housework, or for eating poorly because I just don’t have it in me to cook. I hate that I’m still using paper plates after 5 months, because I should have the energy to do dishes. But I don’t. I need to step back and remember how fresh and new this grief thing is. That I’m still getting used to my new normal.

  20. Shelly  May 29, 2018 at 12:09 pm Reply

    Your articles have been so timely so often for me. This one hit me hard. I’ve been mad at myself for failing to keep up with housework, or for eating poorly because I just don’t have it in me to cook. I hate that I’m still using paper plates after 5 months, because I should have the energy to do dishes. But I don’t. I need to step back and remember how fresh and new this grief thing is. That I’m still getting used to my new normal.

  21. KJ  May 25, 2018 at 2:38 pm Reply

    Perfect timing. I’m feeling so sad over the death of my brother as we near the one year anniversary mark. I’m so filled with sorrow and sadness at his passing. But I know I have to just feel it and I can get through this … and accept myself for just letting the feelings flow. Self care is high on my list this holiday weekend.

  22. KJ  May 25, 2018 at 2:38 pm Reply

    Perfect timing. I’m feeling so sad over the death of my brother as we near the one year anniversary mark. I’m so filled with sorrow and sadness at his passing. But I know I have to just feel it and I can get through this … and accept myself for just letting the feelings flow. Self care is high on my list this holiday weekend.

  23. Katherine  May 25, 2018 at 11:46 am Reply

    Loved this. Gonna try and do it too 🙂

  24. Katherine  May 25, 2018 at 11:46 am Reply

    Loved this. Gonna try and do it too 🙂

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