“Grieving is the process we go through that helps us let go of old hopes and dreams that we can no longer have and helps us establish new hopes and dreams that are more attainable. It is an unlearned process and is a feeling process not a thinking process.” – Kent Allen, LMFT
After the death of a loved one, grief is all consuming. It takes up every aspect of your life. Learning to cope with the emotional pain of grief is an important part to healing and being able to move forward. This grief cannot be consistently suppressed, but it also cannot be continuously felt either. Learning to maintain a balance that allows for health grieving in controllable doses will prevent you from falling into the patterns of Clinical Depression or Complicated Grief. Understanding the normal emotional, physical and mental symptoms of grief can help you learn to recognize where you are in the grief cycle and how to move through the phases more efficiently while remaining in control and practicing healthy grieving. See also the post, The Stages of Grief, to better understand the grief cycle that occurs with the loss of a loved one.
Initially we experience symptoms of shock at the death of a loved one. We are put into a state of numbness to protect our fragile minds from emotional, physical and mental overload. As that numbness wears off, we gradually begin to feel and deal with more and more of the pain. Day or night, triggers caused by our senses remind us of our loss and send us into the Withdrawal Phase bringing on feelings of anxiety, hurt and even anger.
Lessening physical symptoms
The physical symptoms of anxiety are caused by adrenaline increases. They include rapid heart rate, breathing difficulty and stomach pain. They alert us that are bodies are reacting to trauma. In those high adrenaline moments, physical symptoms can be diminished by practicing the following:
- Calm your breathing
- Clear your mind of stress and painful memories
- Think about peaceful experiences.
As you learn to do these simple things, adrenaline levels will gradually decrease and calmness will return. Some people find practicing Yoga, meditation, or mindfulness as well as listening to calming music helps to refine their ability to calm their body.
Other normal and helpful practices in the Withdrawal Phase of grief:
- Talking about the trauma to trusted loved ones.
- Crying and having controlled emotional periods. (see Gaining Emotional Control below)
- Moments of quiet, alone time for reflection.
- Prayer, specifically asking God for comfort, peace and hope.
- Focusing on your family’s need for peace and being a strength for them.
*As a side note, in the Withdrawal Phase it is natural to begin to ask “Why did this happen to me?” This answer is not always immediate or clear. For now, it is best to set that question aside, trusting that in time, with healing and gained perspective, the answers will gradually come. Dwelling on it tends to heighten emotional outbursts.
6 Step to Gaining Emotional Control
When I was four months out I attended a widows and widowers conference where I learned a grief coping method from therapist Kent Allen that I found extremely helpful in teaching me how to take back control of my grieving. I would like to share that method along with how I implemented it successfully in my life.
- Recognize when you are experiencing the symptoms that occur with emotional triggers
- Choose how long you want to feel that way
- Set a timer for half of that time
- Feel the emotion for the first half of the time
- Think a totally different positive thought for the second half of the time
- Change your activity as soon as you can
When I experience the symptoms of anxiety welling up inside of me, I take stock of my situation. Sometimes I am not in a place or situation that allows me to feel the emotion. In these circumstances, I use the 4 Steps to Lessen Physical Symptoms listed above. When I am in a place and I have time to explore that emotion, then I will revisit it. Permanently suppressing emotions only leads to additional unpredictable grief episodes. I believe that the healthy way to grieve is to give that emotion its needed attention later on.
If I do have time to feel the emotion, then I choose how much time I want to spend on it. The time you spend is completely up to you. It can be 30 minutes, a hour or two, or all day if you want. The important thing is that you choose, and then you stick to the time limit you impose. This will help you regain control. Over time you will find that you will be able to shorten your time limit.
I cut the time in half and set a timer. For example, if I have an hour before I need to pick my kids up from school, then I set a timer for 30 minutes.
The first half of the time I spend completely allowing myself to feel the emotion. I cry and let it pull me down without restraint. I may revisit memories or reminisce, and sometime I write, but when the timer goes off I make myself shift gears and begin to climb up out of the hole of grief that I have sunk into.
Kent suggested that we have a positive happy memory that we go to in order to help pull us up and out, but I had difficulty finding a memory that wasn’t attached to my husband. I also found that memories were not strong enough to overpower my negative thoughts. I tended to loose focus and start spiraling downward again. I did find success by listening to inspirational music or an inspirational talk. The physical voices overpowered the thoughts in my mind. I also found that I could read something inspirational if I actively took notes while I read. As I listened or read, my negative thoughts were replaced by feelings of hope and peace. By the end of the last half of the time limit, I found myself in a better place. As a bonus, in my reading or listening, I almost always learned an important principle that helped me deal with future grief and negative thoughts. I always took time to write those thoughts down so that I could revisit them when I was sad or overwhelmed. These thoughts composed most of my blog posts that are now in the healing section of this website. If you are in need of something inspirational to read to help bring you out of a grief spell. I encourage you to read some of the healing blogs as well as the links that are cited in them. I also encourage you to write the things that you learn in this process.
The final step was to do something different than the thing that caused the grief episode in the first place. Exercising or even just going for a walk always helps me clear my head, so does doing something fun with my kids, yard work or cooking. Everyone has their go to activities that lift their spirits. It is worth while to make a mental list of those, so you don’t have to spend time coming up with an idea in the moment. Often I would continue to listen to my inspirational talks/music while I did those activities. There were days in the beginning that I listened for hours and hours to keep my mind in a positive facing direction. As I shared the things that were helping me with other widows and people facing trials, I found that not only did I help them, but that I felt even more lifted in the process. Helping people became contagious and became the activity that always pulled me from my grief.
Grieving is a natural process. It is the way our heart and mind learns to accept our new reality, and it helps us to put to rest the things in our old life. It is a individualized process that happens naturally, and it cannot be rushed or manipulated. Understanding this will not only help us help ourselves, but help us in dealing with family members who are also grieving.
Have patience on the journey and practice some of the techniques above. As you feel more and more in control of your emotions and physical responses you will find that you will be better able to cope with life’s challenges.
Questions To Ponder:
- What techniques could you try that might help you gain control over your grieving? Post back your experiences after trying these techniques for two weeks.
Check out this post in the Choosing your Reactions Badge