The concept that grief might be healed was new to me, but I’m living proof it can happen. When I first lost my beloved husband I had no clue that there was help; that there were tools available for recovering from grief. The following is my humble offering of tools from my own grief recovery journey.
During the first few weeks after my husband died I learned through trial and error to treat myself like a newborn babe – gentle, calm and loving. I had experienced extreme shock. We can ask ourselves, how would we take care of someone who was in shock? Can we give ourselves the same consideration? It’s a shame our culture doesn’t allow grievers time to mourn. We are expected to “bounce back” and “get on” with our lives.
WHAT? That’s insane!
How is that even possible? But people do it, every day. They have jobs, children or elders to care for, responsibilities, duties. Many people are told to “stay busy” as the best remedy for grief, but that only works for a while. Eventually, we will have to face our deep sorrow.
I remember a woman I met in grief group. After her husband died, she spent the next 6 months exhausting herself, cleaning up the property where they had lived for 40 years. Her grown children were living with her but had no reference for the what their mom was going through. So this woman became a very good actress, keeping busy and maintaining the mask of “I’m fine”. Life seemed to go on, but meanwhile she was dying a little inside each day, emotionally and physically. Finally, she reached her breaking point and found a local grief group. She learned that there are tools for grief. She started to heal.
The image that comes to mind regarding this stage of grief is of shell-shocked soldiers from WWI, recovering in sanitoriums, bandaged heads, staring off into space. They went to hell and back, memories of horrors from the front exceeding what their nervous systems were capable of handling. Grievers are not unlike shell-shocked soldiers. We need sanitorium-level care, at least for the first weeks or even months. I can’t tell you how many times I wished I could have gone to an old-fashioned sanitorium and been allowed to just stare out into space.
We need to be taken care of like newborn babies. And, we absolutely DO NOT need to be taking care of others. We need the time and space to grieve and heal. If we have family and friends who understand this, then we are lucky. I had no family with me at the time – my daughter was living in Korea – but I was fortunate enough to have amazing friends who looked after me the first few weeks. I didn’t want to eat and couldn’t sleep, so they would bring me food and provide me with natural sleep remedies. The only comfort food I would eat was Shepard’s Pie – don’t ask me why – and I had an ample supply of that.
In other cultures, the whole community supports a grieving widow. Our culture here in America isn’t geared toward that, but we may be lucky enough to have that kind of support. If a griever needs help, there are many organizations to reach out to: churches, food banks, social workers, grief groups, senior centers, and many more.
If we don’t acknowledge that we are like newborn babies or shell-shocked soldiers, we will only be postponing our healing process. This reminds me of another woman I once knew. She was a client of mine but had never done any kind of bodywork therapy. When she laid on my table and I put my hands on her back, it felt like armor. Her back was solid, like a rock. It was the armor she created to protect her from feeling the grief of losing her teenage son 20 years before. Even after several sessions it would not relax. I gently asked her about it and the tears began to flow. She told me she had never grieved the loss of her son. As she sobbed and talked, her back began to soften a bit.
Our grief needs an outlet. It needs to be felt.
Some tools that may help during the first few weeks or months:
REST - The nervous system needs rest to recover. We need to rest throughout the day. We need to sleep. This is when the nervous system heals, during REM sleep, which is the deepest level. This level of sleep was very difficult for me to reach in the first few months of my grief. Many tools eventually helped, but in the beginning I needed help from natural remedies. I used herbal tinctures, essential oils and homeopathic remedies. They all helped somewhat, but eventually my doctor prescribed Hydroxyzine, which is basically Benadryl in a pill. I will occasionally still use Hydroxyzine when my PTSD is triggered, like recently when my mom passed. It’s important that grievers sleep, in order to heal. Talking to one’s doctor about this may be necessary if sleep continues to be elusive. Sleep deprivation is not conducive to healing. At some point, REM sleep may become more important than possible side effects of pharmaceutical drugs. It’s a personal decision, one that I had to finally make which helped me temporarily when I needed it.
WATER – Water is both grounding and healing. Taking Epsom Salt baths is very relaxing to the nervous system. Epsom Salt is Magnesium Sulfate which is a known relaxant for the body. I put 2 cups in my bath and lay for at least one hour. I add Lavender essential oil to my bath, which also has relaxing properties. I was living alone at the time so I needn’t worry about anyone disturbing me. During the first few weeks my baths were essential for me. I preferred absolute silence and would turn my phone off so there were no distractions. Here was another opportunity to just BE with my grief, to breathe through it and allow whatever comes up to be OKAY. A hot shower or swim in the lake or ocean can also be incredibly healing. I spent hours and hours in the warm ocean waters in Hawaii. In addition, there is a product to drink internally called Natural Calm (Magnesium Citrate) which is like a warm tea and relaxes you on the inside. This became my nighttime ritual – a bath and my Natural Calm.
EAT – Comfort food. We all must eat to live, and even though we may not feel like living after the death of our beloved, there is some innate wisdom within us that knows we need sustenance. In my case I had friends to provide me with something nutritious that I would eat, even though it was only a few bites at first. As I recall these first few weeks I am getting emotional thinking about having to force myself to eat. I’m so grateful my friends figured out what I would eat and continued to bring it to me. And, of course, we must stay hydrated too, especially with all the magnesium! (Don’t overdo that, btw. Follow recommended guidelines.) I always have my water bottle nearby and remind myself to drink up! Many grievers, especially elders, forget to hydrate and this can be unhealthy.
STARE INTO SPACE – I would sit in a sunny or comfortable spot and not think about anything. Literally just sit. Sometimes I might drift off, other times not. If an unpleasant memory came up, I would put my left hand on my heart and my right hand on my solar plexus, breathe, and say, “I am safe and I am loved.” I would pray to my higher power, guides and angels to give me a brief “vacation” from my sorrow. Later, I experimented with replacing an unpleasant memory with a happy memory. But even this is too much work in the beginning. Better to just sit and stare into space, like a shell-shocked soldier.
Don’t these four tools remind you of something? Sleep, Eat, Bath and Stare? In the beginning, we are infants of grief and we deserve to be taken care of. This may come in the form of YOU taking care of YOU too. I hope it does. If you have always taken care of others, you will learn to take care of yourself and put yourself first. This was the case for me and now I thank my EARTH ANGELS and my LIGHT BEINGS for showing me how to take care of myself and gradually move forward.