Check out Chris’ article on Family Share about grief myths that get in the way of healing.
Chris Adams Richards, LCSW
Check out Chris’ article on Family Share about grief myths that get in the way of healing.
Chris Adams Richards, LCSW
“Regardless of what you’re going through, there are others who have felt a similar pain and who have survived.”
Chris Adams Richards, LCSW
Not everyone looks forward to Mother’s Day. For years it was a very painful day for me. I lost my son 12 years ago when he was just 18 months old and since then, holidays have often been a sad reminder of his absence rather than a day to celebrate. My own journey through this loss, and the multiple miscarriages and fertility struggle that followed, has been very personal. I probably made choices you wouldn’t have and maybe some you would. One of the most important decisions I made came two years after he died. I had felt like I was no longer a mother after we lost him and that was incredibly painful! So, I decided that I would reclaim the title of Mother, even though I didn’t have a living child. It felt like a loving gift to give myself and from then on, I have gotten Mother’s Day gifts and cards from my significant other and I have allowed myself the joy of remembering how much being a Mom has meant to me – including how painful it has been to have him gone.
Your own situation may be very different from mine, but if you wish you were going to be included in the celebration of Mother’s Day, then you may be feeling sad, angry, frustrated, triggered, or resentful right now. Because of how commercial the day has become, it’s impossible to go to the store, listen to the radio or watch TV without being bombarded with reminders that it’s supposed to be a happy day, that our own Mothers should have been idyllic and our own lives should include children who adore us and make us macaroni neclaces and breakfast in bed. If this isn’t your reality, then the days leading up to Mother’s Day can be filled with sadness, anxiety and pain as you dread the day coming and wish it was just over with.
Coping during this time and finding ways to manage the bombardment of images and reminders of what you have lost or never had can be challenging! I’ve done a variety of things – avoided stores, listened to CDs instead of the radio, watched movies without ads or fast forwarded them, etc. The fact remained that I still knew it was going to be Mother’s Day and I grieved. As I’ve said before, and I’ll say again, the only way through grief is to let it wash over you, feel the feelings and then take a break.
There are also some things you can do to increase your resilience during this time:
Reach out to friends or family who will listen to you nonjudgementally – whether or not they share the same pain.
Not everyone understands what it’s like to grieve deeply for those we’ve lost or for the hopes that haven’t been fulfilled. People offer us platitudes like “This too shall pass”. That one in particular makes me feel like punching someone in the nose. However, it might feel comforting to you. If you have people in your life who really hear you, then tell them what you need. “I just need someone to listen right now”, “I really need to be distracted for a while, can you hang out and make me laugh?”, “It really helps to hear ___, can you please remind me of that when I’m feeling low?”.
Tap into support groups in person, on FaceBook, or on a website/blog.
Regardless of what you’re going through, there are others who have felt a similar pain and who have survived. There are others who also struggle with Mother’s Day, Christmas, birthdays and anniversaries. Begin by doing a Google search for your situation and look for these groups of kindred souls. They’re out there!
Be gentle with yourself!
Grief is one of the most overwhelming, painful feelings I know. Be kind to yourself during the low periods! Surround yourself with comforting people, things, pets, etc. If you feel like lying on the couch and binging on Netflix, I won’t judge you! If you decide to stay in your pajamas all weekend and not answer your phone, that’s ok (as long as you don’t feel isolated and aren’t beating yourself up!). If you decide to go on a long hike in the mountains and then eat comfort food, that is probably just what you need! If you begin telling yourself “I shouldn’t” or “I’m not supposed to” kinds of statements, chances are you’re no longer being gentle with yourself! Nuture yourself, hold yourself in a space of comfort, love and kindness.
Face it, feel it and take a break.
Feeling it is not the same thing as beating yourself up or wallowing. Notice what’s going on for you and if you’re feeling it, then allow yourself to be in that moment – it will pass. If you’re wallowing, or beating yourself up, that has to do with self-talk and keeping yourself in a negative head space. This creates more pain – and you do NOT need any more pain! If these thoughts begin then interrupt them with 10 belly breaths where you focus on the exhale (or more if you need it). Then choose your next thoughts. “This hurts right now, but I’m going to be ok”, “What can I do right now to take a break – just for a moment”. Watch a silly movie, read a trashy novel, pray, watch some silly videos on YouTube, whatever helps.
Reclaim the holiday/anniversary in a way that works for you.
This isn’t something that will happen over night, it will take time to grieve and really feel your losses. But when that intensity has passed, you can begin to find ways to redefine these days in a way that works for you. This is an extremely personal process! Mother’s Day at my house is about my role as a Mom to my son who is gone and to my sweet fur babies who love and charm me on a daily basis. They even get me cards and gifts on Mother’s Day – they’re so thoughtful! For Christmas, we get gifts for another child who would have been the same age as my son and donate them to the homeless shelter, a sub for Santa, or some other orgainzation. This process is filled with tears and is sad, but I also feel that I’ve done something to create some good out of the sadness. That child will have a better Christmas and that brings comfort. Even as an 18 month old my son was generous and I believe he would have loved this idea. That also brings comfort and helps me feel close to him at this time. If your own Mom is gone or you are not close to her, honor the other women in your life who are mentors, supporters, or family of choice. It can give you a sense of purpose rather than feeling on the outside of what we’re told the day is supposed to be. If nothing else, perhaps this day is a day to treat yourself! Pamper and spoil yourself – you’re worth it!
Adjust your expectations.
Somewhere along the way, society got the idea that grief is supposed to last a year and then you’re “over it”. For anyone who has grieved, we know that’s a ridiculous and harmful idea! Grief lasts as long as it lasts. We can’t really speed it up, but we can certainly slow it down! It has a life of it’s own and will want you to pay attention to it on a schedule that usually is very inconvenient for you. No matter how smart you are, you can’t “solve” grief or “fix” it. It’s not a problem to be solved, it’s feelings to experience. Knowing and accepting these things can help you move through the process with less resistance – and therefore less pain and fear.
So, from one who has walked this path, I send you love, peace and hope that you will find ways to love and honor yourself and your loved ones!
If you would like to call for a free consultation or to schedule an appointment with Chris Adams Richards, LCSW call 385-204-6709.
Grief seems to have a life and timetable all its own. What I mean is that we can’t decide when we’re done grieving and we can’t predict when we will be hit by a wave of grief. It’s like grief is a living entity that takes up space in our head, heart and life and sometimes it feels like it’s running the show. Those of you who are grieving right now or who have grieved in the past, understand what I’m talking about. We hurt every day – sometimes more and sometimes less. We can feel like we’re on a runaway train unable to change direction or speed.
So, what can we do? Grief seems to take over when it’s least convenient – when we’re sitting at our desk trying to get work done, when we are at the movies, or when we are trying to show up for someone else and celebrate something happy for them, etc. Part of the grieving process that can be tricky is realizing that we can’t control it. And we all want to control things! So the fear that comes with a lack of control coupled with the pain of the grief itself can feel overwhelming! There is one approach that I have found helpful. That is to fully live in the moment. So when a wave of grief begins to swell up and wash over you, allow it. Be present in that moment. Feel the pain of the loss and recognize how your life is different and then take a break. Here are some suggestions for how to do this:
1. Name your feelings: “I feel overwhelmed by sadness and pain right now because I know I can’t go back in time before my loss”, “I am so lonely and my heart feels like it weighs a thousand pounds”, “This pain feels like it’s engulfing me right now”, “My heart is broken and I don’t know if it will ever feel ok again”. Naming your emotions (not judging them) helps you put words on feelings and gives you power. It helps you gently move from feeling helpless to finding ways to move through the feelings.
2. Breathe. Take deep belly breaths that start at your diaphragm and fill your lungs all the way up. You can combine this with pressing your feet into the floor and your hips back into your chair as you inhale then relax as you exhale.
3. Blow out your breath when you’re crying; pretend you’re blowing out a candle when you exhale. Oftentimes we hold our breath when we cry and that leads to an increase in stress on an unconscious level. If you have a tendency to cry till you are doing that hiccupy kind of crying, it probably means you’re holding your breath. So, blow it out. It will help you self-sooth and you won’t typically cry as long or as hard.
4. Seek the company of a support person or furry friend. Some people are really good at sitting with us while we cry or feel deeply sad. If you don’t have someone like that in your life, find support from a pet. I remember one particularly low moment in my grief process. I was lying in bed crying and my Australian Shepard got on the bed and laid down on top of me the length of my body with his head snuggled against my cheek. He just laid there till I was ready to get up and keep going. Our pets are sensitive to our physical reactions to grief and they show up for us in different ways, but ultimately their message is often, “love me so that you know that I love you”.
5. Take breaks. Force yourself if you have to, but find ways to distract. Watch a funny movie, get outside and move your body, get a massage, etc. You may do these things half-heartedly, but do them. Your grief will be there waiting for you when you’re done. You need a break so you can keep moving forward.
6. I realize there are times when following these steps isn’t really possible – at work, for example. So if you have to escape to the bathroom for a few minutes, shed a few tears, and tuck the pain away so you can get back to work, that is understandable. When you get home take some time to honor the feelings that were crashing around you, feel them and acknowledge how much courage it takes to grieve.
We can’t control what when we will experience a loss, but we can choose what we will do to cope once it has occurred. In this exact moment, you can take control by choosing to feel your grief. Embracing your feelings will help the sadness, grief and loss flow over and through you rather than getting stuck. It will be difficult and it might be scary to be vulnerable, but remember there is no way to out run or escape your grief. The only way is to move through it. Be kind to yourself and trust that even though you hurt right now, you won’t always feel like this.
Life is full of change, disappointment, loss, and pain…and it’s also full of laughter, hope, and possibilities! Each day can bring joy and loss – and we have little to no control over which it will be. This lack of control can be scary. Sometimes we cling to the illusion of control and try to MAKE life feel safe or predictable, but all the effort in the world cannot guarantee safety, peace, or freedom from disappointment.
While we can’t control what happens to or around us, we can change our lives for the better by increasing our resiliency. What’s that you say? Well, simply put, resiliency is our “bounce back factor”. It’s our ability to experience something negative and get back to our positive selves more quickly. It doesn’t mean we don’t feel sad, angry or depressed sometimes, but we spend less time in that headspace.
Ok, so how do we increase resiliency?
1. Build a support system
We are happier and healthier when we have people with whom we share our joys and our troubles. Build relationships with family, friends, church groups, neighbors, service groups, etc.
2. Increase spiritual connection
In other words, find something larger than yourself with which to connect. We are never truly alone when we feel connected to the universe, nature, a higher power, or something else that has personal meaning. We can find strength in these things.
3. Increase hopefulness
When we feel hopeless, it can be challenging to turn it around. However, it is possible! Focus on times when you overcame difficulties. How did you do it? What helped? If you were able to make it through then, you can do so again!
4. Shift your perspective
Finding meaning in what happens to us is one of the most powerful things we can do – and it’s something we automatically do all day long. You don’t choose what happens, but you do choose the meaning you give these experiences.
5. Be flexible
The only constant in life is change, but change doesn’t have to cause pain; it’s our resistance to change that causes pain. Find ways to remember that even if things may not go the way you wanted or expected, you will get through the rough times and enjoy the good times. We never know when something good will be right around the corner.
When someone we love experiences a loss or trauma we want to help. We want to say the “right” thing and ease their pain or reassure them. It’s impossible to know exactly what to say because we can’t read minds (shocking I know). But I have found that there are certain things we should avoid saying.
1. You will have other children/find another partner/get another pet.
This statement may come from a place of caring and wanting to help, but it only serves to diminish the value and importance of the loss. It implies that the void left by the loss is easily filled. No matter the spirit in which this comment is made, it is hurtful and insulting.
2. Say nothing and ignore that anything happened.
When we don’t know what to say or do sometimes we may stay silent. Grief can be overwhelming and scary, but as much as you may feel uncertain of what to do, saying nothing can be incredibly hurtful. Chances are that the message received by your grieving friend will be that you don’t care.
3. It’s been ____ months/years, it’s time to get over it and move on.
There is a common myth that the grieving process “should” be completed in a year. This may be true for some, but is not true for others. Each person has a right to process grief in their own way and this means that some will grieve longer than others. The other problem with this comment is that we don’t “get over” grief. We move through it and learn to carry it differently over time, but it is always part of our story. No matter how long it has been since a loss we can get triggered, have a difficult time coping around anniversaries or just feel the loss more deeply at times. There’s no timetable for grief and implying that there is invalidates the pain and complexity of the grief experience.
4. Let me know if I can do anything.
Ok, to clarify, this is not a hurtful thing to say, but it has become trite and overused. Even when said with complete sincerity and a desire to be of service chances are you will never get a call asking for support. So if you sincerely want to help, offer specific and personalized service. For example, bring dinner once a week for the first month or two, call regularly just to say you’re thinking about them, offer to run an errand or ask which chores you can help with. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time, it can be simple and yet these acts of service help to lessen the feeling of isolation that often comes along with grief.
The most powerful things you can do or say when someone is grieving are usually the simplest: I love you. I’m so sorry. I wish I could take the hurt away. These statements validate and comfort. So when you don’t know what to say, keep it simple and show your caring and support through actions as well as words.
I’ve been thinking a lot about regrets lately. We all have them, but what we do with them directly impacts our level of happiness. It is very easy to look back and focus on the “coulda, woulda, shoulda” of the situation. I have found that kind of thinking leads us to spiral downward into regret, self-blame and depression. Rather than healing, it leads to feeling worse and being stuck in grief.
The reality is regretting a past behavior, decision, relationship, etc. keeps us looking at the past. As there are no true do-overs we can not go back and undo it, but we can take steps to change our present and future.
So what does this mean for those of us who are grieving? From my experience it means that we have a few choices:
1) Ignore the regret and pain or pretend it isn’t there. With either, we carry it around with us and watch as it rears it’s ugly head in painful or destructive ways.
2) Ruminate on the regrets, beat ourselves up and stay stuck in the pain and grief.
3) We can practice forgiveness of ourselves and others.
I have many regrets. For a while, I lived using the second option above. I got really good at it; I could ruminate night and day! But it just caused more pain and didn’t change the past. I thought holding on to pain and regret was the only way I could keep the good stuff close as well.
Thankfully, I had a very wise friend who pointed out my misconception. The good memories weren’t going anywhere. They were mine to keep. All the regrets and pain that I was drowning in actually made it harder to remember the good feelings and memories. Letting go of the pain didn’t mean I was letting go of the person I had lost!
Another lesson came a few years later. It’s a phrase I use frequently with myself and others: “I did the best I could with what I had at the time”. The heart of the message is that forgiving ourselves and others doesn’t mean we are “ok” with what happened. It means that we accept that we did our best…THEN – Not our best now with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.
The final stage of grief is acceptance which is profoundly different from approval. And this is true whether you’re grieving the loss of a person or a pet, the loss of a relationship or identity, or the loss of safety following a trauma. We don’t have to like our present circumstances, but acceptance means we stop fighting against the truth. Acceptance means that we offer ourselves forgiveness for our regrets and know that we did, indeed, do the best we could at the time with what we had.
Chris Adams Hill, LCSW
“Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.” Vicki Harrison
No matter who you are, where you’re from, or what you do, there is one certainty in life: change. Often change comes in the form of a loss of some kind. Loss of a loved one, a job, a pet, a relationship, health, etc. Loss can also come as a result of trauma. We may lose our sense of safety, ability to trust others or ourselves, we may lose faith in people or a higher power.
All of these kinds of losses cause us pain, can challenge our identity, strain relationships and present distinct challenges that may feel overwhelming. There are some very important things to keep in mind as we go through different stages of healing after a life-altering experience.
1. Grief is painful, deeply personal and can be exhausting.
These points may sound obvious, but they are important to keep in mind. All grief hurts so don’t compare yours to someone else’s and decide you don’t have a right to be sad or that you (or they) “should be over it by now”. Grieving takes time, energy and effort, but healing is possible.
2. We all have the right to grieve in a way that works for us.
As long as we aren’t harming others, we get to decide what we need to heal. This means we may not feel like talking much about our loss, or we may want to talk a lot. We may feel overwhelmed, or it may pass more quickly than we expected. What matters is that we process the feelings brought on by the loss. If we push them down, ignore them, or cover them up with alcohol, drugs or other unhealthy coping mechanisms, they will continue to burden us and we will continue to be in pain until we deal with the loss.
3. No matter what your loss or trauma, grieving requires two things; you must face it and feel it.
This is the scariest part, at first. However, the beauty of this process is that after taking the first step or two we realize that facing our loss and acknowledging our new reality helps us begin to feel better. If we are unable or unwilling to take this step we can become stuck in our grief and we may suffer far longer than necessary.
Sadness, heartache, tearfulness, and exhaustion are very common during the grief process. Some prefer to go through this process on their own, others seek out support. Neither way is right or wrong. It is important though to make sure that grieving doesn’t bring about unsafe or unproductive thoughts, feelings or behaviors.
Here are some signs to watch for; if any of these arise, please seek out professional support:
A) Feelings of hopelessness or thoughts of suicide
B) Difficulty sleeping, eating or working
C) Frequent tearfulness
D) Use of alcohol or drugs to cope
E) Relationship problems
F) Anger outbursts
Grieving takes time, but the heartache can lessen, the burden lift and we can find joy again.