Seven Grief Strategies for the New Year

Author: Brad Stetson

The old saying is true: "If there is an elephant in the room, introduce him." No good purpose is served by denial, yet we are very good at it. And when it comes to facing the pain of our grief with eyes open, we often turn away instead. But when we have a psychological elephant in the room of our mind, we should acknowledge him, and plan a way to shrink him down to a manageable size then get him on his way. If we've had a loss recently, the new year provides a good opportunity for us to be honest about the pain of our grief, and resolve in the months to come to be proactive and do the necessary grief work to begin addressing the elephant in the room.

Coffee cup / calendar

1. Write yourself a comforting and encouraging letter. 

Imagine you had a friend for whom you cared deeply, and imagine that friend just experienced the death of someone they love very much. You would want to help them, comfort them and encourage them. Now substitute yourself for that friend. You are worthy of being comforted and encouraged, too. Write yourself a letter saying the same things you would say to a good friend. Then, read the letter, put it away for a few days, then read it again. Do this for a few months and then write yourself a second letter, and so on. This is an act of self-compassion, treating yourself as gently as you would treat someone else. Avoid thinking you are so 'strong' or 'solid' that you don't need help and tender compassion. That is a misunderstanding of strength and personal fortitude. Feeling intense sorrow and bereavement is not a sign of weakness; to the contrary, it is a sign of deep humanity and personal capacity to love.

2. Buy a big calendar, and use it. 

One problem bereaved people face is the feeling that one day drags into the next, always the same. Grieving people also sometimes are pressured by well-meaning people into doing activities they really don't want to do. An 'appointment calendar' can solve both of those problems. Large calendars, like a desk calendar, give you room to write. As the New Year begins, sit down with the calendar, and start filling your days with appointments. 

Appointments with whom? Most importantly, with yourself. Without taking yourself out of social circulation, you can pen in valuable "self-time." The simple act of reserving time for yourself empowers you to breathe and reflect as the New Year unfolds. Appointments like "movie with me" or "journaling with me" make it possible for you to always tell others, when asked to go somewhere or do something, "Let me check my calendar, I may have an appointment." This way you can decline in a socially graceful way. If you want to accept someone's invitation, you can always break an appointment with yourself. 

3. Move your body, move your mind. 

As you adjust to your life without the physical presence of your loved one who died, it's vital you get outside and move. Notice, I didn't say, "exercise," since for some people that may sound daunting. There is no need to make it a big undertaking. Pick short, achievable goals, like a short hike, a walk around the block, a bike ride to the park. Keep these jaunts short, as this will give you a sense of accomplishment, and you will derive the physical and psychological benefits of having enlisted your body in your ongoing encounter with grief.

4. Realize that you do not need to "understand" your grief right now. 

When I coached Little League, I established the One Minute Rule. It was this: If anyone gets hit by a baseball, whatever the person hit by the ball says for the first minute after being hit is OK. Screaming and accusations were common after being hit by the baseball, but everyone knew that you got a free pass for a minute. And they knew that after a minute the person had to be ready to move on. Well, bereaved people get a lot longer than a minute, or a month, or a year, to integrate their experience into the rest of their outlook on life. So don't feel anxiety about fully grasping what has happened to you. Time will help clear your mind, and you will eventually be able to address your loss, the pain it has brought you, and the changes in your life that have ensued. 

5. Decide that in the New Year, you will begin to focus a bit more on others, as a part of your loved one's legacy.

This is a valuable change you can make in your life. We all need to get out of ourselves and focus on other people and their problems. Sometimes, this helps us gain a fresh perspective on our own life. As you do this, you will no doubt talk with new people, and when the opportunity presents itself tell them about your loved one who has died. You don't have to tell your loved one's life story or anything like that, just mention them in passing. You may feel more comfortable talking about your loved one with people who didn't know him or her, and it is valuable to begin to talk out loud-in the past tense-about your loved one. It may be shocking to hear yourself talk about them in the past tense, but it will help you integrate their death into your life. 

6. Listen to the music.

A recent study I saw asserted that sad people who listen to their favorite music that matches their mood report feeling better. Music is therapeutic and soothing. Throughout history, music has been central to the expression of human values and sentiments. Make a short list of some songs of different types that you have always liked. Then go to and listen to them or order them online. If you are not accustomed to doing that on a computer, ask a friend to do it for you. Just get the music playing so you can listen. As you do, let your mind take you where it will, and after a while I'll bet you'll feel relaxed and even renewed.

7. Wishing you well.

As the New Year begins, write down what your loved one would want for you in the New Year. Trouble imagining what that might be? It's probably the same you would wish for your loved one, had you been the one that died. Make a list of a few states of mind, attitudes or commodities that your loved one would want for you to attain as you move forward without them. For example, my husband would want me to look toward the future, and not be paralyzed by mourning. Or, my sister would want me to buy those expensive boots we used to talk about. Then, choose one of those outcomes and pursue it. Look back at your list after a few months, and check off the outlook or object you now have. Deliberately choose to achieve something your loved one would want you to have in this New Year. By doing so, you will honor their memory.

So often we think of grief as something that happens to us, instead of something we do. This is unfortunate, since passivity and inaction will not help us to engage the new reality of loss in our lives. This is not to say that grief is a "problem" we can solve, or a "condition" we can make go away, but it is to say that we can be active participants in our emotional well being. By purposefully facing our sorrow, and calmly, carefully thinking about what we can do to help integrate our sorrow into our larger life, we can contribute to forging our new identity. And this is a powerful choice to make as a New Year and our new lives dawn.

Reprinted with permission from the Grief Digest Magazine Volume 12, Issue 1 

By Brad Stetson, Ph.D.Brad Stetson is author of Tender Fingerprints: A True Story of Loss and Resolution and Living Victims, Stolen Lives: Parents of Murdered Children Speak to America. He's written widely on various social topics and on the psychology of grief. He is a funeral officiant in Southern California.