Safe Zones: Boundaries in Early Grief

Author: Emily Munoz

Author Bill Bryson wrote a book called “I’m A Stranger Here, Myself,” which chronicles his re-entry into American culture after living in the United Kingdom for 20 years. While the book isn’t about grief, it is about change and what happens when the world around us changes without our consent or awareness.

Survivors Chatting

Sometimes we become strangers to ourselves. Doesn't it often feel, especially in early grief, as though we have been plucked from the density of human sensations and, instead, suddenly feel only thudding emptiness or searing pain? The world is simultaneously bigger and smaller. We have splintered into before and after: things that matter and things that don't, the ways we can be saved and the ways we can't. 

A World Both Too Big and Too Small 

This rushing shift in perspective may confer meaning where there used to be none. Things from your "old life" that seemed critically important may now seem pointless, disposable. Dizzying changes in emotional and energetic emphasis may leave us feeling as though nothing in life makes sense anymore. Will relief be found in a world that can hold the enormity of our pain, or is a world that big overwhelming in itself? Might some measure of peace be found in circling the wagons and focusing on what is safe and known? Do we find comfort in the possibility of the future or in certainty?

At TAPS, we know that the answers are often very complex and that they fluctuate and change as grief shifts and changes. We want you to know that at TAPS you have people you can trust and a family you can count on. We also want to be your tether as you look beyond your grief into a new world of fearless presence. 

Grief creates porous boundaries. At a time in our lives when we feel least like framing the world around us, it is most important to define the limits of our grief space. The unpredictability of the grieving process provides no hiding place from the instinct to seek safety; instead, grief churns a strange kind of panic continually leaving us exposed. We're uncertain of what and who to keep in and what to keep out; we don't know what we need or what we can or should do. We're strangers here in this new life, and yet we still must mark off the place we've landed. 

In the movie "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle," a man named Solomon has the task of building a fence for a family. As he begins to understand what part of the yard needs to be contained, he asks the family's matriarch if he should build the fence to keep people in or to keep people out. Grief, especially early on, prompts this question continually. Fences help us care for ourselves and for each other. They create safe places for us to grieve and heal, and they also indicate the intentions of others. If someone climbs over a fence into your yard, you can be sure that they have a motivation that is personal. 

My World Feels Too Small: My Fences Keep People Out 

When it feels like the world is closing in on you, the protective instinct may be overwhelming to tuck in and hide away like a turtle. Often, we can start making our worlds more manageable by creating smaller safe zones. Some ways to protect your space are to cut down hours at work, stop working altogether, drastically change the social calendar for yourself or your family or stay at home or in bed due to intense exhaustion. It may take one or all of these to give you a sense of refuge. 

Rigid boundaries do serve to protect us, but they also lock us away from the perspectives that may lead to hope and healing. The narrower our world becomes, the harder it is for us to relate to people and for others to relate to us. It is too easy for one point of view to become deafening, especially when pain, anger and grief dominate the emotional landscape in your safe zone. 

After the Storm 

When grief strips us of self-confidence, energy to socialize and the familiar mirrors of family and friends, going into survival mode and battening down the hatches makes sense. However, the imperative is still to come out after the storm is over. Beautiful days at sea are not meant for the crew to be crouched below deck hiding from yesterday's stormy seas. When what you have done to make life manageable becomes overly confining it's time to re-evaluate. 

If you are avoiding activities, intimacy or the give-and-take of receiving and providing support and care for others, it may be time to consider whether your fortress has become your prison. Take a moment to consider what parts of your life may represent the rigid boundaries of self-protection and why. Why haven't you tried to start, even if slowly, adjusting them? What will it take for you to have the courage to stick your head out and just see if the storm is over or what the damage is to the ship? 

Let TAPS Be Your Periscope 

Close and trusted family, friends, TAPS Peer Mentors and the Survivor Care Team can help you gradually make your world a little bigger, talking you through inevitable disappointments, and offering the solid comfort required to help you feel grounded while you peek out for a little sunshine. You may also benefit from shifting the focus from yourself to volunteering with others, exercise or social support groups. 

My World Feels Too Big: My Fences Keep Too Much In 

Grief causes normal boundaries to become porous and leaky from necessity. We need people to step in and take care of portioning out the lasagna, getting our children to school and making arrangements. When coupled with inherently overwhelming and crippling surges of grief, the additional complicating factors of publicity and family dynamics mean that we can end up not only strangers to ourselves but strangers whose life decisions are now communal in nature. 

Boundaries, while protecting emotional and physical health, also govern the patterns of interaction between others. Yes, we all must be able to ask for and receive help. When we're grieving deeply, we have no choice. 

Grief changed us, but it did not change our basic human rights. We are still entitled to autonomy, no matter the relationship that is lost. When we feel as though we are being swept along or no longer in charge of our own decisions, it may be time to fix the holes in our fences. 

Taking Back Your Power 

Yet, at some point, we should want to resume control over some of these tasks. As grateful as we may be to those who stepped in to help us take care of the day-to-day necessities and with larger decisions, eventually, there comes a time when we want to take back some of our power. But what do we do if, having trusted others to help in certain areas, we lack confidence in our own ability to take back our power? Picking up the reins again is frightening for many people. It is a particular challenge as it relates to grief. Becoming one's own advocate is a sign of how drastically life has changed. The people who have inspired, protected and cared for us may be dead; additional nurturing relationships may have changed dramatically as a result of that death. 

Let TAPS Help You Feel Empowered 

If your world feels unmanageable, it may be time to re-identify your priorities. Imagine yourself as a juggler, who has  previously been able to keep lots of balls in the air. This same number of balls is not going to be possible at first in your new grief life. Think about what's most important. Choose the first few balls carefully. Your focus is not on an entire circus, or on who else is performing. It doesn't matter if you used to be able to juggle 20 balls, or if the person next to you is juggling 50. If your focus is on too many things, none of them will be successful. Narrow the frame and let TAPS help. Let a member of the Survivor CareTeam, a trusted confidante at a Seminar or involvement in the Inner Warrior program help you make your life manageable again-one ball at a time. 

When we're trying to do too much, it means we haven't set healthy boundaries for ourselves-and likely not for others. We can't explore situational changes. We may not be able to tell how we've grown, and understand how far we've come, or how far we have yet to go. We also don't know how to recognize the people who consistently respect or violate our needs as we redefine them. This is another area where a Peer Mentor, community counseling connection or TAPS staff can help you find ways to regain control and create the space for comfort and growth.

A Fence That Does Both 

In a way, grief is a gift from your loved one. The time to redefine who you are and what you want, what works for you and what doesn't. How do you know if you're living too big or living too small? How do you know if you need to release control or take a little more? A great overview of boundaries, and ways to explore these questions, is available at

You will not always feel unsafe and unsettled. Instead of focusing on the anxiety of defining your entire life, focus on finding the places where both your grief and your life are protected by people who care. This is, after all, the TAPS magic. If you're tightly focused on control, we'll help you stretch, little by little. If you're letting everything slip because you're still...well, trying to do everything...let us find ways to help. 

We are always able to set the tone by acknowledging that we are disoriented and in an unfamiliar place. We can explain, just as Bill Bryson did, that the places with which we have been familiar, and which have in many ways defined us, have changed dramatically. It takes a while to find your safe zone.

By Emily Munoz, Surviving Spouse of Army Cpt. Gil Munoz