Gifts of Grief: Tools to Help You Through

Author: James Gordon

Grief is part of being human. Sooner or later, it makes its appearance in our lives, no matter how unwanted it is.

Attending the National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar, I was struck even more by how important it is for us to honor the process of grief. We have to see it as a part of life and let it take its course. There are no shortcuts; there’s no getting around it. But, there are gifts we must give ourselves after we’ve faced a loss: time and space to grieve and the support from others.

Surviving men building a snowman

Give Yourself Time and Space

Create a time and space when and where you’re able to grieve for the loss of your loved one. Societies have created rituals and periods of time in which it was expected that people would grieve. Too often we act like grief is an exceptional event, but it’s something that comes to all human beings.

We all need a time and place to talk about those we’ve lost. This allows us to express sadness and also tell the funny stories. We need the time and space so the different ways we grieve are all seen as part of the process. For one family, that may mean going to family gatherings less frequently, because extended family members act so anxious and self-conscious around them. At TAPS meetings, by contrast, they feel welcome, without worry or judgment.

Find Social Support

Build up your social support — a “social embrace” — that honors you as you’re grieving. TAPS helps with this. I’ve talked to so many of you who’ve said having a place to come and share – both early on and long after your loss — is so important. Whether it’s as part of the online community, in a care group, at a retreat or sitting and reading your TAPS Magazine each quarter, TAPS provides a place to be with others who understand the experience of grief and loss, who don’t tell you to get over it. Instead, TAPS brings you into the fold to support you and embrace you through the mourning.

After we give ourselves those gifts, there are other techniques and tools we can use to help us through grief.

Breathe Slowly and Deeply

Years ago, while working in Israel, I trained those who deal with psychological trauma. I worked closely with a group of ultra-orthodox Jews called the ZAKA, who inform families after there has been a violent death. The recovery of remains oftentimes made them anxious and they wanted to learn to quiet themselves. Today, they use the slow, deep breathing I taught them as well as sharing it with the families they have to inform of a loss.

One of the things that happen when we’re grieving is we become anxious and agitated. In the beginning, it’s fine, but over time we need to be able to relax and quiet ourselves. Otherwise, it can get in the way of our healing. Slow, deep breathing allows us to come into a quiet space where we feel the grief but are not overwhelmed by anxiety and agitation. It helps balance the nervous system and allows us to focus. This also can help us get to sleep at night.

Share Your Feelings

Whether you bring out your feelings with someone you trust, like a grief professional or a peer, or record them in a journal, allowing yourself to acknowledge your own feelings can be powerful. Starting your grief journey, you may feel that nothing will ever change — that all hope is lost. But over time, feelings will change and what’s on your mind will change. If you feel things beginning to change little by little, then you’re simply going through the process of mourning. If you write them down, you’ll have a record of the change which will help give you hope that other changes are also possible.

Create Rituals

At the National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar, I was amazed by the ongoing ritual of honoring the loved ones who died — not just after the death, but also throughout the year. Regularly, when families and friends come together many find a way to honor the loved one. Whether it is a candle lighting ceremony or a special planting of a tree, finding a ritual can help the healing.

Eat Healthy

The kinds of food we eat matter. When we’re grieving, we tend to eat for comfort — those fatty, sugary foods that may make us feel better in the moment. But after a while, they can actually create more stress and make us feel more anxious and depressed. Getting our diets in order and eating healthier foods can help us feel better for the long haul.

Get Moving

When someone suffers a loss, he or she can experience a state of physical or emotional shutdown — a kind of frozenness. You may feel detached or overwhelmed, or you may not feel anything. But over and over, in my time of working with grief, I’ve seen people thrive through physical activity.

I’ve taught TAPS family members about shaking and dancing. It may sound crazy, but it can be helpful just getting up and shaking your body from your feet up through your knees and into your chest and shoulders for a couple of minutes, resting and then moving the body again to music. It provides a way to take away tension and bring life back into your limbs. It also allows you to bring out emotions you may have suppressed. In my book, “Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression,”I provide a step-by-step description of Shaking and Dancing and the other techniques for moving through grief, relieving your stress, and enhancing your resilience.

Try Your Hand at Drawing

At the seminar, I asked participants to draw themselves, their biggest problem and what things looked like with their problem solved. This exercise allows us to mobilize our intuition and imagination, to discover new ways to heal ourselves.

The solution may be meditation or spending time in nature or writing in a journal. We’re all different. The idea is to discover what makes you feel better. When I’ve gone through the process of mourning, I set aside time every day to cry. For a year, I gave myself 20 minutes each morning to cry and mourn my loss.

Feel the Movement

Physical movement, emotional movement, mental movement, social movement — it’s important to let yourself feel movement, and the change it brings, after your loss. All the techniques you use should encourage this process. The movement may feel slow, but progress is progress. Sadness may still show up, when memories come, or at times when you’re alone, or on the anniversary of your loved one’s death, or at the holidays. You may cry; you may feel overwhelmed at times. But little by little, you can feel yourself move through the grief. Though feeling these emotions is painful, allowing yourself to feel them is part of a natural healing process.

From the pen of…
James S. Gordon, M.D., a psychiatrist, is the Founder and Executive Director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, a Georgetown Medical School professor and a TAPS Advisory Board Member. His most recent book is “Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression.”