Setting Boundaries While Grieving

Author: Audri Beugelsdijk

Setting boundaries is hard. When it’s our job to take care of others or attend to business, we place a lot of pressure on ourselves to get it right, to not drop balls. After all, we take our responsibilities seriously and don’t want to let anyone down. Even on our best days when we are not grieving, this set of expectations can be incredibly difficult to live up to, if not downright impossible. Our lives cry out for balance and we struggle with finding that right balance between what we need and the needs of others. It is common to become overwhelmed or stretched thin by all of the competing needs. Tending to ourselves feels an awful lot like selfishness rather than self-preservation, so we push our limits, over-commit ourselves, or heap guilt on our own heads for our imperfect ability to do and be all things to all people, even as we are grieving.

Many of us don’t stop to think of what boundaries are or what it means to set them. Boundaries are the guidelines you set for yourself and your relationships so that you and another person know what is acceptable within that relationship. It stems first from you knowing yourself and what limits you feel are appropriate for you. This is an internal conversation, as no one else can tell you where your comfort level is.

Surviving women at sunset

The most common boundaries we struggle with are emotional, material or physical. Given that death creates an emotional roller-coaster and can be disorienting, what does it look like to set healthy emotional boundaries?  This has multiple components, the first of which is giving yourself permission to feel your emotions without allowing others to guide or judge you. It is also not sacrificing your own emotional needs for others. It is not blaming others for your problems or letting them blame you for theirs, but giving yourself and others the space to simply feel and heal.

Material boundaries are important as well. Along with a death comes responsibilities for financial and real property. Others may feel a right to ask you for financial support or tangible items which belonged to your loved one. For some these may be easy questions to answer. For others this can be damaging to relationships as we feel taken advantage of or the memory of our loved one dishonored. Knowing where you draw the line on these things can help prepare you in the event that these questions arise.

Personal space is also important when we are grieving. Sometimes people may push our limits by touching us in uncomfortable ways or may violate our personal space. This may involve a person coming into our home and rearranging our belongings or removing items they think may be hurtful for us to see. Setting physical boundaries in cases like this can help us reclaim a peaceful space to grieve and give us a sense of control over our space which is helpful when we feel we are losing control.

How do we know our boundaries have been crossed? When we feel offended, resentment, fear, guilt, discomfort, stress, or anxiety — these can be indicators that we may need to consider whether or not our boundaries have been crossed. If we determine that an interaction we have had has violated what is acceptable for us, we can be our best advocate by establishing a more appropriate set of limits for that relationship.

Given that we have lost a powerful relationship in our lives and our address book has often been rewritten in the aftermath of the death, it becomes important to us to preserve what relationships we have left, even those which may not be healthy. When we fail to set a boundary with someone, it may be out of fear that we will unintentionally or irreparably damage that remaining relationship. This is why it is advisable to seek counsel of objective others who may be able to assist us in navigating these waters.

If you find there is an individual in your life who crosses the lines you have set, you may want to seek counsel with a trusted person with whom you can share your needs or concerns. You can talk through a plan for how to interact with a particular person or limit interaction in ways that are healthy for you. Setting these boundaries can build your self-esteem, while also establishing respect for yourself with others. Brene Brown is a research professor who has studied courage, vulnerability, empathy and shame. Perhaps she said it best: “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others.”

How to Set Boundaries

In the midst of our grief, how can we ensure we are taking care of ourselves by laying healthy boundaries, even when doing so can elicit feelings of guilt or fear? Some considerations for you as you think through setting your own boundaries:

  1. Be aware of your own needs.
  2. Recognize which people or situations drain your energy or trigger negative emotions.
  3. It’s OK to say no, and without apology, if it is in your best interest.
  4. Let or ask others to help, without guilt.
  5. Be protective of your time and try not to overcommit yourself.
  6. Remember that you are not responsible for other people’s problems.
  7. Advocate for yourself if you feel your boundaries have been crossed.
  8. Know that boundaries are for your protection, not to punish others or push them away.
  9. Be direct when expressing your needs, without confrontation.
  10. Approach boundary setting with love and respect for yourself.

If you find you need additional support as you advocate for yourself in your grief, know TAPS is here for you. You can reach out to a member of our Survivor Care Team by calling our 24/7 National Military Survivor Helpline at 800-959-TAPS (8277).

From the pen of... 

Audri Beugelsdijk is TAPS vice president for survivor services, and oversees a dedicated team of professionals who provides peer support and conducts outreach to bereaved military families. She came to TAPS as a Navy widow in 1997 after her husband, Seaman Jason Springer, was lost at sea. A Navy veteran herself, she holds advance training in death, dying and bereavement.