Healing Your Grieving Heart: Embrace Self-Care this Holiday Season

Author: Bonnie Carroll and Alan Wolfelt


Let Go of Destructive Misconceptions about Grief and Mourning


surviving daughter writing message to dad on the hero wall

Most of us have internalized a number of our society’s harmful misconceptions about grief and mourning. 

Here are some to let go of:
  • I need to be strong and carry on.
  • Tears are a sign of weakness.
  • I need to get over my grief.
  • Death is something we don’t talk about.
  • The more traumatic the death, the more I should try to put it behind me quickly and efficiently.
  • Other people need me so I need to “hurry up” and get back to my “normal” self.

Sometimes these misconceptions will cause you to feel guilty about or ashamed of your true thoughts and feelings.

Your grief is your grief. It’s normal and necessary. Allow it to be what it is.


Be Aware That Your Grief Affects Your Body, Mind, Heart, Social Self, and Spirit

Grief is physically demanding. This is especially true with traumatic grief. Your body responds to the stress of the encounter, and the immune system can weaken. You may be more susceptible to illness and physical discomforts. You may also feel lethargic, weak, or extremely fatigued.

You may not be sleeping well and you may have little appetite (or you may be overeating). Your stomach may hurt. Your chest may ache. 

Cognitively, you may have trouble thinking clearly. Your thoughts may seem disorganized, and you might be finding it hard to concentrate or complete even the simplest task. 

Likewise, the emotional toll of grief is complex and painful. You may feel many different feelings, and those feelings can shift and blur over time. 

This death has probably also caused social discomfort. Because they don’t know what to say or do, some friends and family members may withdraw from you, leaving you isolated and unsupported. 

You may ask yourself, “Why go on living?” “Will my life have meaning now?” “Where is God in this?” Spiritual questions such as these are natural and necessary but also draining. 

Basically, your grief will affect every aspect of your life. Don’t be alarmed. Trust that if you do your grief work and meet your needs of mourning, you will find peace and comfort again.


Take Good Care of Yourself

Good self-care is nurturing and necessary for mourners, yet it’s something many of us completely overlook.

Try very hard to eat well and get adequate rest. Lay your body down two or three times a day for 20 to 30 minutes, even if you don’t sleep.

We know– you probably don’t care very much about eating well right now, and you may be sleeping poorly. But taking care of yourself is truly one way to fuel healing and begin to embrace life again.

Listen to what your body tells you. “Get some rest,” it says. “But I don’t have time,” you reply. “I have things to do.” “OK, then, I’ll get sick so you HAVE to rest,” your body says. And it will get sick if that’s what it takes to get its needs met.

Drink at least five to six glasses of water each day. Dehydration can compound feelings of fatigue and disorientation.

Exercise not only provides you with more energy, it can give you focused thinking time. Take a 20-minute walk every day. Or, if that seems too much, a five-minute walk. But don’t over-exercise, because your body needs extra rest as well.

Now more than ever, you need to allow time for you.


Breathe

When the demands of your grief—not to mention the demands of your daily life—feel overwhelming, stop what you’re doing for a few minutes and just breathe.

If you can, give yourself five full minutes to concentrate on your breathing. Breathe from your diaphragm: push your belly out as you breathe in and pull your belly in as you breathe out. Imagine that you’re inhaling the spiritual energy you need to heal and that you’re exhaling your sadness and bad feelings.

Breathing opens you up. Grief may have closed you down. The power of breath helps to fill your empty spaces. The old wisdom of “count to ten” is all about taking a deep breath to open up space for something else to happen.

Meditate if meditation helps center you. Find someplace quiet, be still, close your eyes, and focus on breathing in and out. Relax your muscles. Listen to your own heartbeat. When you notice yourself thinking about something other than your breathing, gently let the thought go and bring your attention back to your breath.

Consciously breathe in and out; you can slow the world down and touch the edges of your true self.


Know That You Are Loved

As Jane Howard wisely observed, “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” Yes, love from family, friends, and community gives life meaning and purpose. Look around for expressions of care and concern. These are people who love you and want to be an important part of your support system.


taps survivors gather at christmas tree

taps bracelets


Some of those who love you may not know how to reach out to you, but they still care about you. Reflect on those people and the ways in which your life matters to them. Open your heart and have gratitude for those who love you.

Feeling connected to people around you can be a great source of you and a cause for celebration. When you reach out to others, and they to you, you remember you are loved even during days of darkness and grief. 

In contrast, if you lose this connection, you suffer alone and in isolation. Feeling pessimistic, you may retreat even more. You begin to sever your relationships and make your world smaller. Over-isolation anchors your loss and sadness in place.

You are connected to your family, friends, and community in a circle, with no end and no beginning. When you allow yourself to be a part of that circle, you find your place. You realize you belong and are a vital part of a bigger whole.


Bonnie Carroll is TAPS President and Founder and Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D. serves on the TAPS Advisory Board. They co-authored the book, "Healing Your Grieving Heart After a Military Death" and is available at no cost to survivors. If you're a survivor and would like to get a copy of the book, email info@taps.org. Please provide your current mailing address.

Grief professionals and supporters can order copies of the book in our TAPS Online Store

 Photos: TAPS Archives