Prioritizing Self-Care While Grieving

Author: Gloria Horsley

In the middle of grief, self-care often falls to the bottom of the priority list. We busy ourselves with arrangements to make, bills to pay, and voids to fill. Distracting ourselves with washing dishes or putting together donations can keep the overwhelming grief at bay – if even for just a little while.  

But the airlines have it right: If you don’t put on your own oxygen mask first, you’ll never be able to help anyone else. And those who put self-care low on the totem pole are frequently people who are looking for ways to make others’ lives easier. If other people have what they need, it takes one burden off their minds. 

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The problem is that when grief is involved, the burden never lifts unless we take some time to take care of ourselves. Anyone who constantly puts others first eventually becomes depleted. In fact, Simmons University’s School of Social Work reported that self-care is vital for those in caring professions, from social workers to healthcare professionals. “Scheduling time for self-care is just as important as scheduling time for everything else,” says Simmons’ Shari Robinson-Lynk, a professor of practice in social work. “Hoping and waiting until you have time means you rarely have the time to do it.” 

Here’s how you can best use that time to give yourself as much attention as you give others.


Claim Your Time

Give yourself a “vacation” from every other responsibility on your plate, whether it’s for a day or an entire week. Schedule up with things that give you space to decompress: hot baths, walks in the woods, and a trip to your favorite hobby store. When inundated with others’ needs, feelings, and requests, it’s easy to lose track of how you’re feeling and coping. Remembering that you’re a person, not just a vessel to hold things in (or upright!), can go a long way toward healing. 


Set Boundaries

Worrying about others amidst your own grief can be draining. Not worrying about others at all can be equally draining. You can find a good middle ground by determining what’s truly important and what’s not. Will you regret not helping out with the memorial fundraiser? Commit to making it a priority. Are you less than excited about giving a speech on grief to a local grieving parents group? Then, gently, but firmly say no.

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Check in on Your Physical Needs

If you’ve recently lost a loved one, it’s easy to become so consumed with your grief and your to-do list that you forget to do basic things like eat lunch or go to bed at a reasonable hour. Periodically make a point to check in: Are you hungry? Is your body craving a drink that doesn’t contain caffeine? Are you so tired you’re dragging yourself from appointment to appointment? Giving yourself permission to stop and eat or book a day at the spa to take care of dry skin and tense muscles can be a blessing in the middle of crushing grief.


Get Creative

Creativity can take many different forms, from writing to painting to constructing LEGO towers. Whether you’re knitting or doing woodworking, give yourself an outlet to express your feelings — anger, sadness, regret, relief, joy, gratitude, and dozens of other emotions can come out in many different ways. Using creative outlets to see what bubbles up can be comforting and energizing.


Let Others Help You

If you’re a compassionate person who is used to attending to others’ needs, it can be hard to accept help, even when you need it. After all, you think you may be taking help from someone who needs it more. But when you’re grieving, there’s no shame in letting others’ strength shine. If a friend offers to take something off your plate, let him; if a neighbor wants to bring you weekly casseroles for a while and you could use the help in getting dinner ready, take her up on it! If guilt still follows you, remind yourself that you’ll return the favor someday.

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Dive Deep into Your Grief

If you’ve been running yourself ragged to get things done or help others, the exact thing you may need is time to grieve. Surface-level grief is often all we have time for when we’re not getting enough time to sit down and just be. Read books on grief and coping, attend a grief support group, and spend time in silence meditating or praying. It sometimes can feel like you’re feeling the myriad emotions of grief while you’re busy running around. Still, it’s occasionally shocking how many feelings wait on your doorstep when you welcome them in.

Self-care can easily take a back seat to other things when you’re grieving. But self-care is a key component of coping and healing, and assuming you’ll “get around to it” is a recipe for never making yourself a priority. Take the time now to care for yourself – future you will thank you for it.

Gloria Horsley, PHD, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder and president of Open To Hope, a nonprofit foundation with the mission of helping people find hope after loss. She serves on TAPS Advisory Board.