"Self-care skills can make the difference between a grief wound that refuses to heal and one that heals cleanly."

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Episode 85 -- February 4, 2021

Skills for the Hard Times: Self-Care in a Season of Grief

We live in a culture that is in denial about the complicated emotions surrounding loss and grief. Most people avoid the topic entirely and stumble through their losses as best they can. People who understand loss and grief are better able to face life boldly. In his book Help for the Hard Times: Getting Through Loss, Earl Hipp offers a guidebook for resiliency and hope, helping us embrace the necessary risks in life with confidence, knowing that when losses occur, we can survive, get through, and very likely grow as a result.

Skills for growing through the hard times are mostly about how to take good care of yourself while you naturally go through the process of healing. Taking care of yourself, being very patient, and letting time pass are all that is required.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

Skills for The Hard Times
Knowing how to take care of yourself in the meantime is the art of growing through loss. Big losses demand more of us than the not-so-big and small losses, but all losses take us on a similar journey. When you are experiencing the shock of a big loss and are temporarily lost in an emotional fog, you are usually not able to think about how to take care of yourself. At those times, your feelings are in control, and thinking about self-care is pretty hard. When you come out of the grief fog to face the reality of your loss, The Hard Times begin. It's at that point when self-care skills become really important. Self-care skills can make the difference between a grief wound that refuses to heal and one that heals cleanly.

Every culture, ethnic tradition, and spiritual orientation approaches loss differently and has special resources to offer the grieving person. But there are also some things that apply to grieving people everywhere. From the following list of suggestions for negotiating The Hard Times, pick the actions that feel right for you.

Don't "Do" Anything
The most important self-care ability for this stage is actually a "nonaction." To grow through these hard times, to have your hurts heal cleanly, and to not create new problems, don't do anything to feel better. Another way to say that is "don't run from the hurt." As unpleasant as it feels, the discomfort is a normal, natural, and necessary part of your healing process.

Sometimes, as a way to get relief from our discomfort, we are tempted to want to "get away from it all," to "do something" about feeling so bad. If you act on these understandable impulses you may regret your decisions later. While actions like moving, changing jobs, giving your stuff to others, running away, changing relationships, buying things, taking drugs, or quitting school might seem like they would lead to some relief, all they really do is temporarily create a distraction.

Remember, Grief is Normal and Healthy
Millions of other people have had similar losses and survived. Grieving, even feeling miserable, is normal, necessary, and a natural part of the healing process. Just as nature provides for seasons of the year, there is a natural order to the "seasons" in the grief process. Your springtime will come.

Don't Try to Keep It All Together
To a degree, it is necessary to "come apart" when you've had a big loss. Your life is being rearranged as a result of your loss, and you are also being reorganized. Although it may not be comfortable, it's normal to have big feelings, be absent-minded, act strange, and feel uncertain and unsure about how your life will unfold. The skill is not so much to fix this condition but to accept it as a natural response to a big loss. The challenge is to be patient with yourself while the natural healing process runs its course.

If You Need Help, Get It
With a big loss, something important has been taken away and deep sadness is natural. At times you might even feel like it's too much effort to go on. If you are drowning in your feelings of grief, ask for a life preserver. Only in the movies can heroes and heroines handle their problems alone. That's because it's the movies and not real life. Psychologically healthy people, even those who are up to their ears in loss and grief, are able to say, "I can't..." or "I don't want to handle this alone." And then they will reach out for help.

Be Yourself No Matter What
Because everyone is different, there is no "normal" way to grieve. Whatever you feel or think is okay, acceptable, and forgivable. You don't have to explain yourself. Your feelings and thoughts don't have to be logical; in fact, they can even be downright irrational.

Whatever happens, just be you. Don't feel guilty or self-conscious about any feelings. Whatever you feel after a big loss is just you being you and trying to cope. Self-love and self-acceptance are gifts you can give yourself when you are experiencing an enormous emotional injury.

Cry if You Can
If you can cry you are really lucky. Some people think that crying is a sign of weakness, but actually the opposite is true. Stuffing your feelings into your loss pot is what makes you a depressed and serious person. That is when you really become weak and vulnerable.

Crying doesn't have to make sense or be good timing. You can cry alone or with a good friend, a parent, or even a counselor who will be understanding. If others have a problem with tears, let them be uncomfortable. Cry when it comes and cry until you're done crying. It is the self-respecting thing to do, and it honors your loss. Crying is a gift.

Take Care of Your Body
The bigger the loss, the bigger the physical and emotional drain. You can be so busy coping, so preoccupied with your grieving, that you don't realize you are running out of energy. It's very much like running a marathon. If you don't take care of yourself along the way, taking water at the aid stations, you can suddenly run out of fuel. It's called hitting the wall. The same thing is true on a long and demanding grief journey. If you don't care for yourself, you will gradually wear down and become exhausted.

Let Time Pass
After a big loss it can take months or longer for things to settle down. The time you spend in The Hard Times depends on the importance of your loss. After some losses your life is changed forever and will never get completely back to "how it used to be."

Often people will be tired of feeling so bad and be ready for the grief to end long before it does. Grieving people often ask, "When is it going to be over?" or "Will this ever end?" The answer is yes, your grieving will ease up and your ability to function will improve. But for now, you should simply remember grief is not something we "do" or have control over. It just happens, and grief gets better in its own time.

Get a Guide
In any confusing territory it's important to find people who are familiar with the terrain. As you will learn, you can get a special kind of support from people who have had a similar loss. Seek these people out; get them to share their experiences; ask them for regular contact. They know a lot about what you are going through. They will make excellent guides through the dark times and difficult places.

Lean on Your Spirituality
The planets orbit, the earth turns, seasons change, lives change, beings come into the world and they go. Change and endings are the natural order of things. We just forget all that because loss hurts.

In moments of great pain, we often feel overwhelmed by the power of big changes. Sometimes it is very hard to comprehend why things happen the way they do. With big changes we always ask the enormous question of "why?" Why me, why now, why them... and more unanswerable questions. In those moments, we can lean on our spirituality to help us believe there is an answer to the "why" that is too big for our understanding, and then to yield to the pain of it all. Your faith can help you to let go of the details, release your confused and tired mind, and relax into knowing that somehow things are as they should be.

Because of the power and drama of big losses, many people discover that they want to acquire, reconsider, or deepen a faith life. It can be a powerful and positive resource for growing through the hardest times.

About the Author:
Earl Hipp is a writer, speaker, and consultant. He works with businesses, schools, parent groups, and other organizations to help people manage life's challenges and get along with each other better. He has written Fighting Invisible Tigers - A Stress Management Guide for Teens, and three pamphlets for Hazelden's Step Meetings for Young People series.

© 1995 Text, Earl Hipp; Illustrations, L.K. Hanson
All rights reserved