“I don’t want to be with you anymore,” he said over dinner. “I’ve met someone else.” My client, Tasha, was reeling from the news that her husband wanted a divorce. Over the next few months, her mind spun as she second-guessed every move she’d made in her short-lived marriage and wrestled with how to deal with her grief.
Then, one afternoon, something inside Tasha shifted. She walked into my office, put her head into her hands and started sobbing. Exhausted from mental loops constantly replaying the tape of her marriage, her mind finally let go and the pain she was fighting off rushed to the surface. I sat next to her with all of my being, joining with Tasha in bearing witness to the pain that needed so desperately to be heard.
Like many people, Tasha initially tried to analyze her way out of grief. Analysis, burying yourself in work or tasks, and numbing are all common ways that parts of us step in to cope with grief. These activities are helpful to some degree, but at some point in dealing with grief, there is no way out but through the experience of the pain.
You need to gently allow the pain in so that it can be healed.
When your heart is broken—whether a relationship is crumbling, you’ve received a hope-dashing diagnosis, a loved one has passed away, or you’re aching on behalf of a child, friend, or a terrible injustice—you need more than just time. You need a safe place to shift out of left-brain analysis (What went wrong?!) and into right-brain emotion (This hurts!).
Both insight and emotion are important on the road to healing. But, many of us rush to analysis or insight and bypass the painful feelings. We fear that if we let ourselves “go there,” the pain might be too great. The problem is, that when we bypass the pain, it only grows bigger.
Instead, set up guardrails that help you deal with your grief in healthy, intentional ways. Guardrails help you honor the pain of your experience, without becoming overwhelmed by it. They help you create space for the part of you that is hurting, while putting healthy activities and nourishing people around it.
Consider the Following 2 Guidelines as You Learn How to Deal with Grief:
1). Protect space for your grief.
When you are grieving, it is important to give yourself space to heal. In the initial stages, it’s not the season to take on avoidable stressors or a complicated relationship issues. Think of it this way: If you had an open wound on your arm or leg, you would wrap it carefully. You wouldn’t over-use the injured part of your body. You’d rest it and treat it with care for a set period of time.
Just as you would keep harmful elements from a wound on your physical body, you need to keep harmful elements from the wound on your heart. For example, here are some things you might want to keep out:
- Unhelpful platitudes or pat answers that minimize your pain
- Unwanted advice you don’t need
- Intrusive questions you’re not ready to answer
- Premature encouragement to get on with your life
If you have friends or family members that tread heavily on open wounds, it’s OK to keep your grieving heart protected. That doesn’t mean you have to remove yourself from every social interaction. But it does mean that you need to be very careful about who you choose to confide in. A polite, “Thanks for asking; I’m taking good care of myself” is all you need to say to ward off a potentially harmful interaction.
2). Schedule grief check-ins with God, yourself, and other people.
Remember, dealing with grief requires insight + emotion. It’s important to build structures that allow time for you to acknowledge your grief with God, others, and yourself. Here are some examples of how:
- Schedule a weekly check-in with a counselor, mentor, or trusted friend.
As you learn how to deal with grief, you will need a safe place to talk about and experience your pain in a contained, supported way. Don’t wait for someone to ask. Make a list of at least 2 or 3 people and ask them to set up a time to check in regularly.
- Set aside regular time to invite God into your grief.
It could be that you journal each morning. . . or once a week. Maybe you write down what you feel as a prayer, like the Psalmists. You could do it for 5 minutes, or for 30 minutes. It doesn’t matter how long, but it does matter that you keep the commitment you make to honor your grief with yourself and with God. Set a timer and pick a place that feels safe. For example, if you are concerned that journaling might open a flood gate, plan do it prior to an outing with a friend, a trusted group, or a meeting with a counselor.
- Choose a nourishing activity that you will do regularly as a way to honor this season of grief.
Your body also carries grief and is an ally on your road to healing. Notice what your body and heart crave—it might be listening to certain music as you jog each morning, taking up cooking, or trying a creative project that is meaningful to you. It could be as simple as committing to take a short walk each evening to watch the sun go down, or deciding to plant a garden. What is important is that you choose something that honors your grief and commit to that activity.
When you are dealing with grief, it is so important to create time and space to keep the harmful toxins out. But, don’t stop there. You also need to be intentional about bringing nourishing people and activities in.
As you honor your grief with your time and attention, it will start to soften. Grief may never go away, but it will become a beautiful aspect of who you are. Grief that has been acknowledged and tended becomes a wise teacher. For example:
- Grief teaches you to care well for yourself.
When your heart is breaking, you have no choice but to slow down a bit, go easy on yourself, and seek the comfort of caring friends. It helps you discern the good, loving, and healing people and activities in your life that you may not have noticed before.
- Grief can draw you closer to God.
When logic fails and nothing makes sense, we experience God in a new way. We fall into the arms of love, even when we don’t understand.
- Grief gives birth to compassion.
When you’ve tended to your own grief, you’re far more likely to be a channel of empathy and healing presence for others.
Learning how to deal with grief means that you don’t let it overwhelm you, but that you don’t shove it away. Instead, create a safe space where your pain can be heard, honored, and understood so that you can heal.
For further reading:
Boundaries for Your Soul: How to Turn Your Overwhelming Thoughts and Feelings into Your Greatest Allies, by Alison Cook, PhD and Kimberly Miller, MTh, LMFT
Join the conversation. Leave a comment below:
How are you dealing with grief in your life? Do you attempt to analyze your way out of grief? Or, do you let it overtake you?
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