How can I help myself to grieve?
There are many things that you can do for yourself that will help you to work through your grief. We describe a selection of tasks and activities below that you might like to try. Some of the suggestions might make more sense at particular points of your grief journey, so don’t feel that you have to try all (or any!) of them right away. Some might be appropriate when your grief is raw, and others might be more helpful when you have had a little time to come to terms with what has happened.
Rituals & customs
Rituals help us to come to terms with loss and are a way to honour and respect our lost loved ones. They are so important that all cultures have their own rituals that are part of the grieving process, for example:
- Funerals are a ritual where we say goodbye, acknowledge the loss, or celebrate the life of the deceased.
- In cultures where the deceased are cremated, there is often a ceremony where the ashes are scattered at a place of rest.
- In some Indian cultures it is a tradition for the deceased’s family to be visited by family and friends to offer condolences and talk about how the person died.
- In many cultures there are rituals around preparing the deceased’s body, for example by washing the body.
- In western cultures a wake is usually held after the funeral.
- In Mexico there is an annual Day of the Dead to celebrate and honour the lives of the deceased.
From a psychological point of view, these rituals are imbued with meaning and fulfil two essential functions – they help us to make sense of what has happened, and confront the reality of the loss. You can make your own rituals to remember and celebrate the life of your loved one. For example, some people choose to plant a tree or hold a memorial service at their favourite place. You could think about what would be meaningful for you: how do you want to honour the life of your loved one? What would you like to do on anniversaries to remember your loved one?
Express your grief
Talking about your feelings of grief can help you to begin to come to terms with your loss. Could you find some close friends or family with whom you would feel comfortable talking about how you feel?
Another helpful way of expressing your grief is to keep a journal and write about how you are feeling. Some people find it helpful to speak to a professional counsellor to express how they feel.
Remember that sometimes other people (understandably) want to make you feel better. Although this is well-intended, it could also mean that they try to cheer you up when actually you need to talk. If you want to talk, don’t be afraid to let others know that you don’t need them to make it better, you just need the space to be heard.
Make a memory box
After a loved one dies, some people find it important to keep their memories alive. One suggestion is to put together a ‘memory box’ of items and photos that remind you of your loved one. For example, you might include photos, some of their favourite belongings, their favourite music, a treasured item of clothing, letters, their favourite book, or sentimental items they gave you. You could place the box in a special place, and perhaps set a regular time when you visit your memory box like on their anniversary.
Telling your grief story
Talking about your loss and telling the story of your loss and grief can help to process what has happened. Whether you lost your loved one suddenly or after a long illness, there is often much to process and come to terms with.
As your mind tries to make sense of your loss, you may feel a need and even an urgency to tell your story and make sense of what has happened. This can be an important way of processing all the emotions that you are feeling.
If you don’t feel that you’ve had a proper chance to speak about what happened then you might find it helpful to write your story from your perspective, as if you are telling someone about what happened. If you decide that this is something you would like to try, here are some tips to get you started:
- What was happening in your life just before you found out about the death of your loved one? If they had an illness you might write about what was happening just before you received the news that they were going to die.
- If your loved one went through an illness, it might help to write about what that was like for you. You might write about the time you received the diagnosis, the medical interventions they went through, and your interactions with the medical staff. Try and notice how you were affected, reflect on your thoughts and feelings, and what it was like for you.
- Write about the moment you found out your loved one had died. How did they die? What happened? This moment is often very vivid, people often say they felt shock. What were you doing at the time? How did you feel? What did you do or think?
- How has your loss affected you? Reflect on your feelings, thoughts and how your grief is affecting your life.
In the early days, the loss may be raw and it can be too painful to do things that remind you of your loved one. As time goes on, it is important to begin to face the places and situations that you have been avoiding. Here are some tips:
- Make a list of all the places, situations, people and tasks that you have been avoiding. For example, the swimming pool you used to go together, the takeaway you used to eat together, or certain people that remind you of them.
- Organize your list into a hierarchy, with the most difficult situations at the top.
- Make a plan for how and when you will start facing the situations you have been avoiding. Be kind to yourself, see if you can get a friend or close family member to come along with you to begin with.
- Pace yourself, you don’t have to jump in the deep end. It can be difficult to start facing reminders again, so be gentle with yourself and take your time.
- If you notice difficult emotions coming up, perhaps try the “Get in touch with the parts of your grief” exercise to help you work through your emotions.
Telling the story of your loved one’s life and your life together
Your loved one’s life wasn’t just about their death. It can help to remember your loved one’s life and the life you shared together. Writing from your perspective, imagine telling someone else about your loved one. Use the prompts below to get you started:
- What was your loved one like? What interests they did they have? What did they enjoy and dislike? What was their life like?
- What was your life together like? What did you enjoy together?
- Reflect on your memories. When you first met, how did your relationship developed and did you share any special moments?
- What were your hopes for the future with this person? How did you imagine that relationship being in times to come?
Write a letter to your loved one
Sometimes the feelings we have about our loved ones are not straightforward – while they were alive either of you may have said or done things that were hurtful, or which you regret. Writing to your loved one can be a helpful way of working through your feelings. Try to express how you feel and say all the things you wish you had said. Here are some tips to get started:
- Firstly, there is nothing you cannot say: this is a personal letter and no-one else needs to see it. Let yourself write freely from your heart.
- You can tell your loved one the things you didn’t get a chance to say to them.
- You might tell them how you are getting on since they died; you can include the good and the bad.
- You can tell them how you remember and honour their memory.
- You can share the memories you cherish the most.
- You can share your regrets, or your feelings about any issues that were left unresolved.
- You can tell them about how you feel, you might want to include the different parts of yourself.
Once you’re done, think about what you want to do with your letter. You could keep it somewhere safe or get rid of it if you prefer. There is no right or wrong answer, just be kind to yourself and do whatever feels right for you.
Get in touch with the parts of your grief
It is normal to struggle with different emotions when you are grieving: one minute you might feel angry and outraged, and the next minute ridden with guilt and regret. Find ways to feel and ‘process’ emotions: to acknowledge and work through your thoughts and feelings. Many of us are used to avoiding or suppressing how we feel, so it might feel quite strange and unfamiliar to face your emotions at first.
One way of working with your emotions is to imagine each emotion as one part of yourself. For example, there is one part of you that feels angry that your loved one has gone, another part that is sad, and perhaps another part of you that is scared.
Sometimes our emotions conflict with each other. For example, your angry part might be angry with the part of you that feels scared. Or the part of you that feels guilty might get in the way of the part of you that accepts what has happened. Here is an exercise to help you to work with these conflicts. In your own time, work through the steps below:
- First, name the different emotional parts of you. These might include the ‘angry part’, ‘scared part’, ‘depressed or sad part’, ‘guilty part’, ‘accepting part’, ‘relief part’, ‘in denial part’ … or any other parts you are aware of. Remember that no emotion is wrong, and that it’s OK to acknowledge how you feel.
- One at a time, bring each emotional part to mind one at a time and ask yourself some questions:
- What does this part of you think about your loss?
- How does this part feel?
- Where in your body is that feeling strongest?
- What does this part want to do?
- Now bring to mind a wise and compassionate part of you. This is the part of you that always has your best interests at heart, and which cares for you deeply. Imagine this part listening to all the other parts of you:
- What does this part of you want to say to the other parts?
- How can this part of you help the other parts to heal?
- What does this part of you want for you?
Dealing with regret and guilt
When someone whom we love dies it is common to feel some regret and guilt. You may recall things you did or said, or that you failed to do or say. Events that might ordinarily have seemed trivial may take on a new meaning in the light what has happened. Over time most people find ways of resolving these emotions. However sometimes guilt and regret can get stuck: as though it keeps looping on a circuit. This can be very distressing and can get in the way of grieving in a healthy way. If you are feeling guilt or regret, here are some things that you might try:
- Write down your regrets.
- See if you can bring to mind a compassionate and warm outlook. We all have regrets and make mistakes, but that’s not the whole story of you and your loved one. See if you can take a wider perspective and offer yourself some kindness, like you would to a dear friend. Ask yourself:
- If your loved one could hear and see you regretting and feeling guilty, what would they say to you? How would they reassure and comfort you?
- What would a dear and wise friend say to you?
- If this was another person that was feeling regret and guilt, what would you say to them?
- Talk to your friends and family about how you are feeling, see if you can listen to their perspective, often they won’t be as harsh on you as you are to yourself.
Confronting difficult decisions
The death of a loved one may mean that you are faced with some challenging decisions. If you lived together you may have to confront financial decisions, or even have to move home. Even the smallest of decisions can feel overwhelming in the early days. If your circumstances allow, it is often advisable to postpone any big decisions until six to twelve months have passed.
If big decisions are unavoidable, you may need help to try to think through your options clearly. Consider enlisting the help of a trusted friend or family member to help you work out a plan. A classic problem-solving strategy is to:
- Write down what the problem is.
- Brainstorm the options that are available to you: what possible solutions are there?
- Consider the advantages and disadvantages of each solution and weigh up which is the most helpful and wise decision for all concerned.
- Once you have a made a decision plan what you need to carry out your chosen solution.