Source: What’s Your Grief
You’ve been there before. Heck, we’ve all been there.
It’s been a long week, you’re tired, the weather’s not that great, and it is utterly impossible to imagine anything as enjoyable as changing into your pajamas, ordering a pizza, opening a bottle of wine, and snuggling in for some quality couch time. Sure you made plans to meet up with friends, but it’s okay to cancel just this once.
Fast forward and you’ve rescheduled those plans. You’re due for some quality time with friends, but the same couch is tempting you to come hither. “Come sit on me,” it says, “Netlflix awaits. And, oh, what is this? Why it’s a big comfy blanket.” It’s decision time friends, what will you do? The easy thing – give into the couch, or the hard thing – see your long lost friends?
Personally, I engage in these battles all the time, and I bet you do as well.
Round one: Make healthy dinner vs. grab take out
Round two: Go to the gym vs. “no thank you!”
Round three: Call a friend and make plans vs. don’t commit to doing something you might not want to do later
Round four: Sign up for that class vs. self-doubt and cynicism
Ideally, you would always decide to invest your energy in the things that bring you fulfillment, enjoyment, satisfaction, and connection, even if these things felt challenging. But being realistic, we know that most people opt for the easier choice from time to time, even if it isn’t the wisest.
This may be especially true when you’re grieving, because when you’re grieving you have a whole slew of reasons for taking shortcuts, disengaging, and withdrawing socially and emotionally. Here are a few:
- You feel distracted or as though you can’t focus on anything other than your loss/grief.
- You feel like you have to conserve your energy to deal with the emotion and stress of grief.
- You feel as though the things you once enjoyed now seem meaningless or unimportant.
- You disengage from activities because they remind you of your loved one.
- You feel anxious about seeing people/social interaction.
- You feel anxious about running into grief triggers.
- You feel anxious about becoming emotional in front of others.
- You no longer feel like a capable and competent person.
- The world no longer feels like a safe and reliable place.
- It feels safe and comfortable to not push yourself.
- Engaging in activities feels like a betrayal or as though you’re “moving on”.
- You think you will feel better in time, so you decide to stay at home and wait it out.
It’s protective and adaptive, when you only have so much energy, to focus it on the places where it is most needed. It’s normal to let some of your day-to-day routine fall by the wayside during times of hardship and crisis. However, one should be mindful of how much they are cutting out and for how long. There is often a fine line between temporarily disengaging and more harmful long-term social and/or emotional withdraw.
Consider this, disengaging from previously fulfilling and enjoyable activities can contribute to depression. The Society of Clinical Psychology notes that,
“When people get depressed, they may increasingly disengage from their routines and withdraw from their environment. Over time, this avoidance exacerbates depressed mood, as individuals lose opportunities to be positively reinforced through pleasant experiences, social activity, or experiences of mastery.”
Although depression and grief are different, both experiences may cause someone to retreat from life and, in either scenario, that person is cut off from sources of support, coping, and positive emotion and may ultimately end up feeling worse.
One therapy that has proven effective in treating depression is called behavioral activation. Through behavioral activation, depressed clients increase their engagement with activities that provide them with opportunities to experience social support, well-being, positive feelings, and confidence. Following a similar line of reasoning, we might assert that the more grieving people engage with life, the more opportunity they will have to process their emotions, connect, receive support from others, and experience positive feelings.
Before you get overwhelmed, we are not talking about going “back to normal” or a complete reintegration with your “normal activities”. We’re talking about actively choosing small and worthwhile activities and deliberately planning to do them. Let’s talk specifically about this means.
What have you stopped doing since experiencing the death of your loved one? More specifically, what do you no longer do that you used to previously enjoy or find fulfilling? These may be things that you stopped doing because…
- you don’t have the time
- they require too much effort
- they remind you of your loved one
- they seem less fun.
Now, what if I told you that by deliberately deciding to do these things again, or by choosing new things to try, that you might start to feel a little bit better? Or that by doing these things you are actually, in many ways, coping with your grief? Some outlets – like supportive friends, journaling, advocacy, art – help you directly process your grief-related emotions and experiences. While others are simply healing in that they help you connect with others, feel a sense of mastery or fulfillment, allow you to feel calm and at peace, increase your physical wellbeing, or simply help you to feel human again.
I know these things seem small in comparison to your big problems and stressors, but one way to think of coping is as small steps on a very large staircase, where each step could potentially help you feel a little bit better.