This is Part 2 of a guest post by Sarah.
See introduction to Part 1 for context: https://peteportal.com/2021/01/25/grief-and-loss-part-1/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=grief-and-loss-part-1
Some practical ways that enabled me to process loss, grief and my own physiological dysfunction caused by traumatic stress
Rituals or endeavours:
- Writing a letter : Express with words to the person you were not able to tell all you needed to while they were alive. Whether or not you believe they can hear you or will know of it is secondary to the process of helping your body and soul express itself. Sometimes words can act like a release valve for internal distress, angst, regret and unprocessed thoughts and feelings. I have found this especially helpfully for the losses that were sudden, whom I couldn’t tell all the things the heart felt.
- Have a place that is a ‘Present Space’ : There are many places that remind me of the people I have lost, but I usually pick one that becomes a safe space to go and process all the feels. My mother’s ashes were buried in a garden, so when I miss her or want to just go and think about her that is the place I go to be alone and be present to her life and her memory. It was a place she chose because it was beautiful and she knew I’d come there. Now when the birds or the butterflies appear I smile because I imagine her smiling too and her face is as vivid in my mind as it was the last Christmas I spent with her in that same garden. I find these spaces can become places where the veil between this life and the next feels thinner, perhaps only because I am more conscious of it, nevertheless I find it helpful in letting memories of a persons’ voice, scent, words and images rise up.
- Create a ritual : On my sisters birthday every year for the last 13 years I have put roses in the sea because they were her favourite flower and her ashes were spread in the ocean. Even if I was in another country, I’d find a water source and place them in the water. I find it grounding to have the annual rhythm of remembering. Some years I feel peace and happy memories float up, other years my heart is wrenched from my chest (even after 13 years) as I process all the things that have happened in the year that she was not there for. I have come to believe that if the tears come out, it’s because they need to, and it is not ‘dwelling’ on the unchangeable, or the grief, but pausing to let it out if it is there.
- Find healthy ways to express stronger emotions : I found anger and rage a secondary presence to grief. I saw this also in the young men who lived with us during their recovery who experienced loss. If you don’t actively choose to process it benignly it usually finds a way to escape and by then it’s usually malignant. Finding ways outside of words seems to engage a different part of the brain or soul. I don’t know which. I’ve experienced it myself and the guys did too. Painting your emotions or visual arts can access this place. The guys went to boxing and found the physical engagement with a punching bag hugely relieving but also the process of learning to control emotion in the discipline of boxing useful too. Personally I’ve often felt grief rise up like a locked-in scream. I found screaming under water in the ocean helped or driving an hour away to a rocky coast line where the waves thundered against jagged rocks providing a natural sound barrier for a distressed bawl equally useful. Dancing your emotions can help too. I once went to a dance therapy class but instead of unlocking my own unprocessed emotions I was laid flat on my back silently trying to hide my hysterical laughter at the guy expressing his emotions by doing a move akin to the pink panther creeping along a wall at night while wiggling his hips to the beat of tribal drums. I didn’t access the past that day, but I laughed so hard in the present all the tears came out anyway.
- Pilgrimage : Perhaps pilgrimage to places that were special to your person or that they had dreamed of, can help you move literally through your grief. After suffering a kind of nervous breakdown after a succession of significant losses over 7 years I took 6 months off work to recover. I planned a trip that loosely followed some work trips my husband had to do in a few cities in South Africa. The most recent loss was of a young person whom I had loved as a kind of spiritual son and as I sat looking out of a window at the first stop of my trip I suddenly realised that he had been exactly where I was now sitting only a few months before for a similar work trip with my colleagues. Then it dawned on me that the two next cities I was headed were where he went next as he went on a fundraising trip through the country. I was literally, by total accident (on my part, not God’s) retracing his final journey! I burst into love-tears. As I travelled I met people who had met him and they regaled me with beautiful stories of their experiences of him. I recognised places from photos he had sent me and allowed myself to imagine what it was like for him to see what I was seeing. I cried every day of that trip and it was two of the most healing, painful, beautiful and holy weeks of my life.
If you are finding yourself debilitatingly overwhelmed by your memories, then I’d recommend self-regulation. Discern which suggestions I’ve made help to alleviate the distress and which escalate it. It may be that you need space from memories while your heart and body come to terms with the shock before you can engage with them. And that’s just fine.
- Therapy : After most losses I have sought a space to verbally process the loss, partly because I am a verbal processor and partly because I found that the losses triggered additional complex emotions that I needed help sorting through. The various therapies I employed for the different losses included a counsellor, psychotherapist and a trauma therapist. I chose to engage different forms as each loss affected me differently and I found each one incredibly helpful for their purpose and specialisation.
- Support group : I attended a bereavement course which formed a support group. The course was life changing in helping me understand the process I was in and the group was life changing in placing me within a shared human experience with others who could relate. I remember talking with a man who had lost his brother and realising we both found the simple question ‘how many siblings do you have?’ distressing. We felt deceitful saying ‘two’ because now there was only one or awkward saying ‘two but one’s deceased’ because both our cultures tend not to discuss such things in public and like a traitor saying ‘one’, denying the existence of the deceased sibling. Just being able to share that with another person was healing.
- Medication : Don’t be afraid to seek medical assistance if you are struggling to make it through a day. Your doctor is not out to get you, they will discern what is required to help you cope. Twice I have sought help from my GP who prescribed me anti-depressants for circumstantial depression which I took for a limited period of time. They enabled me to get my head above water, get out of bed, go to work and get through a day. In time that enabled me to address the grief without being overwhelmed by it.
- Physical exercise : (Anyone who knows me will know how hilarious it is to read me saying that. Let’s just say I was not previously a fan). Physical exercise heals. We all know this. But when you’re in a hole, someone else needs to remind you. Exercise helps to release pent up emotion that has turned to negative energy, can offer space to think or not think depending on your personality, releases healthy chemicals and hormones that regulate the body, helps you sleep (something most grieving people seem to struggle with) and in some cases directly helps your body heal from trauma. Research particularly is showing that yoga has a significant effect on the minds and bodies of traumatised people and mental health difficulties. It was the single most effective treatment when I had post-traumatic stress disorder. (If your theology conflicts with it, find an alternative that combines the breathing, mind discipline and physiological release that is in accordance with your conscience). I put this in the ‘professional help’ section because when you find yourself in the ‘grief hole’ motivation can be sparse, so joining a class or having a professional instructor to keep you disciplined can be the difference between stay-in-bed-all-day-you or fighting-back-you.
Below are links that may be of interest:
Online Bereavement support group: https://www.htb.org/thebereavementjourney
Information on yoga for trauma: https://kripalu.org/resources/how-yoga-helps-heal-trauma-qa-bessel-van-der-kolk
For Cape Town based readers, the boxing gym our guys go to: https://web.facebook.com/SteveNewtonBoxing/?_rdc=1&_rdr