Boosting self-care after a bereavement

The most difficult emotional tasks following the death of a loved one are to process feelings of sadness, loss and fear. Everyday tasks can seem very challenging and demanding. Your routine will most likely be turned completely upside down and feelings of anxiety can run high at the thought of what is ahead.

In the immediate aftermath of the passing of a loved one, it is common to think what more could you have done to help the person who has died. Thoughts may turn to their moment of death, whether you were with them or not. Feelings of loss may be compounded by feeling guilty for perhaps not being there with them at their moment of departure. The emotional rollercoaster may be exacerbated by the need to undertake administrative and legal duties such as registering their death, dealing with statutory authorities and, of course, making arrangements with a funeral director. This is when fear can predominate and when anxiety can spike higher. Getting into some sort of functioning mode may seem at odds with the emotional swings you are experiencing.

People may rally around and send cards and flowers. Others may seek to help by offering comforting words such as telling you that you are strong and that you will be fine. This may be interpreted as an unwillingness to allow the grief to flow but instead to adhere to a so-called ‘stiff upper lip’. In the pandemic environment communication from such people will most likely be via electronic means. It may feel overwhelming. There may be pressure to respond to each message when all you really want to do is to roll up in a ball somewhere quiet and to disengage from devices and to be alone. It may also feel very restricting to not be able to meet up with close family and dear friends at such an emotionally vulnerable time.

There may be annoyances that some family and friends go quiet and don’t even send a condolence card. Others may send flowers but you might prefer to hear from them instead in person, or even for them to call you. This may increase your confusion and it is entirely common to feel irritable and easily irritated. Flowers may mount up but you may feel lost to know what exactly you are feeling. It can feel overwhelming and confusing as you experience mixed feelings and changeable emotions.

The day of the funeral service may feel surreal to see a coffin containing a loved one and yet have social distancing measures in place.  You may be conflicted, not knowing how you should be feeling. Should you be in tears? Should you be in control? How would the departed want you to be? The reality is that there is no uniform way of behaving on such occasions. You will deal with it in the best and most appropriate way that you can at the time.

Following the service, there may be a sense of relief that it is over and that it was a good send off for your loved one. But with social distancing measures in place, there may be a limited post service function or wake, if any at all. It may, therefore, feel rushed and it may seem that it was over all of a sudden but that at least it is now behind you.

There may also be a delayed reaction in the days following the service. Grief can get played out in very intricate ways. It is common to hear of theories of grief, that it tends to follow a set pattern. In truth, grief is very individualistic and dependent on so many different factors. The important thing to understand is that you will have your own way of dealing with what has happened. There is no right or wrong way of coping with loss. You may start to experience intense churning in your stomach, particularly in the mornings upon awakening. This might feed your feelings of anxiety. Perhaps you are meant to feel the feelings. The important thing, however, is to try and stay busy and reach out to your social support network so that you feel supported and cared for.

Having a robust self-care regime is important in order to be able to better cope with your strong feelings of loss and to help with your emotional processing. Feelings need to be felt but you also need to protect yourself from becoming emotionally paralysed as a result of feeling too much strong emotion. In order to feel well (in normal times), and to have good emotional and mental health, we all should be getting sufficient levels of restorative sleep, eating a balanced diet and enjoying plenty of exercise (which entails doing high impact exercise, not just walking). These aspects of a good self-care regime can often be the activities that suffer during a bereavement process, especially during self-isolation. However, addressing each of these components is necessary to stay emotionally well, as well as helping to keep boosting your immune system. It is also necessary to address psychological well-being as part of a self-care regime. We stay well psychologically, especially at highly charged and emotionally vulnerable times, when we have a meaningful routine, talking about our worries, reaching out for help and avoiding the temptations to overindulge.

Counselling and psychotherapy can offer a transformative listening space at a time of great emotional turmoil. Bereavement can be a complex process since there may be complications associated with family dynamics, possible unprocessed historical generational trauma and intense feelings of your own death anxiety. This can mean that you can struggle to stay in the present moment with so much worry about the future. It may feel like you are losing your mind at times but bereavement is the time we spend adjusting to loss and it is important that loss is mourned. A therapist should be able to help you make sense of what is happening and help you to cope with daily concerns associated with grief. Sometimes, grief can trigger mental health conditions, like depression. Whilst grief can be a trigger for depression, not everyone who grieves will experience depression. Learning to feel your feelings might mean you cry more but out of this can come serenity, gratitude and joy.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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London SE1 & SE26

Written by Noel Bell

London SE1 & SE26

Noel Bell is a UKCP accredited psychotherapist online who has spent over 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, recovery from addictions and inner transformation. Noel is an integrative therapist and draws upon the most effective tools and techniques from the psychodynamic, CBT, humanist, existential and transpersonal schools.

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