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Healing Your Grieving Body
100 Physical Practices for Mourners
By Alan D. Wolfelt
Center for Loss and Life TransitionCopyright © 2009 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
FOCUS ON SIMPLE SURVIVAL
After the loss of someone you care about, you often feel shock, a psychic numbing of your senses, and a physical slowing of your body. You are taken down to your very basic needs of physical, emotional, and spiritual survival. Even the simplest acts of your life seem harder.
Your body is wise in this natural slowing down. Well-intentioned people may try to divert you from this turning inward. Society often seems to have the expectation that we take off a day or two for a funeral, and then we immediately go back to work and "keep busy."
But your body is giving you the opposite message: to turn inward and suspend activity for a period of time. Physically you must focus on your simple survival needs. Breathe in, breathe out, rest, provide your body with nourishment, drink fluids, and focus on what you need to get through this day.
Take the time to take a deep breath in and out. What do you need to get through this day? Are you getting enough food, water, and rest to keep your body healthy?
MAKE AN INVENTORY OF SURVIVAL STRATEGIES
What has helped you cope with stress and loss in the past? These strategies will probably help now, too.
Make a list of the most difficult times in your life and the ways in which you helped yourself live through them. Did you spend time with family? Turn to your faith? Help take care of someone else? How did you take care of your body? Can you make use of any of these survival techniques today?
Knowing what calms you is also important. Getting a massage, taking a walk, going for a swim, talking to your sister on the phone, walking the dog, meditating — find what works for you.
Make a list of what you need to get through the next month. Ask your friends and family to help you meet these needs.
ALLOW FOR NUMBNESS
Feelings of shock, numbness, and disbelief are nature's way of temporarily protecting us from the full reality of the death of someone loved. Like anesthesia, they help us survive the pain of our early grief. Be thankful for numbness.
We often think, "I will wake up and this will not have happened." Early mourning can feel like being in a dream. Your emotions will need time to catch up with what your mind has been told. Your body, too, slows down in response to this emotional shock.
Feelings of passivity often go hand-in-hand with numbness. You may feel child-like and need to be fed, dressed, and led through the day. You may neglect the most basic needs of your body, like food and water. You may even need others to make simple decisions for you.
Even after you have moved beyond these initial feelings, don't be surprised if they reemerge. Birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries often trigger these normal and necessary feelings. Or sometimes, feelings of shock and numbness will surface for no apparent reason.
If you are feeling numb, cancel any commitments that require concentration and decision-making. Allow yourself time to regroup. Find a "safe haven" that you might be able to retreat to for a few days.
CONSIDER YOURSELF IN INTENSIVE CARE
Something catastrophic has happened in your life. Something assaulting to the very core of your being. Something excruciatingly painful.
Your spirit has been deeply injured. Just as your body could not be expected to recover immediately from a brutal attack, neither can your psyche.
Imagine that you've suffered a severe physical injury and are in the hospital's intensive care unit. Your friends and family surround you with their presence and love. They help support you as you heal. Your body rests and recovers.
This is the kind of care you need and deserve right now: Physical and emotional intensive care. The blow you have suffered is no less devastating than this imagined physical injury. Allow others to take care of you. Ask for their help. Give yourself as much resting time as possible. Take time off work. Let household chores slide. In the early weeks and months after the death, don't expect — indeed, don't try — to carry on with your normal routine.
Close your eyes and imagine yourself in emotional as well as physical intensive care. Where are you? What kind of care are you receiving? From whom? Arrange a weekend of the emotional, physical, and spiritual intensive care that you need the most.
BE COMPASSIONATE WITH YOURSELF
The journey through grief is a long and difficult one, and your body is going to keep reminding you of this reality. Be compassionate with yourself as you encounter painful thoughts and feelings as well as physical aches and pains. Allow yourself to think and do whatever you need to think and do to survive. Give sustenance to your body to help survive this journey.
Don't judge yourself or try to set a particular course for healing. There is no single, right way to grieve, and there is no set timetable.
Let your journey be what it is. And let yourself — your new, grieving self — be who you are.
If others judge you or try to direct your grief in ways that seem hurtful or inappropriate, ignore them. You are the only expert of your grief. Usually people are well-intentioned, but they may lack insight. See if you can muster some compassion for them, too.
What are you beating yourself up about these days? If you have the energy (and you don't always), address the problem head-on. If you can do something about it, do it. If you can't, try to be self-forgiving.
UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GRIEF AND MOURNING
Grief is the constellation of internal thoughts and feelings we have when someone loved dies. Grief is the weight in the chest, the churning in the gut, the unspeakable thoughts and feelings.
Mourning is the outward expression of grief. Mourning is crying, journaling, creating artwork, talking to others about the death, telling the story, speaking the unspeakable.
Everyone grieves when someone loved dies, but if we are to heal, we must also mourn. If you grieve but don't mourn, your body will keep telling you it is under distress.
Many of the ideas in this book are intended to help you care for your body as you mourn, as you express the grief outside of yourself. Over time, and with the support of others, to mourn is to heal.
Ask yourself this: Have I truly been mourning the death of my loved one, or have I restricted myself to grieving?
TAKE GOOD CARE OF YOURSELF
Good self-care is nurturing and necessary for mourners, yet it's something many of us completely overlook. This entire book is devoted to encouraging you to take good care of yourself.
You'll find more details on each of these self-care musts throughout this book, but for now:
* - Try very hard to eat well and get adequate rest. Lay your body down two to three times a day for 20-30 minutes, even if you don't sleep. You may not care very much about eating well right now, and you may sleep poorly. But taking care of yourself is truly one way to fuel healing and to begin to embrace life again.
* - Drink at least five to six glasses of water each day, more if you can. Dehydration can compound feelings of fatigue and disorientation.
* - Exercise not only provides you with more energy, it can give you focused thinking time. Take a 20-minute walk every day. Or, if that seems too much, a five-minute walk. But don't over- exercise; your body needs extra rest, as well.
Now, more than ever, you need to allow time for you.
Are you taking a multivitamin? If not, now is probably a good time to start.
BE KIND TO YOUR BODY
As you have probably discovered, the loss of someone loved can take a toll on your body, potentially causing a multitude of physical problems. Do you feel tension in your body right now?
The physical problems encountered from grief can include physical and emotional exhaustion, uncontrollable crying, trouble sleeping, heart palpitations, and headaches.
There may be a worsening of chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, eczema, or asthma. Other chronic conditions can also be made worse when you are experiencing the need to mourn and forget to take your needed medicines.
These physical effects are not inevitable, but in order to nurture your body, you may have to take a step back, slow down, and look at your physical needs. You may need to take time away from work and focus on clearing your mind. You must be kind to yourself by supplying your body with the good nutrition, water, rest, and exercise that you need.
Do one nice thing for your body today. Consider a walk, a healthy meal, a warm cup of tea, or simply a hot bath.
MOVE TOWARD YOUR GRIEF, NOT AWAY FROM IT
Our society teaches us that emotional pain is to be avoided, not embraced, yet it is only in moving toward our grief that we can be healed.
The only way to get to the other side is through.
Be suspicious if you find yourself thinking you are "doing well" since the death. Sometimes "doing well" means you are avoiding your pain or you're simply experiencing the natural numbness of grief. Our bodies may remind us of our inner turmoil through fatigue, headaches, and other symptoms. Listen to your body's wisdom.
Of course, it is necessary to dose yourself with your grief. Sometimes you will need to distract yourself from the pain. But in general, you should feel that you're moving toward your grief and an understanding and acceptance of it.
Today, talk to someone else who cared about your loved one. Share your thoughts and feelings with him openly and encourage him to do the same. Support each other in your grief.
CONSIDER YOUR OWN WELLNESS
Wellness is defined as the pursuit of optimal health through responsible behavior choices. It goes beyond the conventional definition of health — the absence of disease or being "not sick."
The dimensions of wellness include physical health, emotional health, cognitive health, social health, and spiritual health.
It is important to monitor your own wellness as you move through your grieving process. Take action and seek help whenever you find that one or more of your wellness dimensions is suffering.
Make an inventory of how you are doing in each of your wellness dimensions: physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and spiritual. Take steps to improve yourself in one of these dimensions by using the ideas in this book
INVENTORY YOUR PHYSICAL HEALTH HABITS
Once you are through the initial survival phase of grief, you may want to take time to make an inventory of your health habits. Choose good habits to keep you healthy through your grieving period. Diet and exercise are a good place to start. Small changes may be easier to make than big ones. But first take a look at both your good and bad habits in diet, exercise, smoking, alcohol use, and hydration.
A healthy diet has many benefits. Heart disease, certain cancers, stroke, diabetes, and damage to your arteries can be linked to what you eat. By making healthier food choices, you can also lower your cholesterol and lose weight.
Many Americans carry too much weight, which can increase your risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, gallbladder disease, and arthritis in the weight-bearing joints (such as the spine, hips, and knees). A diet high in fiber and low in fat and simple carbohydrates (including sugar), along with regular exercise, can help you lose weight and keep it off.
Exercise can help prevent heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, and depression. It can also guard against colon cancer, stroke, and back injury. You will feel better and keep your weight under control if you exercise regularly. The goal is to exercise 30 to 60 minutes four to six times weekly, but keep in mind that any amount of exercise is better than none.
Choose one health habit and start improvement today.
CHOOSE A PRIMARY CARE DOCTOR
Take care of your medical needs. Having a primary care doctor who knows your medical history and takes care of the majority of your medical problems is important to your long-term health. This can be a family doctor, an internal medicine doctor, or, if you are a woman, a gynecologist. This relationship with a doctor is especially important during your time of grief when, with stress, you may have more symptoms and be more susceptible to medical problems.
A primary care doctor should create a caring relationship with you. He or she should get to know you, listen, and help make the right healthcare decisions. Be sure to let your doctor know about the death and the grief that you feel.
Family doctors are trained to care for you in all areas of medicine, and can diagnose and treat a full range of most problems. They also know when to bring in a trusted specialist if the problem is more complicated. They can listen and support you through your grief process.
If you don't already have a primary care doctor or if you haven't seen one lately, make an appointment to see one in the next two weeks.
TAKE YOUR MEDICINE
You haven't been getting enough sleep. It's hard to concentrate. You may be so distracted that you can't remember if you have taken your prescribed medication or not. The grief of loss can be all-consuming. But missing doses of medication can be a problem if you have chronic medical issues, especially those like diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease, which are conditions that often need close control.
Other chronic conditions can worsen during your period of grief, so it is important to follow the instructions of your prescribed medicines in order to keep your medical problems under control. This is a vital part of self- care. Many conditions, such as high blood pressure, may not alert you with symptoms if you stop your medicine, but can do silent damage to your body.
Excerpted from Healing Your Grieving Body by Alan D. Wolfelt. Copyright © 2009 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Center for Loss and Life Transition.
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