By Jeremy Godwin.
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast about improving your mental health and wellbeing by Australian author and speaker Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on one specific topic and is full of practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.
This week I’m talking about grief – specifically, how to manage your mental health during times of grief and loss such as losing a loved one or experiencing sudden loss related to your job/health/circumstances. Listen to the podcast now in the Spotify player below or continue reading for the article version.
This week I’m talking about one of the most challenging topics related to mental health and one that we will all experience at some point or another in our lives – grief.
Grief is one of the most difficult emotions to work through because it’s a profound and often-overwhelming sense of loss, and it can feel absolutely awful. In Episode 25 I talked about how our beloved 17-year-old cat, Pushka, recently died following a sudden illness, and how heartbroken I was (and still am a few weeks later, to be honest). I’m learning to work through my grief one day at a time, and I have good days, average days and bad days. But with time, I’m working through my grief and finding ways to adapt, just like many of us are finding ways to deal with grief like what we’ve all experienced recently with the shock of losses caused by COVID-19.
Whether you’re dealing with the loss of a loved one or the end of a situation, the loss of your job or feelings of confusion about what the future may hold for you, grief is painful but it is an important part of life, because grief shows us what is truly important. With that in mind, let’s talk a bit more about what grief is and how (and why) it happens, then we’ll get into things that you can do to manage your mental health during times of grief.
Defining grief and how it relates to mental health
Grief is intense sorrow and pain caused by some type of loss. It can be caused by many different events such as the death of a loved one (either a person or a pet), the end of a romantic relationship, the end of a friendship, the loss of a job, loss of health, loss of control, loss of independence… to name a few.
For example, a lot of people have recently lost their jobs or their ability to earn an income pretty much overnight when COVID-19 hit and the economy went down like the Titanic, and along with the initial shock and panic many are quite likely experiencing grief over the losses they have experienced. Consider this: if your sense of identity is wrapped up in what you do (which it is for so many of us) and that is taken away overnight, what happens next? What about those who have worked hard to build their own businesses or to tap into their unique skills to create a living for themselves, only to have it disappear suddenly? There’s a lot of loss being experienced and for many of us we need time to grieve and to mourn what we’ve lost before we can even begin to think about what to do next – I know, because I went through that as I’m sure many of you have.
Here’s the thing about grief: grief is unavoidable, however grief is proof of life; and it when it comes to the loss of loved one, grief is proof of love. Because the reality of life is that absolutely everything has a beginning, a middle and an end. Grief is an expression of loss just as much as it is an expression of life, because to live a truly full life we have to accept that loss is inevitable. There’s a quote by an unknown author that goes, “Grief is just love with no place to go,” and I think that’s a good description of all of that love or energy that you want to give but which now has nowhere to go.
Look, let’s be honest – if we could choose not to experience loss and grief, we probably would (especially when it comes to those we love deeply). And that’s the biggest challenge when it comes to life: accepting that we have absolutely no control over external events or indeed anything outside of our own words and actions. Nobody is immune to loss or grief, and so it’s up to each of us to find ways to work through grief that feels right to us.
Everyone experiences grief in their own way. Shock, disbelief, sadness, anger, confusion, guilt, anxiety, emptiness, crying, exhaustion, profound sorrow, emotional heaviness, regret, trouble concentrating, pain… there is no one-size-fits-all approach to how you might experience grief and you’ll possibly feel some or all of those emotions at any given minute, and also you might swing wildly from one to another.
Grief feels awful and I’m sorry to say that there’s no ‘fast-track’ way through it. Even if you try to mask your pain (e.g. By throwing yourself into your work or hitting the bottle or looking for any distraction you can), you can’t escape grief. Those feelings, as horrible as they might be, are there to force you to confront your loss so you can make sense of it. If you try to avoid it, it will very likely come back to bite you in the backside later on.
Back in the late 1960’s, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross shared her theory of the five stages of grief which a lot of us are very familiar with now – being denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. You might experience some or all of these, and in no specific order, as you work through your grief.
Probably the main two things to be aware of when it comes to grief are: (1) there’s no one way to deal with loss, because we all experience grief and loss differently based on the situation and our own attitudes/beliefs, and (2) grief is often best-described as being like a rollercoaster; it is very unlikely you’ll experience it as a straight line from beginning to end, but instead it’s more likely that you’ll be up, down, and all over the place for quite a while, so it’s a case of taking things one day at a time, feeling what you need to feel and being gentle with yourself.
For a straightforward overview of grief, have a read through the guide by Headspace (Australia) titled ‘Dealing with grief and loss & the effects on mental health’ which I’ll include the link to in the transcript on the website (source link: https://headspace.org.au/young-people/dealing-with-grief-and-loss-and-the-effects-on-mental-health/); it’s a good overview if you’re interested.
Things you can do to manage your mental health during times of grief
With that in mind, let’s talk through some specific things you can do to manage your mental health during times of grief and loss.
- Allow yourself to grieve. Sometimes the temptation can be to throw ourselves into something else to get past the intense feelings of loss and sadness, however grief is an important process because we need to work through it to heal and to find a way to live with this new reality. Take your time and feel what you need to feel.
- If you need to cry, then cry. It can be an excellent release (but don’t feel guilt if you want to cry but can’t – sometimes the body just does what it does). There is absolutely no shame in crying, regardless of age or gender, and I’m not embarrassed to admit that I bawled my eyes out several times a day for the first couple of weeks after Pushka died recently, just like I have when I’ve lost friends or family members in the past. You’re human, not a robot.
- Be kind to yourself. Especially when there is guilt involved, which can happen even in spite of any objective evidence or knowledge. When we had to make the choice to either put our cat to sleep or to let her suffer because of her failing kidneys, we knew the only fair decision that we could have made was to let her go peacefully – but that didn’t stop the overwhelming sense of guilt that I had to work through in the days that followed. Often when we’re experiencing loss, we find ourselves second-guessing the decisions that we’ve made and ruminating over past actions… but however hard we might try, we cannot change what has happened. Things are as they are, and we have to be kind to ourselves because playing the “what-if?” game just causes more heartache. You made the best choices that you could based on what you knew at the time, and unfortunately sometimes things just don’t turn out for the best. Instead of blaming yourself, forgive yourself.
- Take things one step at a time. It’s really important to take things at your own pace – forget one day at a time; during the earlier stages of bereavement it can be more like one minute at a time. Your emotions are probably going to be all over the place and that’s completely normal, because your mind is trying to make sense of the loss you’ve experienced and integrate this knowledge into the way it sees the world. Take your time.
- If you need to be alone, be alone. If you need company, find company. Ideally, find a balance – too much of either can be just too much and make things harder for you, but again take things at your own pace.
- Look after yourself and practice self-care. Rest, sleep, gentle physical activity, eat well (I mean, I’m no saint with this – after losing my cat I ate every bit of junk food I could get my hands on, so…). But take the time for self-care and again be gentle with yourself – these awful feelings won’t last forever, but they’re not going to just go away overnight. For tips on self-care, check out Episode Six of Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
- Make decisions that are right for you based on the situation. If it’s the loss of a family member and that means taking time out so you can work through everything you need to work through, then do what feels right for you. If you have to make decisions that might make you feel guilty – for example, having to decide you can’t attend a funeral far away because of financial constraints – then let go of guilt and know that you’re doing the best you can.
- Work towards acceptance. As hard as it might be, especially in the early stages of bereavement, the reality is that circumstances can’t be changed. Gently remind yourself that accepting things as they are will help you to come to terms with the reality of the situation, which is important because that helps you to find ways to move forward one step at a time.
- Get some support. Talk to a friend or family member. Call a hotline (for example a professional grief counselling service, like GriefLine here in Australia). Go see your doctor or a therapist. You don’t have to go through this alone. Also, if you’re experiencing intense feelings of grief for weeks and weeks on end and are struggling to cope, it’s really important that you see someone because it can potentially be a sign of deteriorating mental health, which might require professional assistance and intervention. It’s okay to ask for help (in fact, we encourage that here at Let’s Talk About Mental Health!)
- If you are completely unable to cope, seek immediate assistance. Either call emergency services or contact a crisis line such as BeyondBlue (crisis resources for Australia, New Zealand, UK, Ireland, US & Canada are listed on the website at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/resources) – again, you’re not alone and if you don’t have a friend or family member to help you then there are plenty of qualified professionals who can help you to make sense of everything.
- Understand that grief doesn’t just eventually evaporate; often, grief continues for years and years if not longer. Grief doesn’t just go away; you just learn how to adapt to it and live with the loss. If you’re having trouble doing that (adapting), then that’s where seeking professional support can be really important, but don’t expect that it will just disappear completely – because it won’t.
- Move forward at your own pace. Friends of mine have mentioned that years later they find themselves missing their pets immensely, and the reality is that those we lose – whether human or animal – are never completely gone, because they’re always in our hearts. It’s up to us to find ways to move forward in our lives without them while still keeping their memory alive within us. Do what feels right to you as you find ways to move forward.
- Also, if you know someone who is grieving, show them kindness and offer support (but give them space). It’s a fine line between being supportive versus being in the way, so let the person know that you understand it’s a difficult time and that they can reach out to you if they need anything, then give them some space and perhaps check in again in a few days or a week. A nice thing to do, which is just a small and simple gesture, is to send a handwritten note or card letting them know you’re thinking of them. That bit of kindness will be greatly appreciated. Grief is part of the human experience and we’ve all been through it at one time or another, so making the effort to just be there for those you care about is the kindest thing you can do.
When it comes to grief, what it all boils down to is this: everything has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the price of living is loss. That might sound morbid or be a bit confronting, but I think when we avoid talking about the truth of life we do ourselves a great disservice – because without loss we might never have known love, or joy, or connection, or any of the wonderful aspects of life. Life is good and bad, light and dark, happiness and sadness. Grief forces us to really look at our priorities and to celebrate what we once had, and it makes us cherish those relationships and situations that we still have and reminds us to be grateful for them. Loss can be hard to comprehend and even harder to accept, however you will adapt and eventually you will find acceptance – and you’ll be able to look back and remember all the good memories, all those times of joy and contentment and love, and it’s those feelings that we need to focus on rather than sorrow. It’s true that grief is painful to experience and it is also true that ‘this too shall pass’ – however, you will always have the experience of your connection to the individual or situation alive in your heart, and that is something to cherish – always – because it is proof of love and it is proof of life.
To finish up, let me take a moment to share a quote about this week’s topic that I’d like to encourage you to reflect on and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote has a few disputed sources but the best I can find is that it appears to be by a Dr. Johnson in an 1845 publication (which I’ll reference in the transcript), and the quote is:
“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, of unspeakable love.”Dr. Johnson (1845)
Source: Johnson, Dr. (1845). Sacredness of Tears. In William C. Brown (Ed.), The Mother’s Assistant and Young Lady’s Friend, p. 77. Boston, USA: William C. Brown. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=eiYAAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&hl=en&pg=GBS.RA2-PA77
That’s it for this week’s episode. Next week I’ll be talking about recovery – I’ll be discussing the ups and downs of the process of recovering from mental health challenges, and looking at different things you can do to manage your own long-term recovery.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning in Australia & New Zealand, Sunday evening in the UK & Ireland, and Sunday afternoon in the US & Canada. You can find past episodes and additional content at the website which is letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au.
You can find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest – I’ve recently changed the account name to better reflect the focus on mental health and make it easier for new people to identify what LTAMH is all about, so the new username is now @ltamentalhealth on all social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest).
Thank you very much for joining me today – look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
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Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.