Avoid Losing Yourself to Grief

After Margaret lost her husband to cancer, she found herself on a roller coaster.

The shock of his loss came first, even though she had been steeling herself for his death. Then came the unbearable sadness, punctuated by bouts of sobbing that left her unable to move. A self-styled foodie, she found no joy in the tempting meals prepared by friends. The dark nights after his death became even longer as Margaret found herself unable to sleep more than a few hours at a time.

Heather O’Brien says that Margaret’s reactions are all normal – and healthy – in the face of such a life-changing loss.

“Grief is a word we use to describe the physical and emotional reactions that commonly occur in response to loss,” explains O’Brien, director of bereavement services for Emmanuel Hospice. “It’s a core human experience that has existed throughout history and is observed in every culture.

“Everyone’s journey through grief is unique, and everyone’s timetable will be distinct. We all take different routes that bend and curve in singular ways, sometimes circling back on themselves. Sometimes we are moving slowly while other times it feels like we are not moving forward at all.”

O’Brien said that a death, even when it might be expected, first triggers a shock for us. The shock is followed by numbness or a dazed feeling, where we just don’t know what to do with ourselves, she explains. As those feelings fade, O’Brien notes that feelings of sadness and despair can increase. Just as we may start to be feeling a bit better, we may actually start feeling worse.

“Our body naturally responds to despair with tears,” O’Brien observes. “Tears are an important healing function; avoiding or resisting them can cause difficulty. So I tell people, go ahead and give yourself a good cry – it’s an important emotional and physical release.”

She notes that grief manifests itself in numerous other ways, including:

  • Loneliness and isolation, which O’Brien points out are not synonymous. When we are lonely, she says, we have a hard time engaging in activities that are typically comforting and soothing. It’s okay to be lonely – and okay to be isolated, where we withdraw from a world that has changed, opt not to return phone calls or connect with others to conserve strength.
  • Forgetfulness and lack of concentration. O’Brien explains that grief disconnects higher-level thinking, interfering with our ability to think, read, plan or organize. Putting keys in the refrigerator might come across as absentminded, but it’s really grief – and it is very normal.
  • Irritability and anger. Tears and anger are very close together for some of the people O’Brien counsels at Emmanuel Hospice. She has seen anger at self, family members, God, medical personnel and others. It’s important to be patient with ourselves and realize that we might be short-tempered or prone to outbursts for a bit.
  • Appetite and sleep. These are two of the big things that grief interrupts, O’Brien says, tipping the scales heavily on one side – overeating and oversleeping – or the other – failing to do both. Through your grief, it’s important to keep our body healthy and nourished during this time, even when you don’t feel like eating and sleeping are options.

“To heal, you have to acknowledge that pain,” she cautions. “If you try and avoid grieving, it can often prolong the process for you and lead to other complications, such as depression, anxiety and health problems.

“The two things that will help people the most is getting support from others who will help you heal and taking care of yourself. Grief can feel pretty lonely. This is the time to lean on people who care about you, even if you tend to be pretty self-sufficient.

“It’s a time when you can draw comfort from your faith, whether that is through prayer, meditation or going to church. Sharing your sadness and sorrow with others who understand and have experience loss can help.”

8 Tips to Manage Your Grief Through the Holidays

It can take something as simple as a word or a song to bring back memories – and tears – for Joe Borgman.

When his beloved wife, Jeanie, died last August after a two-and-a-half-year battle with cancer, he was bereft. “She was my life,” he says simply, “and I lost that.”

After 46 years of marriage, Joe faced the quiet of an empty house for the first time. As the holidays approached, his three daughters wanted to know what the plans were – and he wasn’t sure.

“We decided to have Christmas together, along with Jean’s brother and his family,” Joe recalls. “I left a little early. I find that I watch situations and protect myself if things are going in a direction where I am not going to be comfortable.

“People can say something completely innocent and have no idea that it can bring back memories. I have become much more aware of that now. Unless you have gone through it, you cannot realize how one small thing can turn your day from happiness to sadness.”

But that makes perfect sense to Heather O’Brien, director of bereavement services for Emmanuel Hospice – particularly around the holidays.

“When someone experiences the death of a loved one, they’re facing one of life’s most significant challenges,” O’Brien explains. “While a lot of people experience grief, it’s poorly understood in our society and lasts longer than our society recognizes. No two people grieve in the same way.

“For those who have experienced a loss, happy memories are dulled by that pain and the sorrow of experiencing the holidays without that special person. People already experience a lot of stress during the holidays, and if you add the weight of grief to it, the holidays can become almost unbearable.”

Grief manifests itself in numerous ways, O’Brien says, including:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Inability to sleep
  • Feeling angry or easily frustrated
  • Avoiding people or things you used to enjoy
  • Difficulty leaving the house
  • Crying
  • Drinking or eating to excess

“People may try and dull the pain with alcohol, food or spending, which are all equally problematic,” O’Brien says. “Substance abuse is readily supported during the holiday season. While it might temporarily dull the pain, the grief is still there.

“You can’t prevent grief or cure it. And you can’t go around grief – you have to go through it.”

The holidays can magnify feelings of sadness and isolation, O’Brien knows. We are surrounded by decorations, holiday TV shows, songs on the radio, card companies – you name it, O’Brien said, and we are awash in expectations that we are supposed to be happy.

Through her work at Emmanuel Hospice, she regularly counsels people, like Joe, who are struggling to understand their grief. As a nonprofit provider of hospice services, Emmanuel provides individual and group counseling to anyone in the community, whether or not the individual or family use their service.

At this time of year, O’Brien offers tips to make the holidays more manageable, including:

  • Scale back. Grief robs us of emotional and physical energy, and it may lighten your load to skip sending cards, baking, or decorating this year.
  • Be honest about invitations. You can attend some, all or none of the celebrations you are invited to.
  • Let family and friends know that you may not be able to do as much this year
  • Avoid events that seem like obligations.
  • Keep some of your old holiday traditions, but start some new ones. If your house was always the place family gathered for a meal, ask a relative if he or she would be willing to host this year.
  • Have a Plan A (dinner with relatives) and a Plan B (simple dinner and a movie at home) so that when you wake up on a holiday, you can choose the option that feels the best.
  • Find people who will support you. Identify those who are good listeners, who are safe to share feelings with or who have experienced a loss.
  • Honor your loved one’s memory by making a donation in their name, buying a special ornament to hang on the tree, sharing favorite stories or volunteering to help others.

“Above all, be gentle with yourself,” O’Brien notes. “Don’t expect too much of yourself. You need to expect that the holidays will hurt and it will take some time to adjust. Recognize you are doing the best you can and give yourself permission to feel what you feel.”

Emmanuel Hospice is a faith-based provider of hospice and palliative care services to those who call West Michigan home. The organization is hosting two free educational groups on Nov. 9 2016, to discuss the grief journey through the holidays. Visit our Facebook Page for more information.

Emmanuel Hospice Grief Support Events

We understand that Grief is a multifaceted response to losing a loved one. Although conventionally focused on the emotional response to loss, Grief also has physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, spiritual, and philosophical dimensions. We also understand the journey through grief was never meant to be traveled alone.

In collaboration with Gilda’s Club and Sunset Manor and Villages, Emmanuel Hospice will be offering three types of grief support events. Each group is for adults who have experienced the death of an adult family member or friend, and would like to learn more about the grief journey.

Click here to view these no-cost events: EH-GriefSupport Jan-June 2016

To register, please call or email Heather O’Brien – Emmanuel Hospice Director of Bereavement Services:
PH: 616.719.0919 E: hobrien@emmanuelhospice.org

If It’s Not "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, Let Us Help…

The winter holidays are generally perceived as “the most wonderful time of the year.” But for those who are facing grief after the death of a loved one, the holidays may instead be a time filled with pain and sadness.

Even those for whom grief is not as fresh, the holidays may serve as an annual reminder of the loss—not only of that person, but of tradition and celebration.

Bereavement professionals working in hospice and palliative care understand how difficult this season can be. They support families coping with loss all year long. Bereavement counselors stress the importance of making decisions that feel right to the grieving person, and giving oneself permission to make new or different choices at the holidays.

Grief experts remind us that:
• Holidays often center on certain traditions and rituals. For some, continuing these traditions without a loved one may be an important way to continue sharing their memory. For others, it may be more comforting to develop new rituals to help lessen the pain and immediacy of the loss.
• While the holidays can be filled with meaning, they can also be filled with pressure and stress because of additional tasks such as shopping, baking and decorating. Grieving people should be encouraged to prioritize what needs to be done, and focus on those projects that may bring them pleasure. Perhaps the gift list can be pared down, cards need not be sent out, or another family member can cook the family dinner this year.
• The holidays can bring opportunities to remember the person who has died in a way that is personally meaningful. Some families choose to participate in holiday events with a local hospice. Others may choose to share special family stories over a meal. Some may find that making a donation to a special charity or volunteering time to help others in need may be a comforting way to honor their loved one.

Hospice and palliative care professionals know of the importance of providing emotional and spiritual support to those who are grieving but most importantly, they remind us that a person grieving should do what’s most comfortable for him or her during this time of year.
If you or a loved one finds themselves needing support around the holidays, let Emmanuel Hospice help. Contact Heather O’Brien at Hobrien@emmanuelhospice.org or call 616-719-0919 for free resources today.

Change is Grief and Grief is Change

By Heather O’Brien-Director of Volunteer and Bereavement Services

Change and loss are a given in the great journey of life, but we often save grief for the “big” losses like deaths of loved ones. There are many other losses we all experience every year in daily life. They may include moving, a child growing up, a relationship ending, or loss of a home or pet. The last few years of my life have included many changes including; divorce, the loss (leaving) of many co-workers, moving 3 times and relocating to Grand Rapids (without my 14 yr. old dog) to join Emmanuel Hospice. Even though none of these changes included the death of a loved one, this was the most loss and grief I had ever experienced at one time; even after working in Hospice for over 12 years.

Some losses are larger and some smaller but I don’t think size matters. When you have changes in life, they often include loss. If you are experiencing a change or transition in life, the question to ask is, “What loss do I need to grieve so that I can let go and move forward?”

Author Karla McLaren suggests we “let our bodies guide us” through the grieving that accompanies change and loss. The mind just doesn’t understand loss the way emotions and the body do, which is why we need them to lead the way during grief. This means connecting to all of the different emotions you are feeling and taking the time to feel them. It’s a “no-holds-barred” emergency honoring of all body and soul needs. Rest, tears, hunger, sleep, sunlight, solitude, company, drawing, writing, talking and prayer….whatever you truly need.

In the end, grief is an amazingly helpful emotion. It allows us to let go of anything that isn’t working, is no longer meant to be in our daily lives, or is simply ready to be released. Then, grief allows us to discover what’s truly important to us, on a soul-deep level. It brings us ever-closer to knowing ourselves deeply, intimately, and lovingly. Nothing is more self-compassionate and self-healing than allowing our grief to flow. We (you and I) need to take care of ourselves and remember to treat any loss- old, new, big, small, or whatever it may be – as something that deserves to be grieved.