COPE HEALING TIPS FOR HOLIDAYS
The end of each year, especially the holiday season, is often difficult for grievers. There is a focus on spending time with family or friends or participating in rituals and traditions. For the griever, it is hard to think of ending a year without the person who died and/or feeling the deceased’s absence at special events. Here are some tips that grievers can keep in mind while trying to cope with the overwhelming nature of the holiday season.
- Be flexible with your plans
Your plan A or usual ritual may not be what you want to do this year. Some take comfort in participating in traditions but it’s ok to change plans or incorporate new activities into holiday observances or celebrations. Volunteering with an organization, donating to a cause your special person loved, and going away on a trip are just a few of the ways you can change your usual holiday plan.
Be honest with yourself and think about what you are willing or able to commit to during this season. There can be pressure to accept invitations to dinner, holiday parties, and outings. If accepting an invitation, it’s a good idea to let your host know that you may change your mind about attending the event or may choose to leave early. If you don’t feel supported in your plans, this may be a good indication that an event is not right for you right now.
- Incorporate your loved one when possible
Grievers can feel the hardest part of the holiday season is the ‘togetherness’ of family and friendship groups. The absence of a special person can loom large. It’s ok to honor your current feelings and the way in which you want to grieve. Sometimes this includes cancelling holiday plans and other times it involves remembering the deceased through a variety of ways. Leaving a seat at the dinner table, lighting a candle in memory, and sharing stories about the deceased are just some of the ways you can honor your special person.
- Self-Soothe and Self-Care
Coping with grief is necessary throughout the year. Self-soothing acknowledges our need for comfort, warmth, and pleasure, and self-care allows us to acknowledge our need for self-respect and self-connection. Whatever you choose to do, be intentional about pausing and taking care of yourself on any given day. Small things like a warm shower, cup of tea, or watching your favorite television show can help you feel more at ease. A long walk, turning off your phone for a bit, and fitting in a nap are just some of the things that can be good for the body and mind.
During this time, remember to be gentle with yourself. Whether writing your feelings and thoughts, allowing tears to flow, or meditating, remember to take stock of what is coming up in your grief. If you’re reading this to support someone grieving in your life, you can help by reminding the person of the above tips. You can also aid them by recognizing and supporting that the holiday season may be different this year, and likely for years to come. Help in the ways you can and allow the space to make changes.
Wishing you a holiday season of peace, hope, and special memories that bring you joy.
Rashida Sanchez, MA, LMSW, FT
Healing Tip of the Month – Janet Zimmerman, LCSW-R
This month I’d like to share some strategies for coping with grief that were developed by Donald Meichenbaum, PHD and Julie Myers, PsyD.
Donald H. Meichenbaum is an American psychologist and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. He is a research director of the Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment at the University of Miami.
Dr. Myers is a licensed clinical psychologist, who specializes in teaching self-regulatory strategies for coping with addictive behaviors and substance use, procrastination, mood disorders, panic, phobia, attention, and sleep problems in adults, adolescents, and children.
Drs. Meichenbaum and Myers created a “Strategies For Coping With Grief Checklist”. They write: “The process of grieving is like going on a “journey.” There are multiple routes and people progress at different rates. There is no right way to grieve, no one path to take, no best coping approach. These grief coping strategies list some of the pathways that others have taken in their journey of grieving. It is not meant to be a measure of how well you have coped or how you should cope, since there is no one way to manage the pain following the aftermath of the loss of a loved one, no matter what the cause of his or her death. Rather, the strategies listed are suggestions of things you might consider doing to help you on your journey.”
“This list is intended to help you discover new ways that you can move forward on your journey through the process of grief. If one doesn’t work for you, hopefully another one will.”
Sought Comfort And Help From Others
- I examined the thoughts that kept me from seeking help from others, such as the beliefs that “I am a burden to others”, “no one can help me, no one understands,”, “I have to do this on my own,” “I should be stronger,” “Listening to the grieving stories of others will make me feel worse,” or “People are tired of hearing bout my loss.”
- I reached out to family, friends, elders, or colleagues for comfort and companionship, but gave myself permission to back-off when I needed time alone.
- I took the initiative to reach out to folks from whom I might not normally seek help. I looked for new friends in church groups, social groups, work, school, or I went on the internet to find others who experienced a similar loss. I made a list of these supports to our t when I was struggling or experiencing pain.
- I forced myself to be with people and to do things, even when I didn’t feel like it. I put something on my calendar almost every day, with back-up plans.
- I hugged and held others but felt free to tell people when ai did not want to be touched.
- I leaned to grieve and mourn in public.
- I shared my story with others who I thought would appreciate and benefit from it. I told anyone who would listen the story of the deceased, even if they had nothing to say back.
- I gave and received random acts of kindness.
- I connected with animals and nature, for example,, the deceased’s pet, a beautiful sunset, hike, or garden.
- I cared for or nurtured others. For example, I spent time caring for my loved ones.
- I found my faith or religion comforting. I participated in religious, cultural, or ethnic mourning practices, such as attending church services, sitting Shiva, participating in a Wake, celebrating the /Day of the Dead, visiting a memorial shrine, etc.
- I read books written by others who have coped with the loss of a loved one. I read about the grieving process, loss, and advice books about other issues that arose.
- I made a list of all the professional resources that I could use in a crisis, such as suicide hotlines, mental health crisis lines, mentors, clergy or man, or mental health providers.
Took Care Of Myself Physically And Emotionally
- I examined the thoughts and feelings that kept me from taking care of myself physically and emotionality such as guilt, shame, sense of lost self, and loss of the will to live.
- I established routines of daily living. Although things were different, I made new routines and did not berate myself when I was not “perfect.” I maintained personal hygiene, medical care, health nutrition and regular sleep.
- I reconnected with my body through exercise, yoga, Tai Chi, or expressive arts, allowing myself time to get stronger.
- I recognized that my brain needs time to heal and for things to improve, so I forgave myself when I made mistakes, became distracted, couldn’t remember or understand.
- I avoided the excessive use of alcohol, tobacco, recreational drugs, and caffeine as a coping mechanism.
- I relinquished avoidance and learned to face my fears by engaging in life. I participated in activities that had meaning and kept me occupied, such as work, hobbies, crafts, singing or dancing.
- I allowed myself to pursue and feel positive emotions, such as compassion toward myself and others, expressions of gratitude, and emotions of love, joy, awe, and hopefulness.
- I recognized and labeled my feelings, viewing them as a “message” rather than something to avoid. I accepted and dealt with these emotions, understanding that the less I fought them, the more I was able to handle them.
- I regulated my strong negative emotions using slow smooth breathing, coping self-statements, prayer, or other mood-regulating techniques.
- I allowed myself time to cry at times and gave words to my emotional pain. I distinguished feelings of grief from other feelings such as fear, uncertainty, guilt, shame, and anger.
- I expressed difficult feelings through writing and talking to supportive others. I used journaling selective writing, letter or poetry writing, or other expressive arts of scrapbooking, dance or music.
- I engaged in gratitude activities, such as telling other how much I appreciate their love and support, reminding myself of the things that I am thankful for, and being grateful that I knew the deceased.
- I established a safe and comforting space for myself, either physically or through imagery.
Stayed Connected To The Deceased And Created A New Relationship, While Recognizing The Reality Of The Loss
- I examined the feelings and thoughts that kept me from forming an enduring connection with the deceased, such as the fear of what others would think of me, guilt, shame, humiliation, disgust, or thoughts of anger, revenge or being preoccupied with my grief
- I participated in practices, such as visiting the grave or memorial site, celebrating special occasions, prayer and candlelight vigils, public memorials, or commemorative services.
- I commemorated the deceased’s life with words, pictures, things, or created a small place of honor for the deceased, which I could visit any time I chose.
- I created a legacy such as planted a tree, started a scholarship or charity in the deceased’s name, started an internet blog, or launched new family or community practices.
- I allowed myself to talk to the deceased and allowed myself to listen. I wrote a letter to my loved one and asked for advice.
- I asked for forgiveness, shared joys and sorrows, and constructed a farewell message.
- I accepted that sadness was normal and learned how to be with my grief. I learned how to contain my grief to a time and place of my choosing. However I understood that intense upsurges of grief may arise unexpectedly and without warning, and I developed coping strategies to handle such events.
- I used imagery techniques, shared stories and photos of my loved one, or purposefully used reminders such as music or special routines to recall positive memories. I cherished and hung onto specific, meaningful possessions (objects, pets, etc.). I actively reminisced, holding onto our relationship in my heart and mind.
- I reached out to help and support others who are grieving for their loved ones. Helping others is a way to reengage in life and combat loneliness and tendencies to withdraw an avoid social contacts.
Created Safety Dnd Fostered Self-Empowerment
- I examined the thoughts that fuel my fears, avoidance and the belief that I cannot or should not feel happy and that things would never get better
- I took a breather and gave myself permission to rest knowing that grieving takes time and patience, with no quick fixes.
- I identified memories that trigger or overwhelm me and disengaged and/ or established boundaries by limiting people, places, or things that cause me stress or overwhelm me so that I could address them one by one, in my own time. I learned to say “no” to unreasonable requests.
- I began to think of myself as a “survivor,” if not a “thriver” of my own story, rather than as a “victim”. I reminded myself of my strengths and of all the hard times that I have gotten through in the past.
- I wrote out reminders of how to cope and put them on my fridge, cell phone, or computer. I looked at them when I was struggling and reminded myself of ways to be resilient.
- I created a plan about how to cope with difficult times. I learned to anticipate and recognize potential “hot spots” of when things are most difficult. I rated each day on a 1 to 10 point scale on how well I was doing. I asked myself what I can do to make things better and increase my rating. I worked on increasing the number of good days compared to the number of bad days
- I avoided thinking “This is just how it is,” realizing the I have choices no matter how hard life is. I came to recognize that emotional pain can be a way to stay connected with my loved one
- When I was overwhelmed by negative memories of the past, I avoided “time-sliding” into the past. a) I “grounded” myself to the present by refocusing my attention on the environment around me, b) I changed my self-talk by telling myself “I am safe and that this will pass”, c) I controlled my bodily reactions by slowing down my breathing, and d) I oriented to people’s faces, voices or touch or called for help from a friend.
Moved Toward A Future Outlook And A Stronger Sense Of Self
- I examined the thoughts and feelings that kept me from moving forward, such as “I am dishonoring the deceased by getting better,” or “I am leaving him/her behind,”, or “Feeling happier means that he/she is no longer important to me,” or that “My love for him/her is fading.”
- I regained my sense of hope for the future. I worked to reestablish a sense of purpose, with meaningful short-, mid-, and long-term goals. I am creating a life worth living, taking control of my future.
- I worked on regaining my sense of self-identity knowing the my life had changed but the I am still me. I focus on what is most important. I developed new goals and action plans, consistent with what I value.
- I created purpose by keeping the memory of the deceased alive in others. I kept others aware of the circumstances of the death, so that some good can come from the loss. I transformed my grief and emotional pain into meaning-making activities that created something “good and helpful”, for example Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention.
- I use my faith-based and religious and spiritual beliefs to comfort me. People hold different beliefs, such as “My loved one can continue to influence the lives of others in the world” or “My loved one is no longer suffering and is in a safe place,” or “We will be reunited in the future.”
- I examined the reasons why some of the actives that have been helpful to others in the grief process were not helpful for me and what I can do to help myself further in the journey through grief.
I hope that some of these coping strategies that were developed by Meichenbaum and Myers will be helpful to you on your own grief journeys.
In my professional education, clinical training, and personal practice of yoga, meditation or even my childbirth experiences, I have learned and practiced a number of ideas designed to help encourage, accept, and heal your thoughts and by extension your feelings.
These concepts go by different names – positive self-talk, mantra, prayer, affirmations. They are all unique, rooted in different belief systems and cultural traditions and by no means are meant to be considered interchangeable, but they have similar attributes that can provide an important layer of support during challenging times should they align with your beliefs and practice.
Often when working with grief, we focus on the feelings we are having and what we can do to help ourselves feel better – reach out to a support system, go to therapy, practice good self-care, spend time in nature, or use journaling or meditation or music. Sometimes though, the work needs to be done internally with one’s thoughts.
After a loss, your thoughts might be perseverating on the What Ifs?, fixating on questions you can’t answer, or replaying the death or how you found out. Self-talk might help you distract yourself from these ruminations or even argue their validity. You might be anxious thinking about how to get through a difficult event or day and a prayer or mantra in quiet solitude beforehand can provide that centering and strength. You could be giving yourself a hard time about not being “over” your grief or not doing as “well as you should be” and an affirmation can provide the kindness and self-compassion you need.
Positive self-talk is not about only looking on the bright side or labeling challenging thoughts as “bad.” Pushing them down or ignoring them does not allow you to process them.Negative or difficult thoughts should still be expected, accepted, and allowed without judgment. Self-talk is rather about learning to tune into the positive, self-affirming thoughts that can offer that strength and support from within.
Affirmations or mantras are deeply individual and are most meaningful when rooted in their appropriate context, but ones that I have used, learned, or taught in the past are:
This too shall pass.
Today I am enough.
I can do hard things.
I did the best I could with the information I had at the time.
You are here with me.
Today I am grateful for…
Today is a hard day and I will be gentle with myself.
I am allowed to feel this way and I am allowed to not want to feel this way.
There are so many versions of positive self-talk that can be used as a daily exercise or in very specific circumstances. Consider exploring one or more of these practices as part of supporting you in your grief journey.
July is Bereaved Parents Awareness month. On the heels of Mental Health Awareness Month, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Memorial Day, it can sometimes feel like there is always a reminder of our grief. We hope that each day or month of awareness is another opportunity for us to recognize and honor our grief and for others to learn more about grief and support those who are grieving. Sometimes though, it might seem like pressure to do or feel something specific and it is just as appropriate to let these days pass by. For this month, I simply want to remind you of your rights as a grieving individual in all circumstances, 365 days a year. This list is adapted from Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD, the Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition.
MY GRIEF RIGHTS
- You have the right to experience your own unique grief
No one else will grieve in exactly the same way you do.
- You have the right to talk about your grief
Talking about your grief will help you process. Seek out others who will allow you to talk as much and as often as you want about your grief. If at times you don’t feel like talking, you also have the right to be silent.
- You have the right to feel a multitude of emotions
Confusion, disorientation, fear, guilt and relief are just a few of the emotions you might feel as part of your grief journey. Find listeners who will accept your feelings without condition.
- You have the right to be tolerant of your physical and emotional limits
Your feelings of loss and sadness will probably leave you feeling fatigued. Respect what your body and mind are telling you. Get daily rest. Eat balanced meals. Do not allow others to push you into doing things you don’t feel ready to do.
- You have the right to experience “griefbursts”
Sometimes, out of nowhere, a powerful surge of grief may overcome you. This can be frightening, but is expected and natural.
- You have the right to make use of ritual
The funeral ritual does more than acknowledge the death of someone loved. It helps provide you with the support of caring people. More importantly, the funeral is a way for you to mourn.
- You have the right to embrace your spirituality
If faith is a part of your life, express it in ways that seem appropriate to you. Allow yourself to be around people who understand and support your religious beliefs and help you process any anger or loss of faith related to your loss.
- You have the right to search for meaning
You may find yourself asking, “Why did he or she die? Why this way? Why now?” Some of your questions may have answers, but some may not. Avoid clichéd responses like, “It was God’s will.” Instead consider putting your energy into “making meaning” through honoring their memory – if that feels right for your grief experience
- You have the right to treasure your memories
Memories are one of the best legacies that exist after the death of someone we love. Allow yourself to remember both happy and more difficult times and find others with whom you can share them.
- You have the right to move through your grief and heal
Reconciling your grief will not happen quickly. Remember, grief is a process, not an event. Be patient, tolerant, and kind to yourself. You should always remember that the loss of someone you love changes your life forever.
Waves in an Ocean of Grief
When considering what to write this month I found myself continuing to encounter examples of the constant presence of loss and grief in our lives both in the small everyday ways and larger, tragic events. Whether I heard it in session with clients, in support groups, talking with friends and family, or watching the news, people in general and especially grieving individuals are recently finding themselves overwhelmed by the impact that recurrent loss or reminders of loss can have on their wellbeing. As a mother and a grief professional, I too, have recently struggled to find the balance.
We often talk about the grief and healing experience as coming in waves. There are ups and downs and we are constantly moving, backwards and forwards, sometimes with more difficulty treading water than other times. Sometimes we feel like we are making progress, whatever that might look like for us. And sometimes we are just staying afloat. But what about times when it seems that we are overcome by not just waves, but rather an entire ocean of grief where there is no relief, no calm waters, only huge swells and an uncertain horizon?
In grief there are typical, everyday “grief bursts,” or sudden bursts of feelings that come out of nowhere or are tied to an otherwise seemingly innocuous occurrence like a song on the radio or a familiar smell that reminds us of our loved one. There are the common, expected triggering events like birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, or special events that underscore their absence in our lives. These grief bursts or triggers are normal and expected, but they can still lead people to worry about their grief process, expressing concern that they felt like they were doing better, but are now feeling worse again. Grieving individuals can feel discouraged that they are “right back where they were” despite how much time has passed. Yet as time continues and people are able to ride these waves and find relief in the times in between, they can often learn how to avoid them, plan for them, or practice how to cope with them.
But then there are times, as we seem to find ourselves in now, that the constant presence and reminders of grief and loss can overwhelm us with those all too familiar feelings of sadness, pain, trauma, and isolation.
The recent rise in COVID-19 cases has reignited those feelings of fear and worry about the health of those around us, especially the most vulnerable. COVID positive individuals needing to isolate themselves, even just for 5 days, is bringing people back to the crippling isolation and loneliness they experienced at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown 2 years ago. The progress towards normalcy we’ve made with lifting mask mandates and gathering in celebration again is reminding those who have to miss out because of COVID exposure or sickness how much we as a society have missed out on for the past couple years – the graduations, the weddings, the births, and the everyday milestones.
The shootings in Uvalde, Buffalo, and countless other communities, whether it affects us directly or is consumed by us through the news, surrounds us with anger and sorrow. Witnessing such pain can be extremely traumatic and scary for all of us, and even more so for grieving individuals. It can bring us back to that very raw, visceral place in our grief, reminding us of the trauma we’ve experienced and seeing ourselves in the anguish of those who are currently suffering. Grief has an enormous impact on both our emotional and physical health and hearing the news that the husband of one of the slain Uvalde teachers died 2 days later of an apparent heart attack only underscores the need for bereavement support.
I was asked earlier this week what words of support I would have for the families of Uvalde and I found myself at a loss. As grieving individuals know, sometimes there are no words.
But for those in our community, in times like these when the ocean of grief is wider and deeper than feels possible to manage, be gentle with yourselves.
Turn off the news when it becomes too much to bear. If you have young children you’re caring for, make it a pajama and TV day. If activism or service feels meaningful and productive, do that. Give yourself the opportunity to process feelings with those around you and give yourself the space to not talk about it if that’s what you need. Have compassion and grace with the feelings that arise and use every tool you have to care for yourself.
Know that just like with the song on the radio or that milestone anniversary, you will make it through this time and none of us has to do it alone.
Claire Sharkey, LCSW
Clinical Director, COPE Foundation
Mental Health Awareness Month: Facilitator Spotlight
We were halfway through April when I realized it was no longer March. As for much of the pandemic, time has simultaneously stood still and rushed forward in bursts. In realizing we were in April, I reflected that March was the 2 year anniversary of when the world stopped with the beginning of the pandemic. As we enter May, we begin Mental Health Awareness Month. These two things are inextricably linked; the pandemic has added new layers to preexisting life stressors or mental health conditions and created a whole host of struggles, concerns, and worries that never existed before.
Like many in the service industries, mental health professionals have stepped up over the past two years to support the growing mental health needs of a significantly exhausted, distressed, isolated, and burnt out population. While navigating their own pandemic-related fears and personal challenges, mental health providers have expanded practices, embraced the benefits of technology to increase access, and adjusted hours to accommodate other needs. As we approach 1 million lives lost from the COVID-19 pandemic, grief and bereavement providers especially have found their expertise and support needed.
It is because of this and all the other wonderful work they do, that I want to recognize and highlight our COPE facilitators this month and thank them for their commitment to and unwavering support of our community. We have facilitators who have been with us since COPE’s inception and those who have joined us as recently as this month, but all of them bring knowledge, compassion, personal and professional expertise and experience to their groups. They have seamlessly transitioned groups from in person to virtual platforms, welcomed and supported new group participants who they have only ever seen from the shoulders up, and continue to be open to flexibility and new requests because they care so deeply for their groups and their participants.
Group support is so unique because of the validation, normalization, community, and camaraderie one receives from being with peers who have had similar experiences. Adding a skilled clinician to the peer group enhances the conversation, education, and healing that is possible. COPE would not have been able to continue to provide support over these past two years without them. They are a huge part of what makes COPE’s community special.
Thank you Marilyn, Janet, Mary Ann, Michelle, Lauren, Juan Carlos, Natalia, and Erika. We appreciate you!
And to you, our COPE community, especially during Mental Health Awareness Month, reach out for support and take care of yourselves. You are not alone.