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Navigating Grief

“Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it,” observed Helen Keller. Many people have experienced the deep wound of grief but emerged from it to live satisfying, fulfilling lives. They are beacons of light for those experiencing a dark night of the soul. Here are seven habits of highly effective grievers.

Habit 1: They let friends help.

Friendship can lift you out of the grip of dark grief into places where sunshine can find you. Kyndi Kindle of Oklahoma was a high school junior when her father, Don, was killed in an automobile accident. “I tried my best to get through my senior year,” Kyndi recalls. “The start of that school year was difficult. It was hard knowing my dad wouldn’t see my senior year; see me graduate.”

Yet she continued with her classes and after-school activities, graduating, and enrolling in college. Kyndi says the support of her friends made all the difference in the world. “They’d do little things for me; buying me flowers, making me a cake. They have been the biggest support. I don’t know what I would have done without my friends.”

The lesson from Kyndi Kindle: Those who overcome loss never go it alone, because they know that going it alone is going nowhere. They allow friends to reach in and help.

Habit 2: They allow themselves to do grief work.

Effective grievers disregard completely the erroneous advice to”keep a stiff upper lip,” “be brave,” “don’t cry,” “get over it,” “move on.” They refuse to be stoic and allow themselves to grieve enough though it means experiencing unpleasant and unfamiliar emotions such a shock, disbelief, depression, anger, guilt, fear, loneliness, regret, anxiety, frustration, and confusion.

Effective grievers understand the importance of doing “grief work.” In his book Grievers Ask: Answers to Questions About Death and Loss, minister and counselor Dr. Harold Ivan Smith writes: “Grief work means paying close attention to grief. Grief work is the necessary psychological and spiritual energy you must expend to integrate the loss into the story of your life. . . . Grief work focuses on a simple question: Now what? Or to restate: What do I do with the life I have left to live? Or how do I live meaningfully without (name)?”

Habit 3: They seek information.

For most people the death of a loved one throws them into completely new territory. Very few individuals know much, if anything, about the grief process before they experience a loss. Those who have a healthy bereavement seek out information from books and magazine articles. “After my 15-year-old son died from cancer, I had to know more about grief because it had completely taken over my life,” says one father. “All of these new and upsetting emotions seemed to overwhelm me at times. So I spent a lot of time in our local library researching out books on bereavement and grief recovery. I learned much. The information I gleaned made my grief far less frightening. Today, my advice to others who are grieving is: Read all about it. Information is empowering.”

Habit 4: They avoid hasty decisions.

In 1989 Dr. Joyce Brothers’ husband of more than 30 years, Dr. Milton Brothers, died. After his death, she wrote the book Widowed. In it Brothers advises grievers: “If you can possibly avoid it, do not sell your house, do not move, do not make a major purchase, do not make a major change in your way of life. Put everything on hold for a year.” The reason that professionals advise the bereaved to avoid making major changes is because grief clouds the mind. After one year, many emotions begin to settle down, freeing the mind to think more clearly and make wiser decisions.

Of course, there are times when financial considerations can force the bereaved to make decisions shortly after a loss. In that case, Brothers strongly advises; “On a major decision like selling your house, buying a condo, investing the life insurance money, selling stocks, and so on, I strongly advise that you get advice from professionals as well as from your family.”

Habit 5: They join a grief support group.

Rabbi Earl Grollman, an author and counselor on death and grief issues, explains the power of grief support groups in his book What Helped Me When My Loved One Died: “At some point you may be disappointed in the reactions of your acquaintances, maybe even your close friends. You just don’t hear from them so often anymore, They seem awkward and uneasy in your presence. They may avoid your company. . . . That’s why self-help groups have been successful in providing necessary emotional intervention through the crisis of death. People in those groups understand your fears and frustrations; they have been there before. Allow them to help you out of your isolation with a meaningful support network. . . . They share with you the time of your grief and help you to walk on your sorrowing paths. You are no longer alone.”

Habit 6: They take care of themselves physically.

Effective grievers seem to understand instinctively that a grieving body’s immune system is suppressed by the stress of bereavement and therefore susceptible to illness. For that reason, they work to take care of themselves physically by:

• Exercising. This reduces stress, strengthens the body, and improves an overall sense of well-being.

• Eating balanced meals. They fight the tendency to consume junk foods and are careful to eat healthy, balanced meals, which will provide the body with the nourishment and energy it needs.

• Getting adequate rest. Grief taxes both body and emotions. Rest regenerates our whole being.

• Avoiding drugs and alcohol. Numbing the pain of grief only postpones it. Occasionally, a mild sedative or anti-anxiety medication prescribed by a physician can help, but effective grievers never use them as a way to bury the pain.

Habit 7: They turn to God for strength and support.

Even though grief and loss may blind them, effective grievers turn to God, because God has promised to lead. “I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them” (Isaiah 42:16).

Written by Victor M. Parachin

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