Taking care of yourself when you’re feeling overwhelmed

I want to give you an excerpt from my book, Courage Road: Your Guide Through Grief to Hope. It’s written as a guidebook through the grief journey. I’ll take you through the various terrains of grief common to many, such as Torrential Rain representing Sorrow, or Tornado representing feeling loss of Control. Throughout the guide are Traveler’s Tips and Traveler’s Tales. Along the Road, I give tools to put in your backpack that are essential to healing. My hope is for this book to be practical, relatable, and, dare I say, enjoyable if a book on grief can be that.

QUICKSAND / Overwhelm

There is too much to deal with. Things feel beyond my ability to cope. Even the smallest things feel like too much to do. I want to run away. I want to be rescued. I want my life back the way it was. It feels like there is no relief, I have no more room in my pain bucket. I feel like I’m drowning.

The best way to deal with being overwhelmed is to take care of yourself. This sounds too simple, but just consider the consequences if you do not take care of yourself. Your system will not be able to do the healing and you will not be able to function at a higher level in order to make all those decisions that you need to make. So, this means getting adequate sleep, feeding yourself properly (comfort food if necessary but not to excess), and staying hydrated to offset the loss of those tears you have shed. All of this is essential for your brain to work properly. If your brain does not work properly, then you cannot think clearly about your next step, let alone the bigger decisions that are pressing down on you.

In addition, breaking down your To Do List, or decisions, into realistic and manageable steps will help control the overwhelmed feeling. Learn to ask for help in specific ways. All those people who vaguely said to call them if you needed help, do it. Put them to the test. You will find that most friends truly want to help but they do not know how. If you give them a task, even if it is putting out the trashcans to the curb, they may feel privileged to help you. This will stop the feeling that you are sinking further and further into the quicksand with only your head above the ground.

Practice the Buffet Approach to healing. This means that you are going to try a little of this, a little of that.

All the tools in your backpack need to be practiced. In this way, you will be building up your healing muscle. So, for overwhelm, you could write down three top things on your mind today and accomplish one. You may need to ask for help to get you started. Then drink lots of water and feed yourself a nourishing meal so your brain can function. Then—and this is critical to rewiring your brain—reflect on your accomplishments. Look at what you did instead of what you didn’t do. For some, even getting out of bed is a victory. These seemingly small accomplishments often snowball momentum.

Posted on June 21, 2017 .

How the backpack metaphor can help you navigate grief

I want to explain my backpack logo, which is essential to understanding the healing process of grief. Grieving is a process, a journey, a long road in which you encounter many different facets or emotional terrains along the way. These emotional terrains may include, for example, a dark forest in which all feels unfamiliar and surreal, or a cactus patch where you feel on edge and irritable. The road is definitely not a straight path. Instead, grievers go through twists and turns, hairpin curves that leave you reeling, and sometimes areas of terrain that are surprisingly peaceful.

Look at the backpack, which represents the journey and the tools that will aid you on the way. Now, notice the loops upward. Although one usually wants a straight line upward to get out of the pain of grief, the loops represent the reality. One makes progress upward, then the loop goes downward.

Please see info-graphic below which a dear client made for me, based on this concept.

These loops could be in the course of an hour (if it is a recent death) or in the course of a day or week, etc.  It is essential to keep in mind that the loop does go upward again, in time. Grief changes from one hour to the next, from one day to the next. Although it may feel you are making no progress, in fact, you are slowly going upward. It may feel that you are thrown back at Day 1 or Rock Bottom, but this is not the case. Feelings are not always the truth. Feelings change and pass. Try to allow the feelings to pass and trust the healing process.

Posted on June 14, 2017 .

Courage Road: My journey to authorship

I started this website about a year ago. The primary purpose was to give free information and support on my blog posts for those who are going through the grief journey, and for those wanting guidance to help their friends or loved ones along that difficult path. My book, Courage Road: Your Guide from Grief to Hope, is an extension of this site.

Courage Road is a book I started several years ago. It took much longer to write than I thought it would, but as I went on I grew confident that each adjustment was an improvement. In the end finding a book designer was the trickiest part!

It’s written like a travelers’ guidebook with lots of practical tips and tales.

I am constantly thinking about death, dying, grieving, and grievers because it’s my passion to help people get through their pain in the healthiest way possible. Grief counseling has been my passion for the last 10 years.

Another reason that grief is always on my mind is because it’s a part of our daily lives. Every single day we read a story or hear of someone we know who is ill or has died. I find it heartbreaking every day. And then there are the stories of triumph over heartbreak—but still, it’s all darn sad. Don’t get me going on sad animal stories.

I love to read novels. My sister suggests great ones. Almost every one contains some grief as part of it or whole of it. Some people find it comforting to know that they are not alone in their grief journey.

Here are some suggestions for great grief novels:

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen is about facing the things we fear the most, about “finding ways to navigate a road we never intended to travel.” The descriptions of this mother’s grief are exquisitely articulated, truly beautiful.

Me Before You, and After You by Jojo Moyes are two novels which are much more light-heartened than the above recommendation, and very well written. Yes, the movie is out, but try to read the book first.

The Little Paris Bookshopby Nina George. This is a gem of a book. Hurry and read it before they make a movie of it. It’s about love and loss and the way back—that age-old theme.

This Old Man: All in Pieces by Roger Angell. He is an acclaimed New Yorker writer and editor who writes from the perspective of his 94 years.  Don’t you wonder how an elderly person who has undoubtedly suffered many losses in their lifetime can remain hopeful and vibrant?

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald. This is non-fiction and debuted instantly on the NYT bestseller list. To paraphrase the blurb: the young hawk, fierce and feral, mirrors the temperament of the author’s own state of grief after her father’s death, and together they discover the pain and beauty of being alive.

Courage Road is non-fiction, but it’s written in an easy-to-follow style similar to fictional works. When you’re grieving, the last thing you want is to have to concentrate to understand something that’s supposed to be helping. Whether you’re grieving yourself, or know somebody who is, I hope Courage Road gives you the advice and support you need.

Posted on June 7, 2017 .

"I can't see light at the end of the road"

One client shared with me that initially following her bereavement she felt like she was in a fog and couldn’t fathom how she was going to survive. Months went by, and she realized she would survive her grief whether she liked it or not, but she still couldn’t see her future. This is normal.

It’s extremely difficult to see a future when you are in the cocoon of grief. In fact, you’re not supposed to be planning for the future unless you absolutely must. Your job is to take care of yourself, nurture yourself in that cocoon. In the immediate aftermath of losing a loved one, you may see no light, and that’s okay. The light would be blinding to your sensitive eyes. You are vulnerable and must be gentle with yourself.

Several months later, the same client shared, “I now see that I have a future, but I still cannot say what it is or even that I’m yet looking forward to it.” Your future will happen for you if you are open to the possibility of one. It will happen in unexpected ways. You may be surprised. It’s possible.

Note: Most people do not have the luxury of staying in the safe cocoon 24/7, and that usually isn’t healthy anyway. We must continue to take care of ourselves. We must also take care of our responsibilities: raising kids, buying groceries, paying bills. Do these necessary steps even when we don’t want to. Or better yet, ask for help getting some of those tasks done.

The impact if you don’t take care of the business of living will be overwhelming paralysis, and that’s not a good place to be stuck. When you accomplish some tasks, if you’re able, know it is then okay to return to the cocoon for however long your life allows. Notice the ebb and flow—good days, bad days, rest and responsibilities. This is not the time to prove your A-type personality. Learn to rest when you can.

Posted on July 27, 2016 .

Essential tools for surviving especially when your loss is recent

When you have had a fairly recent loss, aren’t you amazed when you can even get out of bed, shower, receive guests, do some tasks? “Wait! My beloved/best friend/child/sibling/parent died two months ago. How is it possible that the covers are not pulled over my head in a dark room?” This is the difference between grief and depression.

While grieving, you will have periods when you are doing okay, sort of functioning. Sometime you’ll have bursts of energy and accomplish many tasks. Sometimes you’re barely limping along, surprised you’re even still limping. Then the big wave hits and you’re awash with despair. You fall to the floor and wail.

Just like a wave in the ocean, when you see a big wave approaching and it gains speed and intensity and you feel like it will crush you, the key is to allow the wave to hit and go through you. It will always pass. If you avoid it, run for the shore, numb it, deny it, it will catch up and clobber you. Grief is a force of nature. Lean into the wave and it always passes. You can bear the pain. You must bear it in order to heal in the healthiest possible way. Just breathe, notice what you are feeling, sensing, remembering, and the wave will pass. Trust this process even though it is painful.

Posted on July 20, 2016 .

Why am I so exhausted?

Grieving is hard work. It is so much more complicated than people think. Other people do not see the beehive of emotions, thoughts, feelings that are buzzing around right in front of your face. I mean, right there in front of you face! Your friends and family are afraid to bring up your loss because they don’t want to bring you down. They don’t realize that the loss of your loved one is always there, always. It’s never on the back burner. Your memories, regrets, guilt, the longing for the physical body, the emptiness, the concern about the future, finances—those feelings are always there, buzzing in front of your face day and night. No wonder sleeping is often difficult.

A task like getting death certificates to the right places feels criminal at this time. Can’t the bill collectors and institutions give you a break? The bureaucracy of death is overwhelming.

The key is to ask for help, if you can, to get you through these tasks. All those well-meaning people who say, “If there’s anything I can do, just let me know.” Well, let them know. they may not be able to do the actual task, but they can be by your side as you do it. Sometimes it helps to have someone there, gently persuading you to pick up the phone or write one more thank you note. Let those kind people know you need quiet, not chatter. Chatter is exhausting.

As far as the beehive in front of your face, the key is to journal, make lists, or share with someone who will give you time (more than five minutes, if you please), to vent or complain or share a memory. It’s important to allow the beehive to be released—to move it from your head to your heart. When you share with someone you trust, that person should validate your pain, not try to fix it.

For sleeplessness, try homeopathic remedies first, since prescription medications are often addictive. But please work on this issue, as sleep is essential for your healing process.

Posted on July 13, 2016 and filed under Grief, healthy grieving.

Sibling Loss

“I have no one to talk to. My friends just want a curiosity story. I don’t know who I can trust to hold the significance of my loss. It’s so hard to see my parents in pain. I feel like I lost my childhood the moment my sibling died. I lost the innocent belief that life is safe. Group is not hard. It’s harder to hold it in.”

An eighteen-year-old came in for counseling because of the loss of his younger brother, who died suddenly. His brother was also his best friend.

This age group is very difficult to get into grief counseling. There is a stigma attached to therapy, and they seem to feel that they will “be better” in a few months. My client was hoping I could provide a magic cure for his pain, but he soon realized this wasn’t going to be the case.

At first, he pretended that his brother was just on a trip and would return. When the permanence set in, the pain was so profound he felt like dropping out of college. He had some guilt that if only he had woken earlier, he could have checked on his brother and therefore his death could have been prevented. I told him these thoughts are common—the if-onlys and what-ifs. Everyone wants to know the point in time that they could have intervened for a different outcome, but only Superman could spin the world backwards to change history.

Another issue that often comes up around sibling loss is that they feel the need to take care of their parents’ grief, but feel helpless about being able to do so. This is emphasized when people ask how their parents are doing, instead of asking how they are doing. The sibling may feel forgotten as the emphasis is clearly on the parents who have lost their child.

I remind siblings that every person in the family has their own personal grief journey to go through. Each must walk it in their own way. Of course, there is a need to be sensitive to each other, but understand that you are feeling helpless for a reason. Their journey is not your journey. Remember that grieving is okay. It is not something to be taken away or minimized. It is the price we pay for love.

Posted on July 6, 2016 .

Connect the dots—understanding the "bad" days

Clients often come to a session wondering why they had such a bad week or day. First of all, let’s talk about what a bad day is. Are you crying more? Are you in deep emotional pain? That’s because you’re grieving, and that’s okay. When you love at a one, you grieve at a one. When you love at a five, you grieve at a five. And when you love at a ten, you’ll grieve at a ten. It is normal and it’s a whole and natural expression of love. It’s also important to acknowledge that you’re grieving. Many people minimize grief, even to themselves, because we don’t live in a culture that allows it to be okay.

Sometimes the hard grief comes knocking at your heart unannounced, without specific reasons like an assault to your body. And sometimes, there is a reason you may be unaware of and it might help to connect the dots. It is the one month, or six month, or two-year anniversary of the loss of your loved one? Is his/her birthday coming up? Did you smell a fragrance that reminded you of them? Is it the season you both enjoyed? One often holds these memories in the body, and the mind may not have remembered.

One father I counseled always had a terrible time around the full moon. He realized that it was the time of month his daughter died. It was terribly painful for a very long time. He now looks at the full moon and remembers how much he continues to love her.

It can help you to connect the reason for your deep pain. And also, remember that the grief will pass and change—maybe in an hour, or day, or week. But you can count on it changing.

Posted on June 29, 2016 .

The thing about Support Groups

If they are good, they are very, very good. A good grief support group allows you to be authentic in your feelings. You can take off your “I'm-pretending-to-be-strong" mask. You are with people who really get what you are going through, and that kind of bond is invaluable. There was a woman in one of my groups who was so sad that her gaze never left the floor. So when she said that she felt that she was not getting what she needed from group, that she felt different from everyone, I asked her to look up and see how when she shared, everyone in group was nodding in agreement. She was missing out on all that validation. Face it. Grieving is a very lonely journey. Don't do it alone.

That being said, a support group needs some essential components for it to be good. The facilitator must be able to monitor time gently so that everyone gets to share. I don't believe in using a timer. There are times when one person may need more time than others depending on the circumstances arising in their life. I discovered my group understands that need and they are willing to give up a few minutes of their time. However, I do not allow group-hoggers. The hogger is someone who is unaware of other's needs. They over-share and take more time than others every meeting. The other group members become resentful. I will speak to the hogger after group and if they are unable to remedy the issue, then I dismiss them. One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch.

Also, if possible, breaking support groups into the smallest common denominator works best. Generic loss groups are not as beneficial in the long run, although short-term they can be okay if the focus is psycho-educational. Putting a widower in with a woman who just lost her baby is not optimum. Yes, loss is loss, but these two have very different grief processes going on.

One more thing—a good support group should not be stiff and formal. It was amazing and wonderful how often my group laughed. I think it's about that shared bond. If your group is depressing you, then you are in the wrong support group. Or maybe it's too soon for you. In fact, I usually do not accept people into group until about three months after their loss because some grievers may be too raw to hear laughter.

Posted on June 22, 2016 .

"Don't ask me how I'm doing. I usually have to lie."

It's so difficult to know how to comfort a grieving person.  Everyone is different. One client said, "If someone says, 'I'm sorry for your loss’ one more time, I'll want to punch them." I gently asked, "What would you prefer that they say?"  She could not come up with a response because there are times when nothing comforts. Most people are well meaning with their intention to comfort, but they may say something insensitive nonetheless. Other people are downright stupid. "I know how you feel, my grandpa died when I was three", or "Your mom died like three months ago, and you're still feeling sad?" Yes, nitwit.

Much of support group time is taken up by venting about insensitive comments or behaviors. So many grievers have complained that they see people avoiding them in public. Once a person has said their initial condolences, they don't know what else to say. Or perhaps a griever is having a relatively good day and they run into someone who expects them to be heavily grieving, so then they have to play that part. Most people have no idea that your loss will take a long time to incorporate into your world, so when asked, "How are you doing?" a griever has to decide how honest to be. Often the mask comes on and being authentic loses out.

Be cautious about who you share with and what you share. Don't set yourself up to be invalidated. Also, try to realize most people are simply doing the best they can with what our culture has given us in the world of bereavement. Don't allow the insensitive comments to stick. Practice using a Teflon mind.

Posted on June 15, 2016 .

"This can't be true," says a mother whose adult son died

I ran a group for parents who had lost their adult children to suicide, or overdose, or accident—sudden deaths in other words, no time to prepare or to say goodbye. Being the facilitator to this group was one of the most difficult and most satisfying events of my life. Much of the time I wanted to be in the fetal position as I listened to their heartbreak. But many other times, we laughed, we cried, we bonded, we loved.

This core group of wonderful, loving parents were so honest with themselves and with each other. Who else but those who relate can sit with that kind of pain? Many had lost friendships for this reason. Unless you have experienced the loss of a child you have no clue the long, long time it takes to heal and the depths of pain you go through. In fact, when a new person would come to group and observe that this core group had been attending for several years, they became dejected, not being able to fathom being in pain for so long. But here's the thing—grief changes from one minute to the next, one hour or one day to the next. You will not be in the same place next month as you are now. You might be in a worse place (I know you don't want to hear this) but eventually you will be in a better place. The ups and downs are exhausting, but healing does occur whether you like it or not.

One of my dear clients in group said, "I search for meaning or a way to honor my son. But often, inside, I am a crazy mother yelling at the top of my lungs, ‘Nooooo, this cannot be true.’ I think if I yell it enough then time will reverse and I will have him back."  The mother also said, "All this is bullshit. It won't bring my son back." She recognized that this was how she was feeling at that moment in time. She said, "Just being able to share it with a group of people who understand is valuable."

Don't grieve alone. Find someone who can understand and validate.

Posted on June 8, 2016 .

S-L-O-W I-T D-O-W-N

If you are an A-type personality who likes to check things off your list, then you will want the accelerated course in "How to Grieve". I'm so sorry. I have not discovered this course. I'm sure it does not exist.

When you love someone, you risk the pain of losing them. I certainly understand why, in this fast-paced culture, you would want to get rid of such pain ASAP. But doesn't your loved one deserve this period of mourning? And don't you deserve this time to honor your feelings and reflect, however painfully, on the love that you shared?

Then there are others who do not want to leave the pain behind because they feel they are leaving their loved one behind. That is a myth—your love will continue always. Always. Your loss will eventually be assimilated into your life, your body, your heart. This happens softly, slowly, organically like watching a gradual dawning of the day. Please don't try to force it. Healthy healing occurs on its own timetable. 

Posted on June 1, 2016 .

Grief as an ecosystem—a young person loses a friend to suicide

I was seeing a young client because she was struggling with the pain of losing a dear friend. He took his own life by jumping off a bridge. She was taking a college course about our ecosystem and gave a presentation in class using the example of her grieving process as an ecosystem. I just loved the way she took deep reflection on the pain she had been dealing with.

Her teacher spoke of the five elements in our ecosystem—energy, waste, diversity, change, and connectivity—which my client likened to the stages of grief. She described the energy around hearing her best friend had killed himself. Her energy was zapped. The Waste part was when she turned to drugs because she had no tools to cope with the tragedy of her loss. The Diversity was her spending time in nature to heal (she also does yoga and Tibetan bowls).

Her teacher told her that nothing in the natural world goes to waste, but in the human world we tend to be wasteful. In the natural world, there’s decay and renewal. So for my sweet client, what had to change was the myth she held about her loss—that his death was somehow her fault. She was clinging to that notion, and it only prevented her from dealing with her grief.

Finally came Connectivity. Many of her insights came while trusting the process of grief counseling. This then connected her back to her family and friends. I hope her insight resonates with others.

Posted on April 21, 2016 and filed under Suicide.

Your grief must be expressed and...

If you keep your grief bottled up, there are repercussions. You may become irritable, or explode at some nice serviceperson when they’re trying to be friendly. Down the road, your health may begin to suffer. Gone are the days when you were just supposed to “buck up” or “get over it.” People who tell you this are ignorant and insensitive, to say the least. And these people may be the exact reason you are not expressing your grief in a healthy and positive way.

Who can you trust to validate all the complex feelings you are experiencing during bereavement? The need for compassion, understanding, and validation is essential for healthy healing through the grieving process. A child who skins her knee looks to her parent to “see” her pain. Do we not look to see how many Likes we receive on Facebook posts?

Be sure to watch an excellent TEDx regarding this subject called “Against Grieving in Silence” by Rachel Stephenson. Her mom died when she was five. No family member knew how to comfort her or help her deal with her loss because they, too, were deep in grief. This impacted her entire life.

I encourage finding a form of expression—joining a support group or speaking to a good grief counselor who can walk alongside you on your journey without trying to “fix” you. Find that one friend who can give you the time to express your pain with empathy and without judgment.

Your grief must be expressed and validated.

Posted on April 18, 2016 and filed under healthy grieving.

Two essential ingredients to healthy healing

Deep grief hurts so much. It hurts in the heart, in the head, in aching muscles, and even in your throat, which is often where we hold our grief. There are numerous ways to heal in a healthy way but for today, I’ll tell you two essential elements: sleep and gratitude.

A good night’s rest is very often elusive when one is grieving, however it is the very thing necessary for the healing process. Without sleep, your mind functions poorly, and on top of your grief you probably have many decisions to make and tasks to accomplish during this difficult time of bereavement. While prescription medications can help, they can also be addictive and cause problems farther down the road. I suggest trying natural or alternative medication first. One site I recommend that is full of good ideas is InsomniaLand, or seek advice from Dr. Andrew Weil.

Finding something, anything to be grateful for is also essential. I say this because those who cannot find anything to be thankful for in the midst of deepest grief are those who become and often stay bitter. The support of friends or family, or kind gestures from acquaintances or strangers, are all things to be grateful for during the grieving process. Gratitude opens your heart, even if it’s only a tiny crack. Seeds of gratitude allow for the bloom of recovery after loss.

Posted on April 18, 2016 and filed under Grief.

A way to honor your loved one

Many of my clients find comfort during bereavement in setting up a simple yet meaningful altar. Altars don’t have to be complicated structures, or take up a lot of space—a few framed photos, a candle, fresh flowers, or small mementos that represent something meaningful. The ritual of lighting a candle, maintaining flowers, and simply spending time tending the altar is a way to honor a loved one, and also mark time along the grief journey. One of my clients gathers up the fallen petals and at the end of the month makes a ritual of throwing them off the pier.

Altars can be especially important if you don’t have a gravesite to visit. They can provide a fixed location to visit when you want to remember your loved one, or a way of honoring them and the memories you shared.

The purpose of an altar is to provide comfort while you’re grieving, as and when you need it. If you miss a day lighting the candle, or if the flower petals fall before you replace them, then so be it. Constructing an altar is not about guilt or more guilt. It is a simple way of honoring your loved one.

Initially, you will probably pay careful attention to the altar. Inevitably, as time passes, you may find yourself skipping a day or two. This is normal and completely okay, and marks a healthy healing path. It doesn’t mean you are forgetting your loved one, nor that you love them less. It means life goes on, and you’ve taken another step towards recovery.

Posted on April 18, 2016 and filed under Grief.