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Part VII: Brain reset: Activities that soothe and inspire

“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not “get over” the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you won’t be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.”

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss psychiatrist, and expert in bereavement, was best known for her model of the predictable phases of grief:

All the phases of the grief cycle must be experienced: depression cannot be avoided. Resilient bereavement isn’t about not being sad or depressed; but it does tell us something about how we might deal with the stages of grief in a resilient way. Depression is the hardest phase, robbing us of energy and motivation; it’s also the easiest to get stuck in: so this is where the guidance of resilient bereavement helps us most.

Depression following grief is similar to any form of depression, one of the most effective treatments for which is moderate physical exercise on a regular basis; that is significantly more effective than anti-depressant medication. In fact, wholesome activities of all kinds can lift a depressive mood. So thinking about the activities to focus on, both the smaller daily habits and larger ritualistic events will support the bereaved through the depressive phase of the grief cycle. 

As the early weeks of acute bereavement pass, as life returns to a new version of “normal”, when we feel that nothing will ever be normal again, how can we manage our fluctuating moods?  In those early weeks, the powerful currents of grief sweep us away, removing all our choices about what we feel, or think, or do.

As those anguished times fade a little, choices become possible, at least some of the time.  The demands of living, working and family life press for a return to the  familiar routines of everyday life. Maybe we consider making changes, doing something differently, find soothing habits to comfort us through the return to the new normality.  Maybe we make plans, as a family, to be together at significant times, finding inspiring rituals to celebrate birthdays, Xmas, anniversaries.   

Self-soothing, the ability to do things that lift our mood, is a fundamental element of emotional intelligence.  When we’re feeling blue, how can we make ourselves feel better?  Most of us know the answers to this question; from a hot bath, to a long walk in the country, to a chat to a close friend or relative, to the gym, or yoga, meditation or journal writing.  

We also know the things that can deepen, or worsen our mood. We might try not to wallow, to avoid making ourselves feel worse; or perhaps we will wallow and feel better for it.  A friend of mine, recently widowed, surrounded by loving family and friends, decided to accept all offers of help, and social invitations; except on some days, when the only thing she wanted to do was to close all the curtains and sit alone and weep.  At the end of these days, she felt better, cleansed, lighter, and ready to face the world again. Sometimes it’s soothing to let our grief take us. Other times we’ll feel better for pushing ourselves to do something distracting and active. 

Habits that soothe…. 

“There are two types of habits: ones which comfort us, and ones which would be a comfort if we stopped.” 

Catherine Pulsifer

The shock of Tino’s death prompted me to retire from my professional life, to live differently, and to change many of my daily habits.  My working life was frequently manically busy: as a consultant, if you’re not busy you’re not earning; it’s a very simple equation, highly pressured, and different from being a salaried person, which has different stresses.  Some days were tightly over-scheduled, which meant I was time pressed from the time I got up in the morning till my working day ended.  

Retirement meant I could change this, and I really wanted to, as I knew that the incessant time pressure was terrible for my mood, keeping me in a constant state of mild irritability and impatience, feelings which are a pale shade of anger.  Essentially, my brain was regularly in a state of survival, keeping me anxious and worried, feelings which are a pale shade of fear.  So on those difficult days, the foundation of my mood was incipient fear and anger, ready to surface quickly under provocation. 

I broke this pattern, by only planning things I really wanted to do, and didn’t over schedule my diary.  I wanted lots of time with nothing to do, so I could decide, in any moment, what I most wanted. I knew I needed to follow this “do nothing” strategy for several months: it would be easy to slip back into the habits of a lifetime, which had made me so productive. And tense. 

It’s taken over a year to break free of all the uber planning, though the pull of the familiar tugs at me sometimes still. I do look back and wonder if I could have made things easier on myself; but at least I can do that now. It’s been unbelievably relaxing; my husband commented “When I see how relaxed and happy you are not working, I wonder why you didn’t stop earlier.”  I wonder that too. I’m grateful for the call to be decisive now, and to enjoy my retirement, an opportunity that Tino, sadly, missed.

Such a radical overhaul of daily habits is only really possible in the face of major change. But small adjustments are always a possibility, to create a more relaxed background mood state. 

Rituals that inspire….

As a family, we met frequently in the year after Tino’s death. That’s not easy for us, as we are scattered around the UK, and one of my sisters lives in Italy; but our desire to be together at special turning points overcame all obstacles. 

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On July 21st, the nine-month anniversary of Tino’s death,  twenty of us congregated on the beach of our childhood in Barry.  Thirty five  years ago, Dad scattered our mother’s ashes there, so it was a doubly poignant moment as we gathered at Jackson’s Bay in Barry on one of the hottest days of the summer. Bringing picnics and chairs and rugs, we set up camp, close to the sea.  We gathered at the water’s edge, each of us holding a single rose; we recited a poem together, to say goodbye to Tino.  Behind us, holiday makers fell silent, hushed their children to stop playing, not knowing what we were doing but sensing that it was something sacred.  

Tino’s wife, Pat, had decorated a beautiful box which held Tino’s ashes, and we all took a handful to scatter on the water, along with our rose petals. My father chanted the Lord’s Prayer in Greek, then we all recited it in English.  We ended with a big shout out to Tino: Kalo Taksithi– Bon Voyage in Greek. 

I found this informal ceremony much more profound than Tino’s funeral, which I can barely remember, I was in such a daze. Scattering his ashes in the same place as my mothers was a truly healing ritual for all of us, both soothing and inspiring. I will never forget it as long as I live.

As Kubler-Ross says, and as I know from my own experience, loss changes us, but we can be whole again. Resilient bereavement offers opportunities to care for ourselves as we move through the different phases towards wholeness. We won’t be the same, but we will “turn our face to the world and smile,” for the sake of our lost loved one, and for the sake of the one life we have to live: our own.   

Anthony and Alex, taking their father’s ashes out to sea

“Any natural, normal human being, when faced with any kind of loss, will go from shock all the way through to acceptance.”

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Next blog, coming soon:  Precious Memories and Magic Moments 

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