As we age we are inevitably bereaved more often, and it is at a time of our life when we are more vulnerable. Research shows that the generation that are in their 60’s and older are the least likely to access or receive appropriate support when someone dies, and this is particularly true of men.
Through my work as a bereavement psychotherapist for the last 25 years, I have learned from my clients what can help them at such a difficult time, and I have developed the concept of “pillars of strength” — these are active things we can do to help us manage the pain of loss, and build an internal structure when we feel there is a terrible black hole inside us.
1. Relationship with the Person Who Has Died
A central pillar in the support of our system is finding ways to externalize that relationship.
It may be by wearing something that connects to them, like their watch, or a scarf.
Visiting their grave; creating a memory box in which you place special objects, assembling a photograph album; or writing to them.
Cooking their favorite recipe.
2. Relationship with Oneself
As our relationship with the world and others is changed by grief, so does our relationship with ourselves change. We need to show ourselves self-compassion, to listen to our own needs, to be kind and to avoid self-attack in the form of constant self-criticism.
We all need defense mechanisms, and we need to work out whether we need to build other mechanisms in a particular situation, for example if we tend to shut down when we are upset, we may push people away when we need to let them in.
3. Ways to Express Grief
It could be talking to family or friends, it may be writing a journal, or painting, making music or seeing a therapist. The key is to find a way of connecting to the feelings we have inside, articulating them and then expressing them.
It is important to understand that time takes on different hues in grief.
Allow more time than is often expected to make decisions.
Our relationship with time feels changed. The best we can do is to keep our outlook short, with attention focused on each day and on each week.
5. Mind and Body
We need to establish a regime that helps to regulate our body, which then helps to support us emotionally.
Cardiovascular exercise, which helps to ease the feeling of fear, such as running, walking or any sport
Relaxation/meditation exercise, which helps to manage our anxiety
Eating regularly, without great spikes of sugar, coffee or alcohol, which cause the body to peak, then crash
An important pillar is to recognize the power to say “no.” Friends and family can get very bossy when we are grieving, and very keen for us to get back into the swing of life, but nobody else can know what is right for us.
In the chaos of grief we can feel as if our world has tilted off its axis. It can therefore help to build a pillar of structure, for instance:
- Exercise first thing.
- Do some work or chores.
- Take time to remember the person who has died.
- Actively choose to do soothing, calming things, such as buying nice flowers, having a massage, cooking nice food, listening to music, or reading.
- Regular times for sleep.
Focusing is the technique that helps me to open up and release the bodily intelligence in people. You can do this for yourself:
- Close your eyes.
- Breathe deeply and slowly, in through your nose and out through your mouth, three times.
- Direct your attention internally.
- Move your attention around your body until you find the place where there is the most sensation.
- Breathe into that place.
- Find a word that describes that place — does it have a shape, a color? Is it hard, soft?
- If the image could speak, what would it say?
- Then follow where the image takes you.