By Andy Smallman
Andy Smallman is a long-time educator, advocate for healthy human development and founding director of the Puget Sound Community School.
People who have experienced the death of a loved one understand what it means to feel as if one’s walls are closing in. The more recent the death, the more significant this feeling often is, although emotional reminders of the loved one sometimes surprise us years later by how powerful the feelings are.
Those who care about us but aren’t emotionally impacted by the death beyond some level of knowing we are hurting usually have good intentions. They often, though, don’t know what to say or, worse, say the wrong thing. Dialed in to emotion as we are in these moments, it seems we often end up consoling them about not knowing how to console us! This is especially so when one of those “years later emotional moments” comes up — the scent of an unexpected summer rain, an especially pink sunset, snow on Christmas Eve — taking us right back to a special time with our loved one. Our well-meaning friend may even say or imply the insensitive, “Aren’t you past this?”
What can we do?
The first thing is to practice self-compassion. Recognize that we are suffering, that the suffering is real and legitimate. The death may be years ago, it may be months ago, it may be weeks ago, but the suffering is in the present. Kristin Neff, Ph.D., a leading expert on the subject of self-compassion, sees self-compassion as having two complementary sides, one being about tenderness and the other being about fierceness. The tender side of self-compassion involves providing ourselves the soft energy a parent brings to ease their child’s pain, what we naturally do when caring for others who are upset. The fierce side of self-compassion involves standing up to provide ourselves what we know we need, something that might involve saying “no” to others.
To make this more concrete, take a minute to think about what you do when you want to be with your feelings. This is usually a soft thing, like taking a hot bath, listening to quiet music, or having a glass of wine. Now imagine a strong action you might be hesitant to take, like establishing a boundary you know will provide you some relief.
In imagining these actions, we begin to make them concrete. The next thing to do is to choose one tender action and one fierce action and complete them. In doing so, it’s important to let go of any negative judgments we may be feeling about completing them. Most commonly this has to do with worrying about what others are thinking about us.
Related, another supportive action we can take to help us through hard times is to begin a gratitude journal. It may seem counter-intuitive to be focusing on gratitude at what is one of the hardest times in our lives, but doing so does help bring some light into the darkness.
The simplest version of a gratitude journal involves jotting down in a notebook just before going to bed as many as three positive things we encountered during the day. Making these simple, like being grateful for the ability to write something down in a gratitude journal, is a great way to get started. The idea is less about what you are grateful for and more about taking a few minutes each day to focus on the positive.
As you gain practice with this, you’ll start catching yourself during the day recognizing a moment, an item, or an event that you’ll want to jot down in your journal that evening. When this happens, you’ll know the activity is helping you in the way it’s intended. Keep in mind that this activity is just for you. No one need ever read your journal and you won’t be graded on it.
This Haiku helps illustrate the idea;
An exchanged few words
with the grocery store clerk
brightened my dark day.
Part of living involves suffering, and suffering often involves grieving. During times of grief, it’s helpful to remember that you are deserving of compassion and kindness.