Seasons of grief can leave us feeling despondent, hopeless, and isolated. While coping with loss looks different for each of us, giving ourselves permission to experience grief in an active, aware space can help facilitate more enlightened coping outcomes. There’s no need to, “keep a stiff upper lip,” as those with low coping thresholds may suggest to meet their own comfort needs. We must honestly inventory our emotional load as individuals. Actively working through grief requires gentleness, honesty, and dedication to self-care, and should in no way be mistaken for an active pursuit of grief. Feelings of loss ebb and flow, and we should be equally open to experiencing the serendipitous moments of joy that may find us in our time of despair.
The suggestions listed below may serve as a helpful framework from which to draw your own plan for navigating loss of all kinds. Take your time, establish a daily commitment to self-care, and seek comfort in the impermanence of all things. This too, shall pass.
RESIST THE TEMPTATION TO ISOLATE
While a healthy dose of introspection is certainly important, scheduling time to check-in and connect with others establishes a protective circle of accountability that prevents us from slipping too far into a potentially fatalistic frame of mind. There is joy to be found all around us, and while we may not feel compelled to let it in as we sort through our emotions, friends and family serve as constant reminders that light and levity await us when we’re ready.
CRY IT OUT
"There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief... and unspeakable love" - Washington Irving.
Giving ourselves permission to enjoy the release that crying provides is a powerful coping tool. An abundance of internalized emotions may lead to an overburdened psyche, in turn placing undue stress on our bodies that can manifest as illness. Crying, and even wailing (if you feel so brave), provides the escape of complicated emotions from the body that may lack verbal expression. A 2008 study from the University of South Florida found the self-soothing benefits of crying to be more effective than antidepressants. “The shedding of tears improved the mood of almost 90 percent of criers compared to the eight percent who reported crying made them feel worse.”
“Crying does not only mentally cleanse us, it can cleanse our body too. Tears that are produced by stress help the body get rid of chemicals that raise cortisol, the stress hormone. A study conducted by Dr. William H. Frey II, a biochemist and director of the Psychiatry Research Laboratories at the St. Paul-Ramsey Medical Centre, found like other exocrine processes, including exhaling, urinating, and sweating, toxic substances are released from the body when we cry. Several of the chemicals present in emotional crying are the protein prolactin, adrenocorticotropic hormones, and the endorphin leucine-enkephalin, which reduces pain.” - Medical Daily
VAGAL NERVE STIMULATION
The vagus nerve roots from the cerebellum down into our abdomen, touching most major organs along the way. This “wandering” nerve serves as an information highway between these two command posts about the state of our body and connected organs. Acting as commander in chief of the parasympathetic nervous system, it attempts to keep us in a state of peace and calm so our adrenals will be nourished when the time comes for “fight or flight.” 80-90% of the information communicated to the brain from the gut is visceral, or intuitive, which means tapping into vagal operations can have major implications regarding our physical and mental wellbeing.
We can work to improve vagal tone by -
Humming, singing, gargling, or chanting (vibratory actions)
Finding flow in work or tasks (taking a break from our ego to enter the “zone”)
Meditation accompanied by diaphragmatic breathing
Positive focus on the vagus nerve and its ability to keep us calm
Healing the gut with probiotics can send more positive feelings upstream to the brain
Engaging in physical activity (releases positive endorphins and encourages virbratory breathing)
PROCESS GRIEF THROUGH VIBRANT RITUAL
While the word ritual may invoke visions of bizarre and often frightening fringe groups, in reality a ritual is simply time set apart as something sacred to process or encourage a new reality. Rituals serve as a bridge that may carry us from one level of understanding or awareness to the next. Intuition plays a critical role in designing the appropriate experience, as our intrinsic leanings may often serve as keyholes from which our subconscious needs aim to flow forth in less threatening ways.
In my experience, sometimes the most basic of rituals may be the most effective in highly emotionally-charged situations. The simple act of knotting a length of fabric each time a feeling of anxiety surfaces and surrendering those worries into the cloth, may be a powerful coping ritual that serves to provide a tangible outlet for difficult emotions that are then released from the body.
One of my favorite emotional outlets is intuitive interpretation of a despacho ceremony, inspired by Peruvian shamans seeking to build a bridge between human woes and Panchamama (Mother Earth), giving thanks for all along the way. Each addition to the external emotional picture, such as sugar to represent the sweetness of life, and small mementos to honor those for which we mourn, is placed into the work of art with reverence and sentimentality. As an emotion surfaces, we find an object to represent it and deliberately place the offering into the despacho. Once we’ve poured our tears, worries, and gratefulness into this physical manifestation of our emotional world, a contemplative work of art for our lucid eyes to behold, the despacho is folded and tied to be burned, buried, or carried away by water (provided eco-friendly inclusions have been used, of course). In this ritual we experience powerful movement in the cycle of grief, as we are actively processing difficult emotions, liberating them from the body, and subsequently offering them up to something greater than ourselves.
While allowing yourself the space in which to grieve is perhaps the most valuable aspect of self-care, it is important to set aside time each day to offer your mind and body tangible comforts. By actively caring for ourselves, we replenish our reserves both consciously and unconsciously. Take care not to rely on quick-relievers such as drugs, alcohol, high calorie foods, or workaholism, as these band-aids may impede holistic healing.
Eat a balanced diet rich in EFA’s, zinc, magnesium, and B vitamins to support mental health
Get at least 15 minutes of sun exposure each day (or take a non-synthetic D3 supplement)
Get outside - Light to moderate walking stimulates the vagus nerve and lifts our mood
Seek solace in pets - Petting your furry friend reduces blood pressure and improves sleep
Get plenty of rest - Avoiding caffeine and powering down electronics at least one hour before bed can help ensure more restorative sleep. Chamomile, valerian root, passionflower, epsom salt baths, and yoga may also act as gentle sleep aids
Seek out therapy, acupuncture, therapeutic massage, grief support groups, or religious gatherings to ensure collaborative care is taken to support mind, body, and spirit
Utilize a weighted blanket or find a friend/loved one to tightly cuddle you regularly to suppress the sympathetic nervous system and promote a sense of calm
Spend at least 10 minutes per day engaged in diaphragmatic breathing and meditation/prayer
UTILIZE HERBAL ALLIES(May be found in capsules, tinctures, and teas)
Skullcap - As a nervine, skullcap nourishes the nervous system while relaxing nervous tension, dispelling cyclical thinking, and promoting restorative sleep . Skullcap has also been reported to soothe headaches and relieve mild respiratory maladies. (Generally recognized as being child-friendly when administered as a tea; 1 tsp. Skullcap per 1 cup boiling water)
Valerian Root - Nervine and sedative (*for most - in some rare instances valerian may have an excitatory effect), nervous energy at night is lessened, making sleep possible. Use with caution in children (½ tsp. Per 1 cup boiling water) and do not administer for more than several weeks at a time.
Passionflower - Reduces tension, muscle pain, generalized anxiety, and neuralgia (Generally recognized as child-friendly if given as a tea at ⅙ the adult dose).
Kava Kava - Promoting a sense of calm under duress, the American Journal of Medicine states about Kava: "the subject attains a state of happy unconcern, well-being and contentment, free of physical or psychological excitement." (Not child-friendly)
Rosehips - High in Vitamin C, rosehips nourish your immune system and enhance your innate coping capabilities as you process heartbreak. (Generally recognized as being child-friendly).
Hawthorn Berries - As an all-purpose tonic, world-renowned Herbalist Rosemary Gladstar states, “Hawthorn helps the heart flower, open, and be healed” (Not recommended for children).
Schizandra Berries - As an adaptogen, Schizandra support the adrenals to sustain physical and mental endurance throughout the grief cycle. Among other benefits, improved liver function and digestive health promote resolution of anger (liver) and grief (lungs/large intestine) from a traditional Chinese medicine perspective.
Reishi Mushroom - In a time when we might not be taking exemplary care of ourselves, Reishi are nutritive, grounding, and known to rehabilitate the Shen - or spirit in the midst of chaos (GRAS for children in small doses spanning a short period, however, please administer with caution).
Bach Flower Remedies - Available in child and pet-friendly doses (alcohol-free), Rescue Remedy is an easy choice for seasons of trauma and stress. Gentian (processing setbacks), Walnut (grief and sadness), and Gorse (hopelessness) may also be effective in carrying us through uncertain times. Flower essences may be taken acutely or as part of a sustained treatment cycle.
Courtesy of the always amazing Mountain Rose Herbs, an uplifting recipe to sustain the heart through periods of grief. The act of concocting such a remedy is in of itself an act of self-care (so add it to your list!);
3 cups cold water
½ cup organic Elderberries
½ cup organic Hawthorn berries
¼ cup organic Rosehips
1 organic cinnamon stick
¾ to 1 cup raw local honey
1.5 ounces brandy or Skullcap tincture (optional preservative)
Combine herbs with cold water in a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and allow herbs to simmer for 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from heat and mash the berries in the liquid mixture. Strain the herbs through cheesecloth and squeeze out the juice. Measure the liquid and add an equal amount of honey. Gently heat the honey and juice for a few minutes until well combined, but do not boil! Stir in brandy or tincture if you’d like and pour the finished syrup into sterilized glass bottles. Label and keep refrigerated for up to 6 months.
Essential oils are the most concentrated versions of medicinal plant constituents, and thusly hold immense power to alter mind, body, and spirit. Via inhalation or transdermal application, the healing properties of the plant cross the blood brain barrier to elicit various pharmacological actions. Because oils are highly concentrated and may have profound effects on various body systems, only the highest quality of oils should be used. Dilution with a carrier oil such as almond (similar pH as human skin) or coconut is recommended, and most experts agree that essential oils should never be ingested unless under the care of a well-trained medical doctor or clinical aromatherapist.
* Always employ the precautionary principle when using EO’s around young children and pets, as sensitization and other complications may rapidly occur. Essential oils are not recommended for use around cats, as they are particularly sensitive to any potential deleterious effects. All “kid-safe” determinations have been sourced from www.PlantTherapy.com and presume the user posess reasonable understasnding of dilution and delivery methods to warrant the “safe” categorization.
Because the experience of grieving is likely communal (remember not to isolate!), I’ve selected my top child-friendly essential oils for grief and loss, some of which are also dog-friendly. There are many more oils to explore, should you not have such demographics to bear in mind.
You don’t have to be artistically inclined to enjoy the benefits of this multi-sensory coping strategy. Shifting emotions can feel complicated, thus, providing multiple outlets for their release ensures at least one approach will harmonize with our current mood. Be prepared to indulge spontaneous ideas for release, as our subconscious may be trying to point us in the right direction. So, what can creative grieving look like?
Listening to music
Drawing, painting, or doodling
GRIEF AS FUEL
While there are many schools of thought that view grief, death, and loss as profound teachers, it may be difficult to imagine these truths during periods of intense and often unexpected seasons of suffering. Occasionally the circumstances surrounding a loss will prod at us to act as a result of their dramatic injustice. Once the mourner has begun to move through the stages of active grief, perhaps one of the most profound degrees of progression comes in the form of activism and mentorship. Is there something that can be done to achieve a greater degree of justice for those experiencing similar losses? Can we capture and utilize our unique experience to shelter others in their time of need?
Often our greatest sense of closure comes from our ability to comfort another in a very familiar place of grief. In that moment, when we shed the role of primary mourner within our own theory of mind, we not only provide incomparable comfort to the active and potentially newfound mourner before us, but we remind ourselves that we’ve braved the storm and can now use our knowledge to come together and experience our humanity collectively.
In conclusion, seasons of grief are colored entirely by the foundational psyche of the individual, highlighted by environment and circumstance. The appropriate avenue for processing such highly personalized emotions may vary moment by moment, however - having a plan to move toward a place of eventual resolution transforms the process into one of profound sacredness in the face of considerable stagnation. If we are willing to be guided, grief may propel us toward a new kind of awareness that includes a realistic conceptualization of our own mortality, which may be the greatest teacher of all.
For more information or for guided assistance through grief, please contact us here.