Often unexpected and uncomfortable, grief is the proverbial elephant in our emotional living rooms that is so difficult to talk about, experience, and understand.
February is Heart Health Month, and while most of the focus is on physical conditions like heart disease, I want to shift the focus to a matter of the heart that precious few know how to cope with – grief. Every single one of us will lose a loved one at some point in our lives – death is a natural part of life. But very few of us have any formal education on how to handle the emotions that come with loss.
Most of us as children learned how to express our emotions and grief by watching how the adults around us handled their own pain. When they buried it in their hearts and didn’t allow their sadness, anger or fear to be expressed, or they tried to numb the pain in unhealthy ways, it didn’t go away – it just took away their ability to feel truly happy. And that’s because when we numb or suppress one emotion, usually the others follow.
Healthy grieving takes work. You may have to step out of your comfort zone to do things and feel feelings you may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with. We may not naturally know the best ways to handle grief, but just like we all need to learn how to eat healthy, we all can learn how to experience grief in a healthy way.
Simplify Your Daily Routine
When you’re in the thick of the pain, confusion, and even chaos of losing a loved one, it’s hard to even figure out what’s healthy. And if what’s healthy takes more work than what you’re already going through, it tends to get shelved for later in favor of whatever is comfortable, closest or easiest at the time. But good physical and mental health should never take a back seat, and this is especially true when you are going through a life-changing stressful time.
It’s normal to experience a loss of appetite or lack of motivation for your exercise routine, healthy diet, or even going to bed on time. If this is the case, it’s fine to simplify your diet and exercise regimens, but don’t give them up entirely – this is important self-care. You may be surprised to find exercise like yoga, meditative walking, or dancing helps you work through your grief – this is especially helpful for kids who are grieving. You may find cooking gives you time to process your memories and feelings while keeping your hands busy.
Experience Your Emotions
When you think back on times in your life when you tried to express your sadness and pain, it was often met with:
- Logical reasons you shouldn’t feel sad and phrases like “look on the bright side”
- Lack of empathy and phrases like “get over it” and “move on”
- Shifting the focus off of you and onto themselves with “I know just how you feel”
- Dismissing your feelings with “be strong” and “keep your chin up”
- One-upping with a story of someone who has it worse than you and “at least it’s not as bad as…”
Chances are you walked away not feeling any better. When we are grieving, we long for people to listen without analyzing, judging, criticizing, or trying to fix or explain our pain. Everyone’s grief is unique, but one thing we all have in common is the need for someone to listen with love, empathy, and occasionally a heartfelt hug.
We need to allow ourselves to feel our feelings and not let those voices from the past who criticized and judged become our own internal voice. When sadness, anger, fear, and pain rise up, sit with those feelings and avoid judging yourself for having them. It may seem overwhelming, but usually those feelings pass in a matter of minutes.
Crying is cleansing, and is not a sign of weakness. My favorite quote from Washington Irving says:
“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, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”
Take All the Time You Need
Our lives are so busy and hectic that it seems like there’s no time to cope with grief. It’s important to make the time. When you find yourself:
- Ignoring or burying your feelings
- Isolating yourself
- Pretending your way through the grieving process
- Setting a time limit for your grief
- Trying to numb your pain with alcohol or other destructive habits
These are all warning signs of unhealthy grieving. Grief takes time, and it’s different for everyone. You may need to talk, scream or cry, while someone else in your family paints, writes, or uses music to express themselves. As long as you aren’t harming others with the way you express yourself, there isn’t a wrong way to grieve, and there isn’t a time limit. Where one person may seem to process grief in a matter of weeks, others go through stages of grief for years.
Support and Nourish Yourself Through the Process
Even with the best support system, an emotional stress like grief can take its toll on us physically, especially when we are already dealing with health issues. Grief is a risk factor for high blood pressure, heart attack, heart illnesses, cancer, and depression. There is a heart condition known as Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy, or “Broken Heart Syndrome,” where a chamber in the heart temporarily dilates like a balloon and mimics the symptoms of a heart attack. Any chest pain during mourning needs to be taken seriously, because there is a 21-fold increase in the risk of heart attack in the 24 hours following the loss of a loved one.
Grief also affects your immune system. Your primary stress hormone – cortisol – rises, which suppresses your immune system. The longer you grieve, the more your immune system is suppressed, which can lead to chronic diseases and even cancer. Grieving is stressful for all of us, which is why I recommend supplementing with Adrenal Formula from UNI KEY Health. Formulated with B vitamins and immune-boosting nutrients like Vitamins A, C, and zinc, it replenishes the nutrients you use most during stress while providing glandular support to your hard-working adrenals.
Nourish your brain and your heart with Omega 3 essential fats. UNI KEY Health’s Super-EPA is the cleanest Omega 3 fish oil I’ve found, with the right blend of fish oils and balance of essential fats. Their primary sources are sardines and anchovies, and these small-body fish are not only packed with Omega 3s, but also contain the rare Omega 7 fats, which support healthy cholesterol balance. Combine this with 100-200 milligrams daily of a good quality CoQ10 supplement, which has been shown to be heart protective in clinical studies. If you take a statin cholesterol medicine, increase your CoQ10 to 300 milligrams daily and supplement with Red Yeast Rice as well.
If your appetite is low and you don’t have the energy to cook every meal, make sure you have at least one healthy meal every day, and make extra so you have leftovers. Fill in the gaps with nutrient dense supplements like a scoop of high quality Greens Formula in water in the morning or a clean Whey Protein Powder used in a smoothie or simple shake. Keeping your nutrient levels high can help boost your energy, appetite, and moods.
If your moods are low and you are having trouble coping with the grief, then in addition to counseling, consider taking 50 to 200 milligrams of 5-HTP daily. This natural amino acid supplement is a precursor to the neurotransmitters like serotonin that boost your moods and increase your sense of wellbeing. Serotonin also helps curb those carb sugar cravings that threaten to derail your healthy eating during stressful times.
For further reading on healthy grieving, consider reading This Is How We Grow, by Dr. Christina G. Hibbert. She is a mental health expert who shares her expertise in healthy grieving through the story of the loss of her sister and brother-in-law, and raising the two children they left behind.