Calmer Choice, non-profit organization in Barnstable, Massachusetts Calmer Choice, non-profit organization in Barnstable, Massachusetts

Grieving in the Age of COVID-19: Grief Toolkit (Part 2 of 2)

Grief Toolkit (Part 2 of 2)

This post is the second of a two-part series on tending to grief during this pandemic. To read part one, “Grieving in the Age of COVID-19”, please click here.

Many things have helped me work through grief and difficult periods in my life that may also work for others. I’d like to outline my “grief toolkit” below. However, it’s worth noting that these are practices and strategies that have worked well for me in my journey and may not be useful tools for everyone. Part of tending to oneself during difficult times is respecting and honoring what aligns with and works well for you as an individual. This is not meant to be advice or even suggestions, simply an opportunity to share my own experience in an effort to help and support others on their own journeys.

This toolkit can be broken up into four categories:

1. Awareness

In my first post, I described how important the cultivation of a regular mindfulness practice has been in seeing myself through some challenging times. Without this awareness and ability to check in with the present moment experience, I would not be able to recognize the need to tend to grief or any other difficult emotions. I try to strengthen this awareness by committing to at least 20-25 mins of daily formal sitting mindfulness practice.

Typically, I will use this time to follow what we call an “anchor” to present moment. I usually follow the movement of the breath in three stages in and out of the body, mentally counting “one” on the inhale, “two” on the exhale, and “three” at the pause before the next inhale. I follow the sensations of the breath as it moves past the tip of the nose and into the chest and belly with a slight rise and fall with each inhale and exhale.

Every time the mind wanders, I gently and kindly note that I’ve been distracted by thoughts, sensations, or sounds and bring the focus of attention back to the breath. Again and again. Rinse and repeat. During times of intense anxiety and amygdala hypersensitivity, following the breath can often create more anxiety for me.

Other anchors that have been especially useful during these times have been noticing the sounds or lack of sounds present, or body awareness practices that concentrate on sensations present within the body. I also try to strengthen my mindfulness skills by practicing what is often referred to as informal mindfulness practice.

These are brief moments throughout the day in which I tune into the breath, body, and mind to observe what is happening. During periods of emotional stress and grief, these periods can be helpful in noticing that, for instance, I will often clench my jaw or tense my shoulders or abdominal area. Being able to pause to intentionally relax the jaw or let the belly out to allow for a few deep diaphragmatic breaths can be especially useful in disengaging the hyperactive amygdala.

At Calmer Choice, we practice and teach a variety of breathing exercises that can be skillfully utilized to access the parasympathetic nervous system (the part of the brain responsible for allowing us to calm down) that I put to use in my day-to-day.

2. Self Care

A routine and schedule can be another really useful tool when I’m feeling overwhelmed or stuck in an emotional rut. I still use the old paper monthly planners from the office supply store to map out my days and weeks.

When I have too much on my plate, I find it cathartic to have a plan in front of me on how to best use my time to satisfy my goals. I will often have a “To Do” list scribbled in the corner of each monthly layout and cross things off strategically throughout the week.

I find it helps to keep me on task, prioritize what is important, and provides me with a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day instead of wandering around the house aimlessly waiting for my daughter to get up from her nap.

Also, those of you at home with kiddos have probably already figured out how valuable a routine can be to help keep them grounded throughout this difficult time.

It’s also no secret these days that regular exercise can be both physically and psychologically beneficial to one’s overall well-being. Going for a run or bike ride, doing some yoga on an app on my phone, getting out the rake for a spring clean up in the yard, or even if it’s just a brisk walk with the dog; I’ve noticed getting some sort of physical activity for at least 30 mins on most days can make a huge difference.

If you live in an area that provides for a safe outdoor environment or even somewhere in nature while practicing a safe social distance, even better. Unless, of course, practicing social distancing while walking around the neighborhood or local trail only provokes more anxiety. I feel as if I’m playing a virtual game of PacMan while walking around the block these days.

Setting up an obstacle course in the backyard with my daughter has proven to be a much more relaxing form of physical activity on some days. Plus, the benefits of a little sunlight when I’m struggling cannot be overstated.

I find eating a healthy diet is also important and not always practical with our usual routines and access to food interrupted, in addition to not feeling safe even going to the grocery store most days. When quality is not always available, I try to make a more conscious effort to monitor my quantity. I am always surprised at how even just a few pounds of excess weight can noticeably affect my well-being. I also find it amazing how empowering it can feel to lose two or three pounds, even if it’s just a baby step toward a larger weight loss goal. Progress is motivating.

Any act of kindness can go a long way in improving my own well-being while hopefully improving the well-being of another. In my experience, it doesn’t have to be a huge gesture or financial obligation. Maybe just a text message or phone call to check in and tell someone I love them. Or maybe offering to take on one of my wife’s responsibilities so that she can do something for herself for 20 mins. It doesn’t even have to be towards someone I know. Maybe smiling and saying “thank you” to that person who crossed the street to adhere to social distancing guidelines while walking my dog.

I have found that doing something generous or kind for someone else, no matter how big or small, can have a major beneficial influence on my mood. I have also noticed that the more I practice this type of pro-social behavior the more I want to do because it is so internally rewarding. It almost seems like a kind of paradoxical selfishness from doing kind things for others.

Practicing gratitude has been a staple during rough patches for me. It can be so effective at taking the focus off of the self and widening the lens to see all that exists outside of the often challenging but temporary situations I find myself in.

On the really hard days, it can be tough to shift to a mindset of appreciation and thankfulness but it’s those days that I most reap the rewards of this practice. Simply writing down three things a day that I’m grateful for before I go to bed or going around the dinner table and having everyone share a few things has been a quick and easy but remarkably powerful habit to take up.

Getting quality and an adequate amount of sleep is maybe the most significant of all of the above because, without it, the rest seem like futile aspirations. Research suggests most adults need between 7-9 hours of sleep per night and anything below this can have both serious acute and long-term repercussions on the body and mind.

I can usually maintain a baseline functioning with at least six hours but have found that I’m not my best self without a solid eight. Practicing good sleep hygiene (regular bed and wake times, limiting screens before bed, not eating at least 2-3 hours before bed, no caffeine or alcohol, getting regular natural sunlight exposure and exercise during the first half of the day, not charging my phone within arms reach of my bed, etc) is especially important for me when grieving as these strong emotions can easily prevent me not only from falling asleep easily but also from being able to get back to sleep in the early morning hours.

I have consistently found that prioritizing sleep is the most essential aspect of maintaining a healthy well-being. If you’re interested in more motivation to prioritize sleep, check out this TED talk by leading sleep scientist Dr. Matthew Walker. (The 10 min mark has pertinent research on the importance of sleep on immune system function).

3. Support

I’ve also noticed it’s been really important for me to stay connected to friends and loved ones right now and during any time of emotional turmoil. If there was ever a time to not leave things unsaid to those closest to you, this is it.

If this doesn’t feel like enough of a support, I find seeking professional help from a licensed therapist can also be beneficial, as can reaching out to my PCP for assistance and other professional resources. Luckily, the mental health field is one that can adapt gracefully to social distancing with the technological strides made over the last several decades and a decent internet connection.

I have found that occasionally having someone besides a family member to help guide me toward a better path can prevent excess tension from building up and interfering with important interpersonal relationships within my family, which can easily lead to even more problems. We often use the popular “oxygen mask” analogy at Calmer Choice. That is, as when instructed on an airplane to put the oxygen mask on yourself before putting one on your child during an emergency, in life, we will have more capacity to care for others once we’ve taken care of ourselves first.

4. Self Compassion

Finally, I try to hold the many set-backs, failures, and mistakes made along the way to some sort of post-traumatic growth with an overall sense of self-compassion. This can be a huge challenge when grieving or experiencing traumatic events, but I find it to be the key to unlocking the mind’s stranglehold on true liberation and peace.

My inner critic can be incredibly ruthless at times and I try to utilize my mindfulness practice to recognize when my mind’s self-flagellation is not serving anyone including myself, and also compounding the problem at hand. As a man living in this very patriarchal and often machismo society, evolving to overcome the stigma of being kind to myself and being able to hold myself with a more tender and loving attitude has been a difficult task at times and I frequently regress into my outdated caveman tendencies.

However, my experience with the loss of my son and every previous and subsequent curveball that life has thrown my way over 38 years has shown me that love is the lifeblood that nourishes the soul and is the antidote to fear. Underneath the deepest sorrow for one’s loss is love. Whether that loss is a son, a partner, a grandparent, a pet, a job, a savings account, a way of life–whatever the loss and the degree of grief or challenge, our period of growth will only be born from a place of love. In the words of the immortal John Lennon, “Love is the answer, and you know that for sure; Love is a flower, you’ve got to let it grow”.