Caring for self and others

By Tuulikki Tennant

We can always choose the most effective ways to grieve that are nurturing, meaningful and true to oneself.

We can listen carefully to our own inner guidance about what will be most healing. We can also notice if we are talking to ourselves about our loss and life in a way that intensifies the pain or calms and comforts.

Fundamentally we need to choose to heal. Sometimes quietly inside the choice is made, at times out of our awareness, that staying in grief is an inner tribute, a loyalty to the one we love who has passed. That if we really loved someone we need to stay sad because they are no longer in our lives. It can feel like a disloyalty, or that one doesn’t care, if you begin to smile, begin to laugh or begin to experience joy. In fact reclaiming love, happiness and joy is what anyone who loves us would wish for us, even if they can’t be here.

We can intentionally make choices to support all aspects of ourselves – our emotions, our mind, our body and spirit/creative self. So our emotions will remain fluid, our minds becomes flexible, our bodies gains strength and our spirits expand. For example we can journal to release emotion. We can listen to our thinking and intentionally choose to calm it, change our evaluation of any given circumstance. We can exercise, eat and sleep well, drink plenty of fluids to help our body heal. We can engage in a creative endeavour to make beauty and allow expression of our creative/spiritual selves.

One highly useful approach is to listen to the answers inside to questions/thoughts in exercises such as the one below. The intention is to complete the following sentences with whatever enters your awareness. These are then key elements on any healing journey for oneself.

Discovering My Own Best “Medicine”

I am most peaceful when . . .

I am most calm when . . .

I am most centred when . . .

I am most content when . . .

I am most comforted or soothed when . . .

I am most joyful when . . .

I have the most fun when. . .

I express my creativity by . . . .

I make beauty when . . .

I love . . .

I find when I am sad/angry/disappointed/or the emotion of the moment . . .the most helpful/loving thing(s) I can be or do for myself is ________________________________________________________________________________________________________


When I am sad/angry/disappointed/ or the emotion of the moment . . .  the most helpful/loving thing(s) those I love can do or be for me is  ________________________________________________________________________________________________________


There are also practical strategies that can be chosen to care for oneself in grief:

  • stress management strategies
  • relaxation techniques (such as deep breathing and progressive relaxation)
  • sleeping can be affected – good strategies to improve length and quality of sleep are essential
  • monitoring one’s self- talk (the inner commentary one has about life, oneself and others)
  • creating a personal memorial for your loved one

Looking for ideas on-line or in resources such as “The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook” by Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman and Matthew MacKay is highly recommended as a way in which to pro-actively increase the range and choice of strategies to manage challenging life events just not grief. These kinds of strategies promote resilience which make one stronger in the face of life’s adversities.

In the choosing of strategies that will be effective for you keep in mind active/doing choices and receptive/being choices. This matters as we cannot always be active in working through our grief; time/wellness/circumstances may not permit. A wider range of choices always increases the sense of mastery and confidence in one’s ability to stabilize/heal/process pain and meet life’s challenges effectively.

We need to notice the positions we take, the stories we tell. These positions can be within our awareness or not. We are socialized and trained to be these ways. Just notice if the following apply in any way to your given circumstances. Men often take a stoic place in grief – the strong “tough guy” who doesn’t allow sadness. Crying sadly is seen as a “weakness” rather than the strength that it is to allow full expression of powerful emotion. Women can at times take a more dramatic place in grief and as an example of this position can compare (either quietly or out loud) who has had the worst experiences, tend to focus on the list of all life’s hardships without the additional view of life’s joys.

If you are noticing that you are holding a specific story inside about your grief or your life, writing down this particular version can be very healing and then re-writing how you would rather describe your life to yourself is illuminating. Highlighting your strengths, your resilience, the wisdom you have gained in living life, the joys, the beautiful experiences can create a radically different version than one you may currently hold.

Caring for Others

Being willing to be with the deep pain of another, however he/she needs to express it is a loving thing to do.

Many people feel helpless and powerless in the face of a strong emotion of another. Our desire is to “make it better”. All that is truly required is to be present. To stay put. To see. To witness. To create a space where any emotion is okay.To listen deeply. To validate the feeling you hear and see.

Men often feel that they have to protect their family. And feel helpless when life brings hard things. Even though we know one cannot control life, the desire to do so is great.

Men often feel helpless in the face of the sadness of loved ones as the desire to “fix it” and “make it right” is so deeply engrained.

Women often become frustrated that their men don’t grieve the way they do. Men often have less to say about their distress. Women often have lots to say about what is happening and how they are feeling. Being aware and respectful of differences and clearly asking how one can support the other is important. Everyone does not want the same kind of support in their grieving process.

Children need to have their reality validated, permission to say what they need to say, feel what they need to feel, to be comforted directly. They need good descriptions that are age appropriate. They need to know they can ask any question they would like.  They need to know that the death of a loved one  is not their fault.

Care needs to be taken about how death is explained and the reasons for it. To tell a child someone is sleeping is not useful; this can generate fear of sleeping. To say “God takes the good ones to heaven” or “The good die young” gives children potentially the message that if they are good they might die too, to avoid death one must be bad and if you don’t die one is bad.

Strengths and Resilience

Our well-being and healing is always supported by a clear understanding of our strengths, our limitations and vulnerabilities – in other words a realistic, honest and kind evaluation of ourselves.

I have seen the desire to hunker down and just get through a tough time, breathe a sigh of relief with the hope that no more hard things come one’s way. This as a life coping strategy does not tend to work.

We fare better in life if we build resilience (see for a concise and useful summary about resilience)

Some indicators that further help is needed:

  • anger remains intense and bitterness develops
  • guilt and blame become entrenched
  • symptoms of depression, post-traumatic stress and anxiety develop
  • development of suicidal ideation and intent
  • questioning of “Why me?” “Why this?” persists
  • development of a “victim” or “survivor” stance/story/identity that become the central point of definition of your being or life
  • intense and ongoing fear that death may come to another loved one which places oneself in an inner position of ongoing tension and hypervigilance
  • ongoing sleep disturbance
  • addictions develop as a way to soothe distress
  • “It’s not fair” is the thought that prevails and persists
  • protectively withdraw and decide not to love again

Workshop participants were asked to note one idea that has helped them with their grief and here are the thoughts gathered from the meeting on February 9, 2012.

  • “No matter where I go everyone I need, past and present, are always with me.”
  • Listen to my body and allow the voices (self-talk) to go on mute
  • Understanding my own grief process and self expectations can, in itself, create comfort
  • Being with other people
  • Investigating literature on life, death, dying and compassion – picking out those bits that fit into your spiritual evolution
  • Taking one day at a time and dealing with one emotion and/or thought at a time
  • Writing to my lost loved one
  • Reminiscing and remembering in conversations with people who have known your loved one or person you cared for
  • Remembering the joy my daughter brought to all of us. Encouraging those around me; just listening and being sensitive about their issues.
  • I find if you need help to grieve you can always write your feelings down in a poem and then put it into a drawing
  • I learned that you don’t have to have all the answers but to be present – to listen, to understand, to hug, to love
  • Willing to be supportive with patience and non-judgment. Compassion is shown in many ways. One of mine is hugs and allowing a person to use my strength for support
  • To understand and become more compassionate and be supportive
  • Come to the realization that something good had to come out of something so tragic – something positive (death of a loved one through suicide)
  • Talking to other people who had the same experience
  • Remember that not all experiences have an answer or solution
  • Practicing mindfulness (staying in the present moment), especially when I am in nature
  • Support of friends and family and being with others who understand what your feelings are has helped the most
  • Talking to people who had the same thing happen to them; the same story. Family and friends.
  • Feeling the love that exists in our lives

A List of Helpful Resources


The Art of Resilience: 100 Paths to Wisdom and Strength in an Uncertain World by Carol Orsborn

Surviving Grief – and Learning to Live Again by Catherine Sanders

A Time to Grieve: Meditations for Healing after the Death of a Loved One by Carol Staudacher

Unattended Sorrow by Stephen Levine

I Wasn’t Ready to Say Good-bye: Surviving, Coping, and Healing After the Death of a Loved One by Brook Noel and Pamela Blair

Empty Cradle, Broken Heart: Surviving the Death of Your Baby by Deborah L. Davis


The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook by Martha Davis et al

The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund Bourne

I Can’t Get Over It: A Handbook for Trauma Survivors by Aphrodite Matsakis

The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner

Thought Work (cognitive)

The Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns

Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think by Dennis Greenberger and Christine A. Padesky