According to bereavement counselors, the loss of a loved one is the single most stressful thing that can happen to a person. . Because of this increased stress and vulnerability, health problems appear more often during the bereavement period.
By taking care of ourselves and practicing stress management, we can decrease the physical and emotion wear and tear that stress can cause. The following suggestions may help you survive the coming holiday season and beyond.
Changes in eating habits are normal during the period of grief. It is important to realize that your body is undergoing a lot of stress from the demands of grief work. Even though you may not feel like eating (you may say, “What’s the Use?”), you need the energy provided by balanced, nutritious meals. It may be hard to cook for yourself, but, for your own healing, it is important to eat regular, balanced meals and to get the vitamins you need.
Increase your protein intake – that helps in stressful times. Also increase the intake of calcium (milk and cheese products) and potassium (bananas, baked potatoes, oranges); each helps to combat stress. Consider a B-vitamin or multi-stress vitamin as a daily supplement. Avoid “junk foods” and empty calories.
People frequently have difficulty sleeping during the period of bereavement. It is important to get adequate rest. If you feel extra sleep is necessary, go to bed earlier. Try to keep the same sleep schedule each day. Make bedtime the final stage of a regular evening ritual. Walk the dog, watch TV, read a book – the activity is less critical than sticking to the same routine night after night. You’ll sleep sounder after a late afternoon workout. Avoid any heavy-duty exertion just prior to bed time.
Avoid the “big three” – caffeine, alcohol and tobacco. All of these upset sleep, even if you find them “relaxing.” Alcohol may make you tired but it reduces the quality of sleep. Caffeine and tobacco may interfere with sleep. Remember, that many soft drinks – as well as tea and chocolate – contain caffeine.
Stress is the NUMBER ONE enemy of sleep. Relaxation training can help derail many of the disturbing thoughts (that are particularly troublesome during the bereavement period) and ease tight muscles that make it hard to sleep soundly. (See notes on relaxation.)
A low-protein, high carbohydrate snack before bedtime often shortens the time it takes to fall asleep. But remember, if you are on a special diet, be sure to consult your physician or nutritionist about the changes in your diet.
If insomnia as a result of your bereavement lasts more than three weeks, sleeping pills may be medically necessary. Often, after taking a sleeping pill for a night or two sleep patterns will go back to normal. Since there are some side-effects with sleeping medications, be sure to consult your physician before taking any such medicine.
Moderate, regular exercise helps relieve tension and elevate one’s mood. Don’t take on anything too strenuous, but rather have a regular planned activity – such as swimming, walking or bike riding – that will help loosen tense muscles and increase your sense of well-being. Walking with a friend provides an opportunity to share feelings as well.
Only you know what places, situations and/or people help you to relax the best. There are, however, some general guidelines that you may find helpful.
When we’re tense, our breathing becomes shallow. When a person is weighted down with strong and painful feelings, he or she often breathes improperly, depriving the brain of necessary oxygen. Taking slow, deep breaths is a good way to ease the tension and resume proper breathing. Place your hand on your diaphragm (just below the rib cage and above the stomach). Take a deep breath through your nose. As you inhale, you should feel your hand pushed outward. Exhale through your mouth. Repeat this exercise until your breathing is deep and regular.
To relieve tension in your body, try this exercise. In a comfortable surrounding, try tensing and relaxing each muscle group in turn, starting with your feet and working up to your head. Be aware of knots of tension in your body. Practice slow, deep breathing. You may want to put on some soothing music while doing this exercise.
Be Kind To Yourself
Finally, remember that emotional injury – such as the loss of a loved one – can often require even more healing than physical injury. You may feel very sad and down during this period so you may need to remind yourself of the following:
- Get some exercise.
- Try to maintain good eating and sleeping habits
- Go out to eat with friends.
- Engage in some distracting activity, such as reading, watching TV or a movie, visiting a park, shopping, etc.
- Find comfort-seeking activities – such as talking to a special friend or having a massage.
- Set small goals that can be achieved each day – planting something for the future, painting, drawing, handwork.
- Do one good thing for yourself each day; do some needed chores; help someone else; pay attention to your personal appearance.
- Engage in re-creative activities, such as listening to music, getting some sun (using sunscreen, of course), visiting the countryside or just taking a bubble bath.
There are many who have traveled this journey ahead of you and many will follow. To quote J. Bramlett, “…painful as the remembrances were surrounding special days, these memories later became precious treasures. As we encounter the events of the first year, the important thing to remember is that each one of them is a special checkpoint in our journey into the rest of life.”