Managing this grief has taken me on a journey. This is how I’ve coped
In many ways, 2020 was a year of mass grief as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world and loss became part of our everyday lives. At 22, I was lucky enough to have never personally lost a loved one. As a result, when it hit me fast and hard during February 2020, I didn’t know how to cope with the range of emotions.
One day I had a 24-year-old brother, and the next, he was gone. At first, I could barely believe it had happened. It seemed surreal. But during the course of a day, I would feel this unrelenting sadness, frustration, guilt, and anger all rolled into one. And just at this time, the world was also coming to a standstill due to the pandemic, and I didn’t even have the support of my loved ones around me. And I know that I was far from the only one during this time.
Managing this grief has taken me on a journey — and that journey is in no way complete. Still, I have developed some practical strategies to help cope with the myriad of emotions that can come with the process. These are based on my experience during the past year, so they are not guaranteed to work for you, but I hope they will give at least someone a bit of guidance.
Like most challenges in life, regardless of the context, grief is yet another one that takes time to overcome. In many aspects, you’ll never entirely get over the loss of someone close to you, and this isn’t an attempt to claim that it is possible, but merely a selection of my tried and tested management strategies.
Before losing a loved one, I had come to regard “mindfulness” as a buzzword that self-help gurus on the internet liked to boast about. I didn’t know how to incorporate it into ways that could help me or how to use it as a mindset to approach life and help with difficult times. My first experience of mindfulness was in my third year of university; when I saw a councillor for my anxiety. She mentioned square breathing to me and how it could potentially help.
It seemed to do very little for me then—a breathing technique is not a strong enough force to override the levels of anxiety I can sometimes feel in a given moment. Maybe I gave up on it too soon. But mindfulness soon became a characteristic I incorporated into my daily life when I suddenly had to go through the unexpected grief of losing a loved one.
Mindfulness has different meanings depending on the person. For me, it’s any form of activity, experience, or thought process that encourages you to focus on the present. As an anxiety sufferer, I can often get caught up in what ifs and worries about the future, rather than acknowledging the present. Some people practise mindfulness in the form of meditation, but for me, it has to be more than that, as it has to be part of everyday life for it to stick.
Overriding these five strategies to help you cope with grief is the theme of mindfulness and a focus on the present. These strategies aren’t designed to dull the pain or act as a fail-safe but are recommended based on my own personal experience as a way to cope and get by throughout that challenging first year of losing a loved one.
Many people (especially extroverts) may find that talking through their feelings to someone else may help cope with all the emotions associated with grief. But for me, a quiet and often withdrawn introvert, this prospect scared the hell out of me. I could barely find the words for myself, let alone to articulate them to others.
I found myself requesting peace and quiet in the early stages and explaining to others that I wouldn’t be replying to kind messages because I didn’t have the energy or words to dictate how I felt. But this is where journaling helped me.
Not only does it naturally encourage you to be more present, but it is also a way of acknowledging your thoughts. The act of putting pen to paper is meditative and even cathartic. Overall, it’s a form of mindfulness that, quite literally, forces you to focus and acknowledge your present thoughts. And how did it help me cope with grief?
My journal was a judgment-free zone I could turn to brain dump my thoughts and feelings. There was no pressure to make sense, as I wasn’t writing or talking to anyone other than myself. It was a form of release, a coping mechanism, and an antidote for the constant guilt and anxiety I felt. Although I’ve always kept a diary in some way since I was a child, I began to experiment throughout this year with different journaling types to see how they could help.
But first of all, I had to make it a habit and set aside time to do it every day. The bare minimum for me was ten minutes each day, but sometimes, for a few days, I would write for longer. It depended on how I felt. But the important part is making some form of journaling part of your routine and doing that consistently — that being whatever you can realistically manage. These are all the different forms of journaling I have tried and how they have helped me.
This is the most carefree and unfiltered form of writing. All you have to do is sit down, open a page (or Word document), and write exactly what comes into your head. Ideally, you shouldn’t be filtering yourself or self-editing, but writing in real-time exactly what comes into your head. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make sense or has typos or spelling mistakes, as it’s only for you. Sometimes it is better to do this with a Word Document, as many of us can type quicker than we can write.
I found this a great form of coping with grief because it acted as a brain dump for all my thoughts. If I did this at the beginning of the day, I could acknowledge what I was feeling, but in a way, put it to bed before I started anything. Grief, anger, and anxiety can be overpowering at the best of times, and sometimes you have to let it do its thing, but on other better days, it can be possible to manage it.
I would never have been able to do this early on during the first few months of grief, but I’ve more recently grown into it. Picking a handful of things (I usually go for 3–5) I’m grateful for, and writing them down, helps me feel more grounded and positive. These can be emotions, people, places, or even objects — but I try and stray away from embracing materialism at the best of times.
The reason I say it never worked for me, in the beginning, was that I was too overcome by the loss to even think of being grateful. However, it has been a useful tool in gaining perspective and feeling positive in my day-to-day life in the past few months.
This crosses over massively with a stream of consciousness writing but is directly meant to be done first thing after you wake up. If I start my day by scrolling on my phone, I’ll feel ten times worse. My mind will already start comparing myself to strangers on the internet, and I’ll soon get overwhelmed with all the messages I need to reply to. And this, on top of going through grief, is a recipe for disaster.
So ditch the phone in the mornings and replace this with a slot to do your morning pages. Set a timer for 10–15 minutes, and write before you do anything. You can make a coffee to go with it before if you like, but don’t even think about picking up your phone. Write about how you’re feeling, your anxieties, emotions, and concerns. Close the page, and don’t reread.
It’s an excellent grounding exercise to do in the morning and helps you sort out and confront any emotions that may have built up overnight.
One line a day
Grief is different for everyone, but there will always be days where you can’t do anything at all, and it goes without saying — that’s completely normal. But if you want to make a small start and see if journaling will help you process some emotions, the one-line-a-day method may help.
There are specific journals for this, set up in the form of a five-year diary, where you write one line a day for the next five years. But you could take this technique for yourself and use any notebook.
Just taking a few minutes out of a day to pause and reflect, and write a sentence or two, can do a world of good. For one, it can spark the habit and get you into the routine of journaling and acknowledging your thoughts during the earliest and hardest moments of grief.
When writing is the only way to manage grief
Writing for me has been a lifeline for coping with grief, as I do not jump at the chance to voice my feelings to others. But writing my thoughts down in various formats has helped me compartmentalize what I’m going through, made me feel more aware of the present, and forced me to slow down when my mind has wanted to race ahead.
Of course, there will be days where none of this will seem possible. There will be days when you can’t stomach the energy to pick up a pen. If this happens, you could try this differently by using voice notes on a phone to speak your thoughts and emotions out loud — but not have to voice them to another person.
Or you could, even, do another grounding activity, such as painting, drawing, crafting or knitting. Whatever makes you focus on the now — and confront your thoughts — may help you manage the many difficult aspects of grieving. But if you want to give journaling a try at some point during the process, I hope this variety of methods will help you somehow.
When you’re in the thick of grief, this is obviously easier said than done. But there will be days when you feel okay, and when you do, it’s so important to spend it doing an activity you love. As I said, this strategy won’t work in the immediate term, as all I wanted to do in the few months after was hide away from the world.
But as you begin to see the light and find yourself craving normality, you can pour your grief into the activities you love. In a way, it’s a form of self-care as you are prioritizing yourself. Grieving is often a process of discovering yourself, too, as you learn how to cope with emotional strain and stress. People say that grief changes you as a person, and I think it can do that, but it’s also what you choose to do during that experience.
With time, I began to pour my energy into surrounding myself with activities I love. This was a welcome distraction and a way to self-soothe. In a way, I was lucky, as it was in the middle of the pandemic’s first wave, and I had the luxury of time. I started to immerse myself in fiction and read more books than I have for a long time. I also began to write with greater intensity than I have ever known. Of course, this process didn’t happen instantly but over time. It gave me a sense of purpose, provided a distraction and element of routine.
Grieving is a time to be selfish, as it’s important to put yourself first at all costs. If you can, and feel up to it, immerse yourself in your favourite pastime or a hobby you’ve neglected. Do it for you and nobody else — and feel the benefits it can bring. Here are some suggestions for wholesome activities:
- Reading fiction — reading in all forms is good, but I would always recommend fiction due to its ability to take us away from the present. It’s a wonderful form of escapism that enables us to leave the world behind, just for a moment.
- Baking & cooking — there’s something incredibly meditative about making something from scratch. It’s hands-on, requires all of your attention, and the best part? You get to eat it at the end. I love baking because it’s a chance to get off the screens and focus on each fold, mix, and knead.
- Gentle exercise — there should be no pressure whatsoever here. This is meant as an opportunity to move your body in a way that you enjoy. Don’t focus on the stats, distance, or calories; move and allow yourself to be in the moment. A simple leisurely walk can do a world of good.
There’s a lot of rubbish that tends to be thrown around with self-help; the truth of it is, it’s far more than a bubble bath and treating yourself to a facemask. It’s a long-term orientation of putting yourself first at all costs and being aware of your own well-being. Of course, this is an essential asset of coping during the grieving process, which is tied to the importance of doing activities that make you feel good.
Grief is something that can spike up at any moment — particularly when we least expect it. For me, it comes in obscure moments, such as walking into a supermarket and hearing a song that reminds me of them. It can hit you hard and fast, and it goes without saying that all these strategies are not bulletproof. It would be unrealistic to tell you to deploy them every time you feel bad. Sometimes, we have to let ourselves feel bad and be at peace with that itself.
It’s important to take as much time as you need to grieve, and it pays to acknowledge the sadness and the myriad of feelings that can come with that. But when you’re ready and feel able, it pays to be able to focus on the good memories. This may seem like an obvious suggestion, but it can often be forgotten when you’re in the thick of grief.
When my brother passed away, I could chat with his best friends, reach out to them, and ask them about their favourite memories of him. They never failed to put a smile on my face. Of course, it was painful to hear them in a way and know that he should have been able to make so many more, but it’s the stories and memories you hear from others that can count. If you don’t want to do this on a personal level, you can always put together a memory book.
What is a memory book?
At my brother’s funeral — we did just this. We left a big book on a table during the wake, and people wrote about the memories they had shared with him. This is an amazing resource to keep forever, as you can constantly look back on it throughout your life.
You can also add photos to go with it, and it will act as a physical memory box. Death and loss always feel very permanent, and of course, it is. But our loved ones never entirely leave us because their memories live on. Creating a memory book can be a good way to remind yourself of all the happy memories of that person and how they touched others’ lives.
Or, if you aren’t up to doing this or aren’t able to reach out to people, you could create your own list for yourself. Why not try getting a piece of paper and listing out all the happy memories and moments you shared? After that, keep it somewhere safe, and then you can refer back to it in the dark moments.
Grief does a funny thing to our perception of time. In the thick of it, it can slow each minute and hour down, but as time passes, before we know it, it’s been a year since that person has gone. Life always moves on, but you don’t have to move with the constant pressures of it if you don’t want to. We live in a fast-paced, constantly busy world, which is hard to deal with at the best of times, let alone when you have lost a loved one.
How to slow down in a fast-paced world
Losing someone means you are well within your rights to slow down. This can mean taking time off social media, taking less strain off your daily routine, and doing activities solely for you. In moments of pain, it can be the small things that really matter and can act as a form of distraction. This may be something like developing a morning coffee ritual or going for a walk before the rest of the world is awake. If we start to romanticise every part of our lives, eventually we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Grief makes us even more aware of the passing of time, especially when a person’s life has been cut short. Therefore, it’s important to develop rituals, habits, and activities in your life that you love. Another crucial aspect for me — was learning to say no. I’ve always been a people pleaser, but after losing my brother, I realised that my time was limited, so there was no point spending it on things I didn’t like.
Not everybody will have the privilege of time to pick and choose what they do with it, but if you can, do. It will be far more beneficial for your wellbeing — and coping with the process of losing a loved one.