My clients often ask me, “What should I do? Do you have any strategies you can share for how to cope with my grief?”
The answer is complicated. For me, this question is deeper than it appears. The grieving client is asking, ”How can I feel less bad?” Or, more specifically, she might be saying, “How can I make my grief go away?”
Grief is a natural, human response to loss, yet we try to fight it off.
I acknowledge that it is messy, inconvenient, ruins your mascara, and leads you to avoid situations where you previously felt safe and comfortable. But the grieving process is also helpful, adaptive, and ultimately, healing. A new pregnancy in and of itself may be healing but doesn’t take away the pain of a previous pregnancy or neonatal loss.
Grief never really goes away although the acuteness of the pain of the loss lessens over time. When I recall my own pregnancy loss, the details that used to make me sob don’t sting in the way that they used to. I often tell clients that they need to “Feel the feelings.” I encourage them to allow the feelings time and space to manifest themselves. After a loss, normal life resumes all around the bereaved person, yet the bereaved person doesn’t feel normal at all.
Trying to avoid, compartmentalize, or numb your grief will only serve to ensure that the grief remains unresolved because it will remain unfelt. If you are scared to feel the feelings, perhaps there is something from your past holding you back. Your personal history of loss, personality traits, and family of origin may all be factors in your willingness to accept your grief.
Many loss parents I know have tried to create something meaningful out of the loss. Trees have been planted as a way to nurture hope and new life. Sometimes, keepsake boxes are arranged with items from the pregnancy such as ultrasound photos. Memorial jewelry remains very popular.
Here are a few other way to manage your grief. Not all of these ideas will resonate with everyone but might spur some creativity in how you approach your grief.
Immerse yourself in your grief.
This is not the same thing as “wallowing” which has a negative connotation. Face the grief head-on. Find a private space where you know it will be okay to cry or scream. For many people, the best place to do this is the car. Sometimes, listening to certain music helps facilitate tears. Have a plan for shifting out of this grief mode. Ideally, you will feel lighter after getting the feelings out. Plan to do something relaxing or fun later as a way to practice self-care.
Anger takes a lot of my clients by surprise. It can be scary at times. Anger is often felt after a pregnancy or neonatal loss. Sometimes the anger has a target and sometimes it doesn’t. Acknowledging anger and talking it through with someone else might be important. Others channel their anger into activism. There are a number of organizations that might do work that you consider to be important depending on the type of loss you had and your individual experience.
Write. And if you are angry (see above), write furiously.
Even if you have never kept a journal it can be helpful to write whatever it is you are feeling. Research has shown that expressive writing can help people heal from traumatic experiences. For guidance on this, see James Pennebaker’s book “Writing To Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval.”
Set a new goal.
Choose something that challenges you or that gets you outside your comfort zone. While taking up a new sport or hobby might be the furthest thing from your mind, engaging in something new helps you not get stuck in your grief or preoccupied in an unhealthy manner.
Reconnect with your body.
One thing that can be really painful for women after a loss is the feeling of betrayal by one’s own body. Also, pregnancy weight may linger which complicates one’s feelings of sadness and anger. Seeing the extra weight in the mirror serves as a painful reminder of what your body went through and the baby that you are no longer carrying. Finding some way to restore a healthy relationship with your body can help immensely whether that is dancing, weightlifting, or meditation.
Water is soothing to many people. Whether you drive to the nearest beach, swim laps in your local pool, or just take a bath at home, being in or near the water can be comforting.
Build a coping skills toolbox.
Sometimes this is called a “distress tolerance kit.” Use it whenever you are feeling overwhelmed. Include in the kit anything that brings comfort or relief. Sometimes, it helps to engage the senses. Common items people include are scented lotion, favorite photos that bring happy memories, stress balls, or fidget toys. Experiment with what items work for you.
As with any loss, be patient with yourself and know that there is no timetable for grief. If you need help figuring out whether you are dealing with grief or depression (or both) seek out a professional opinion.