Finding Joy Through Grief
The year 2020 will go down in history for most of us as a year we will never forget. All of us battled isolation, financial uncertainty, lives and routines being upended, and racial issues dominating our headlines and brains.
For me personally, besides becoming an unexpected home-schooling teacher and having my husband become unemployed, my dad succumbed to a terminal illness. To witness a loved one struggle with an illness under normal circumstances is tough, but during a pandemic, it’s almost unbearable.
To not be able to advocate for loved ones in the hospital, to have to receive devasting news over the phone rather than in person, and to not be able to mourn and hug when they pass changes you.
At times, you think you’ll never feel joy again.
For some, those feelings go so deep that they lead to despair, depression, anxiety, an inability to carry out daily tasks, or a desire to simply escape or stop living. If you struggle with any of those feelings, professional medical help should be sought.
For me, they were healthy, appropriate feelings of grief and the extreme stress that I was going through. I needed to find a path to healing and back to joy.
Here’s how I survived and learned how to thrive again.
Understand what your body is going through:
During the last couple weeks of my dad’s life and once he passed, I really struggled. I had a hard time focusing. I couldn’t remember simple things. I was exhausted and had trouble sleeping. I felt like I had my dad’s “chemo brain.” I discovered it wasn’t just me. This state actually has a name -“grief brain.”
The brain is a miraculous organ that steps in to protect us in traumatic situations. To help us survive, the brain filters feelings so we can continue to function. The “stress hormones,” cortisol and adrenaline, are released which allows your body to function in crisis. While helpful in the short-term, if left unchecked it can lead to anxiety, irritability, depression, and sleep problems, among others.
Stress and grief can manifest both physically and mentally. It is critical to listen to your body and take care of it. It’s working overtime to heal you.
Identify and process feelings:
I am a “shover” of feelings. I tend to push feelings down until there’s no more room and then I explode. This is hardly a healthy way to survive and provides zero hope for joy.
To progress through the grieving process, I needed to learn how to reconnect with suppressed emotions and manage my stress and negative thoughts so I:
Began practicing mindfulness:
Instead of ignoring, or stuffing, the emotion, I simply felt it without judgement. I would either write it down in a journal or say a prayer about it and then let it go.
As an example, I got stuck in a negative pattern of thinking about my dad’s experience with his doctor. It was leading me down a dark, undesirable path that I had no control over and I needed to process it and let it go.
When I began to think those thoughts, I wrote my feelings on paper. I also made note of how my body felt – was I tired, tense, feeling sick, etc. Often times, once I felt the emotion and wrote it down, I would feel better. If not, I would also say a prayer to further unburden my heart. I then chose to remove the thought from my mind. It took practice, but it became easier to not dwell on the bad.
For nine intense months, I was extremely self-consumed in my care and grief for my dad. While that selfishness was warranted and appropriate, it left me feeling depleted and alone.
I slowly began to change my focus to gratitude. I recognized all the friends and family who brought meals to us, who sent cards, thoughtful gifts and memories, and who kept our house functioning while I was checked out. I also made the choice to be grateful for the 41 years I had him as an integral part of my life and for the time I had with him at the end.
Take care of your physical self and give yourself grace:
I have always been an advocate for exercise. But during times of mourning or extreme stress, it is a lifeline.
While some days I may loath the act of running, I always love the feeling it gives me when I am done. With aerobic exercise, dopamine, serotonin and endorphins are released which makes me feel alert, happy, confident and like I can handle the sadness and burdens of the day. There was a dramatic difference in my mental state on days that I exercised versus when I didn’t.
At the same time, I also learned to give myself grace when I was too exhausted. As an overachiever and “on the go” personality, allowing myself a nap or a day to “binge” TV was often something I felt guilty about doing, but I learned that rest is just as important as the work.
Focus on meaningful relationships:
Community has always been important to me, but through the pandemic and the loss of my dad, I have redefined and narrowed my community.
I have let go of friendships, and even family members, who drain me.
Instead, I focus my energy on the friends and family who bring me joy and show up for me daily. It’s the friends who text or call to just make sure I am ok. It’s the college friends who show up for my dad’s funeral in the middle of lockdown, and friends to whom I can say “I can’t do it anymore” and drop everything to plan a girl’s weekend to rejuvenate our souls.
Relationships with others help us to thrive, but only when they are joy-inducing, other-centered people who show up for you day in and out.
I wish I could tell you that I am over the grieving process, but the reality is I may never be. What I can tell you is that while I still have bouts of sadness, there’s joy and hope back in my life a majority of the time.
If you are grieving, know you are not alone. When you take care of yourself, joy can come back.
This guest post was authored by Megan Wilroy
Megan is a seeker of joy and contributing writer for Joychiever, LLC. More information and resources are available at www.joychiever.com.