A post for anyone whose mind is filled with sad or difficult thoughts, particularly related to your grief. Discovering what makes your grief more bearable during the lockdown is going to be individual to you, but maybe you’ll get some ideas here.
Originally written in May 2020 – it seems appropriate to revisit this now as we enter another lockdown.)
For people who are grieving, the quiet hours of the night are often a struggle. Falling asleep might be hard; waking up in the early hours is not uncommon.
Whether there is someone sleeping beside us or not, it is a solitary time. Our thoughts seem louder and there is little to distract us from them. This can be a hazardous time, as our mind is filled with pictures of what happened to our loved one, of the saddest and most difficult moments. There is little to take our mind away onto other paths; our sad, anxious or hopeless thoughts loom larger and larger.
No wonder that tiredness is such a common feature of grief. It may be so long before we have a good night’s rest again.
For some people the lockdown – self isolation during the pandemic – is having a similar effect.
Many of us are spending so much more time alone. We might be chatting on social media or picking up the phone, but the general atmosphere of life seems to be one of solitude.
Solitude is not necessarily a bad thing, as I wrote about in a previous post. But if having so much time on our hands is leading us to being overwhelmed with sad thoughts then it can be quite detrimental for our mental health.
Dealing with the sadness of our thoughts
What can we do about it? Perhaps the first step is recognising that it is becoming a problem for us.
Another step is perhaps to consider whether what we are reading, watching or listening to is contributing to the way our thoughts are wandering onto such sad things. News about the pandemic can be triggering. All of the focus on death, suffering, hospital treatment, shortages of PPE, and so on is it enough to give anyone nightmares, but for those who are actively grieving for a loved one it’s only going to make matters worse. Perhaps limiting how much news we read or watch could be a good strategy. One person mentioned that he gives himself 24-hours “news off” each week. Sounds like a pretty good idea.
It’s not only news that can be triggering. The books we read, or TV or films we watch, might not be helping us either if we don’t choose with care. Sometimes some light-hearted fiction can be a useful distraction.
Actively seeking good memories
At the same time, of course we want and need to think about our loved ones, although those thoughts might be painful, particularly if their death was traumatic or their life was troubled. The key here seems to be actively seeking for the good memories.
If you find it hard to remember the many good moments in your loved one’s life, here’s a little activity.
It’s very simple. Get a piece of paper, draw a heart and cut it out. Now you have a two-sided heart. Take some colouring pencils or markers and start colouring one side of the heart. As long as you colour, think only about ways in which your loved one showed their love to you. Anytime during a lifetime that they showed or expressed love in whatever form.
Now turn the heart over and start colouring again. This time think about the way you showed your love to them.
Warning here. Some people who are overwhelmed with regrets or guilt find this extremely difficult. It’s odd about human nature isn’t it, how negative experiences seem to stand out. I’m thinking of an example of someone who has spent years caring for a loved one while they suffered from an illness, perhaps dementia, and every day they brought them endless cups of tea. And just this one evening, they were engrossed in a book or a TV programme, and they didn’t get around to bringing them their evening cuppa. Their loved one has since died. Now this person can only remember the one time they failed to bring the desired cup of tea instead of the hundreds and hundreds of cups they brought over the months.
All of that say you might have to make an effort for the side of the heart representing your giving of love, but really do focus on it. I hope you did just that.
On the other hand, there is a time when we do need to delve into the saddest parts of what happened to our loved one. Processing our thoughts in this way seems to be something that most grieving people eventually require in order to progress in their grief and live with their loss. It’s facing reality, although it is a reality we can’t do anything about now, because it is past. It seems to me that the danger of this type of thinking is doing it in an unstructured and unsupported manner, where it risks becomes overwhelming.
This is why it can be vital to have safe places and people where we can express ourselves. Being with someone else usually means that such a conversation is time-limited. They might be able to help us put things into some context, whereas by ourselves we might ruminate ourselves into a very very dark place. Think of the person in the example above with the endless cups of tea. A friend might help them remember the teas they brought in the mornings, the afternoons, and every evening (except that one). Out of a thousand opportunities to show kindness by bringing tea, they only missed it once. It’s really not so bad when you look at it like that, is it?
This leads back to the lockdown. We might not be able to access the normal support network of friends and family, at least not in the usual way. If we had been having counselling or taking part in a support group this might have been cancelled. Unless we still have some responsibilities and work to do from home – or outside if we’re a key worker – then there could be absolutely no time limits on our rumination. It could extend on and on and on and on.
If you can relate to this and have been finding yourself in this situation, I really do encourage you to take advantage of the support that still exists. There are helplines still operational – please see the bottom of this post for some phone numbers. And now there are a variety of different Zoom-based support groups out there, including the ones I run. Visit here
Breaking the sadness cycle
Anything you can do to break the cycle of a downward rumination could be a good idea. Sometimes doing some physical activity helps. If it’s time for your daily walk – great. If not a bit of house cleaning or gardening could also be effective, or join in one of the many exercise classes that you can find these days on social media or YouTube.
Singing is another type of exercise which many people find uplifting. Join a virtual choir if that is something that appeals to you, or simply put on your favourite tracks and sing along. (It’s one time when being alone can be an advantage, particularly if you have a tuneless voice like mine.)
Finally think about someone you know who could do with a phone call or an online chat. Give them a ‘ring’, find out how they are doing. Ask about their day. Showing interest in someone else can be very encouraging for them but also help us climb out of our own pit of despair.
And remember, “weeping may endure for the night but joy comes in the morning”. It’s not an 8-hour night or a 10-hour night or a 4-hour night. The night is the darker periods of our lives. But night is followed by day. Morning will come again. The lockdown will lift. Our loss will still be real to us; perhaps our strategies for coping with it by then will be different.
Until then, hold on to hope, treasure your good memories of your loved one, and take care of yourself.
A poem prayer
When our lives fall into ruin,Liz Carter, “Treasure in dark places”
may we look to glimmers of light on the horizon.
When we live under despair-laden darkness,
may we know the hope that is an anchor for our souls,
steadfast and certain, carrying us into light.
Getting help and support
Cruse Bereavement Care has a helpline for the bereaved on 0808 808 1677.
For those who have suffered the death of a child or a sibling, the Compassionate Friends (TCF) have a helpline you can call: 0345 123 2304. The trained volunteers who answer the phone are all bereaved parents. The line is open daily from 10 am – 4 pm and 7 – 10 pm. TCF is also running a series of online support groups. See their website for information
In moments of crisis, if your grief feels unbearable or you simply need to unload, speak to Samaritans on 116 123. This is a free helpline, available 24 hours a day.