There are so many things that I didn't understand about healing from grief until this year. Before this year, I had so many words of "wisdom" to share with people about how they should be acting during periods of grief and heart ache. So many answers to "if you just do this, then it will all be better." Oh my goodness, I messed it up so many times by trying to tell the people the "right way" thing to do heal.
It has been a painful year to make my way through, but I am learning... My loved ones taught me how to be most supportive during the healing process. As important as their love and support has been through the process however, I learned that healing these wounds is an inside job. Now, this definitely doesn't mean it has to be done alone.
From going through the process of healing myself and watching others over the years, one thing is evident to me: it is really difficult for almost every single one of us to know what to do for ourselves when we are sick. Whether it is mostly physical from something like a bacteria or virus invading our system or something mental/emotional like a trauma or a heart break, it is often hard to know what to do to heal the most effectively and efficiently way possible. Especially when you're not feeling well.
Both the natural medicine and pharmaceutical industries are literally booming full of products and things to sell you on taking to make your pain or discomfort go away. Nearly 20% of our country's entire budget is spent on healthcare. That's fine. Most of these things can be helpful at some point. But there are some things that you can practice on your own to create more healing in your life after grief or trauma. And by living life with these secrets in mind, you might just find that life becomes a little more interesting along the way....
Secret 1: Purposeful Living
Apparently, the Japanese have a word for it: IKIGAI. This is one of the few times that I get to quote Urban Dictionary, so here goes:
Before this year, I didn't know how hard it was going to be to get up in the morning when healing grief this deep. I didn't know that I would have to find ways to not feel guilty for being alive. Once the feelings of guilt for still being alive passed, I had to find ways to not feel guilty about enjoying the life I was still living. This was hard, laughter was almost impossible. And before it happened to me, I didn't know how hard it was actually going to be.
Fortunately, some ikigai was already built into my life. First, my "day job" is pretty dang amazing. I get to spend my days consulting with some of the world's most amazing people on how to create more healing opportunities in their lives. There are literally boxes of letters from people of the years thanking me for the impact I have had on their lives. This purpose wasn't enough to keep getting me out of bed once my Bubs passed, however.
There was a built-in back-up plan, however. A few weeks after my brother's death, I was set to begin a pilot of a powerful afterschool program I had created called Future Doctors of America. This 10-week program brought me to east LA county to inspire middle school students to live healthier lives, pursue careers in healthcare, and share these healthy inspirations with their family.
It was really difficult for me to dwell in the pain of my grief with a classroom of 6th and 7th graders looking up at me saying, "OK, what next Dr. J?" It was this program that got me out of bed many mornings.
Secret #1 for creating more healing in your life as you recover from grief is to get really clear about your ikigai. It doesn't really seem to matter what the purpose actually is. Your ikigai could be your family, your life work, it could be a hobby. It doesn't matter, you just have to know it for those mornings when you wake up to the pain.
Secret 2: Clean Eating
Continuing the plant-based vegan diet that I had relied on so heavily to maintain my health was really hard. It was difficult to keep eating healthy for a lot of reasons. For most of my life, food has been a great source of both pleasure and pain. It is probably my greatest addiction in life. So during the most painful months of my life, it isn't difficult to figure out that maintaining a healthy relationship with food was a challenge.
First, food wasn't all that interesting and I didn't have much of an appetite. This meant that most of the time eating was because my body was hungry or I was stuffing emotions. Then, even if a healthy appetite did appear, my ability to make a decisions about what to eat usually disappeared. Because in the months after my brother died, making decisions took a whole lot of energy.
I had to find excuses to get myself to eat healthy. My afterschool program spent one of the 10 weeks cooking heart-healthy vegan meals in the kitchen. So one of the excuses was to perfect my recipes for a Temptingly Delicious Cauliflower-crust Pizza, The Best Vegan Nachos, and The Most Delicious, Chewy Brownie Cookies. Or, there was Father's Day recipe inspired by eating Cuban food visiting my father in Florida as a kid. The title of this recipe says it all: (Soul) Nourishing Vegan Cuban Bowl.
None of this was quite enough to keep me out of the deep depression that seemed to overtake me after my brother's death however. An article in Psychology Today reminded me of the link between depression and inflammation in the body. We can argue about whether the depression or the inflammation comes first, but for the purposes of healing it didn't really matter. After using diet as one of the ways to heal naturally from rheumatoid arthritis, I could tell my body was inflamed and knew how to most quickly ease this inflammation: fasting. My spirit instinctively took over at that point and I pretty much fasted during the month of Ramadan this year. It did give me the excuse to post my famous Healthy, Low Sodium Vegan Broth though.
Surprisingly, fasting helped significantly in my healing process (again), but please folks.... don't try fasting on your own without the guidance of a licensed professional, especially if you have pre-existing medical conditions. I was fortunate to go through naturopathic medical school as I was healing from RA well over a decade ago and have used fasting on and off since then. Though I didn't know how well my mind would respond to the fasting, I did know how my body would respond. Make sure to pay for the services of a professional to help guide and inspire you through the process of fasting the first few times. The first time I tried guiding someone thru fasting, she developed kidney stones. It isn't necessary to do this to yourself. Find an experienced professional to guide you.
Secret #2 for creating more healing in your life as you recover from grief is to find ways to be inspired to eat clean. If this inspiration for healthy eating runs out, then maybe it is a signal from your body to use the services of a licensed professional to help guide you through a fast.
Secret 3: Responsible Drinking
Arguably, one of the best things about being Irish after the death of a loved one is the wake. For my Bubs, we had a great party. There were a ton of people celebrating him, toasting his honor, and pouring a little whiskey on the floor for our "fallen soldier". But then inevitably, the morning came with a horrible hang over. And the reminder that he was still gone. The morning mourning after drinking is the worst.
With the alcohol came the physical hang overs, but it was the mental hang overs from alcohol that were the worst part. Alcohol is a known depressant. It may take the pain away initially, but it never heals the pain. It only adds a layer of extra depression on top.
Being Irish, it seems like the desire to drink is in my blood. Oh, man, there is frequently the taste for alcohol in my mouth. Fortunately along the way, the amygdala and hippocampus in my brain learned that it makes me feel really horrible and significantly worse mentally after I drink. And I knew that the best way to honor my brother was to heal from his death. In order to heal however, I had to avoid alcohol most all of the time.
Not everyone is able to stop drinking on their own and needs the support of others. Fortunately, there are programs like AA and licensed professionals to guide through breaking a dependence on alcohol.
Secret #3 for creating more healing in your life as you recover from grief is to put down the bottle of booze. It might ease things initially, but it will make the recovery process longer and more difficult. There are plenty of other ways to escape from the pain when you need moments of relief or release that won't cause nearly as much damage as alcohol.
Secret 4: Keep Moving
There is plenty of research proving the benefits of exercise during periods of depression. It can be as effective as medications. Research has shown that even walking 20 to 40 minutes 3 days a week can be beneficial. That's it folks, just walking 1-2 miles every other day can ease symptoms of depression. It isn't like you have to train for a marathon, you just have to move. It is one of the only ways to make sure that all the pain doesn't get stuck in your body.
This is another area that was really difficult for me to motivate myself, however. My previous runs on the beach were just not an option most days. I just couldn't dig that deep. Fortunately, I had committed to walking 10,000 steps every day in January and had discovered "tricks" to getting myself walking. During the healing process of losing her only son, my mom has "gotten in her steps" every day for months straight. Committing to this challenge of 10,000 steps a day was helpful for her in keeping moving.
Since drinking with friends wasn't much of an option, we found other was of spending time together. Sometimes, we would explore new hiking trails. Other times, the desire to throw things would overtake me and a friend would join for a round of disc golf. Most recently however, I have returned to my childhood hobby of tennis. In a recent lesson, the instructor asked me if I was a "junior pro". It was surprising that he could tell I played as a kid, despite how I rather embarrassingly had no control over the ball. He smiled, then commented on how well-coached my strokes were.... and that there was some "violence" in them. Oh. Ummm..... yeah, tennis always was a good way for me to work through anger. And yes, I will be back next week.
Secret #4 for creating more healing in your life as you recover from grief is to keep moving. You have to keep moving your body or the pain will get stuck. And it will manifest as chronic pain in the form of fibromyalgia, arthritis, or another disease.
Secret 5: Resting Well
Many people experience sleep disruptions after the loss of a loved one. Often it is difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep, which in turn makes it difficult to get up in the morning and easy for fatigue to set in during the afternoon. A lack of sleep is well known to decrease reaction time, hinder thinking, and increase moodiness and irritability. Pharmaceutical sleeping pills are helpful for some people during the healing process. They might have been helpful for me too, I just don't want to take "their pills". At least not if I can avoid it.
There are a few great, more natural options, but it is helpful to work with a licensed professional to help you find the right one for you. There are countless natural remedies to improve sleep. The most effective way to use natural options is to chose them holistically. Meaning based on all of you. The best recommendation will be decided for you, not for sleep. After all, it isn't sleep that needs the care and support, it is you that needs the care and support.
Throughout the healing process, I relied most heavily on homeopathy and shared this in an article on Using Homeopathy to Improve Sleep. I also took an epsom salt bath every night for the first month after Bub died. Epsom salt is magnesium which is known to relax the body. Plus, I supplemented with Gaia's Nightly Restore. This blend contains adaptogens, a class of herbs that help the body to adapt to stressors better. And let's face it, healing the grief of losing a loved one is stressful.
Secret #5 for creating more healing in your life as you recover from grief is resting well. Even if you have to support the process with homeopathy, herbs, or pharmaceutical drugs, get some rest. It will help you make better decisions about creating more healing in your life and preserving relationships with your loved ones.
Secret 6: Healthy Socializing
This is the final key in healing from grief. Even though healing from grief is an inside job, it isn't one that can be done alone. My loved ones were amazing in their ability to show up for me as I was grieving my brother, but the weight of his death was so heavy. Plus, the people I love most in this world are good people who don't want to see me hurting. The more we talked about my pain, the more I seemed to hurt. More accurately, the more angry I seemed to get. Constantly expressing this pain with friends wasn't fair to them and it wasn't fair to our relationship.
Finally one day, my father basically commanded me to go to Al-anon. He doesn't often tell me what to do, but I sure was grateful this time. In those rooms, I found other people that had experienced pain similar to mine. I also found laughter. Research has shown that laughter can be very helpful in healing from grief, I just hadn't been able to allow myself to laugh. The comfort in a room of other people working to heal themselves provided me 2-3 minutes of time to share and release some of my pain. And then laugh at how ridiculously awkward I have been over the years in trying to make my way through life.
The quick dose of oxytocin that was released into my body during these "meetings" quickly became a better way to ease the pain than alcohol or drugs could ever be. The slogans and wisdom shared in those rooms empowered me to heal deeper as I practice living life on life's terms... to find peace in the things that I cannot change and the courage to change the things that I can.
Secret #6 for creating more healing in your life as you recover from grief is healthy socializing. Because healing a wound as deep as losing a loved one is an inside job, but it isn't one that can be done in solitude.
The Best Way to Honor Their Memory is to Heal
There is nothing that I have ever experienced in my life as painful as suddenly losing my favorite person in the world, then my pet of 20 years only a couple of months later. Finding a way to keep going through this pain has been difficult, almost impossible some days. But the 6 Health Secrets provides the outline of how to create a life that creates the space to heal this pain. And to create a life more worth living along the way.
I can never change the fact that my most favorite person in the world died, but I sure can honor him by living my life to its fullest. Because, I can see now how proud he was to have me as a sister. And how disappointed he would be in me for not healing after his death.
I wanted to acknowledge that life goes on but that death goes on, too. A person who is dead has a long, long story.
- Elizabeth McCracken
In loving memory of my Bubba, Ian Jensen (8/26/82-2/11/17).
My most favorite person in the world.
Oh, Bubs, you have taught me life's most difficult lessons.