Updated: Dec 26, 2018
I’ve learned that, as a grieving person, you need to take small steps rather than giant leaps. You can’t simply make huge struts in life and try to take on too much, because in the end, the responsibilities will crush you.
After my husband died, I wanted to busy myself and make sure I was always moving. I joined the parent board at my child’s elementary school because I thought that would eat away at my free time. When that wasn’t enough, I decided to volunteer my time at local animal shelters (which, I do admit, probably helped me in the end. Animals are proven to be stress relievers), and I began picking up extra hours at work, too. When I wasn’t working or volunteering my time, I was taking care of my children. Cooking, cleaning and driving them to soccer practice…all of that became a lot to handle.
In the initial stages of grief, I really thought that being constantly occupied would help me. It distracted me from remembering my husbands death, and kept me away from my own self-destructive thoughts. A common thread that I hear from a lot of widows and widowers is that many of them hate being alone in the silence, because they can’t help but think about their loss & loneliness. This was especially true for me.
Eventually, those thoughts found ways to seep into my brain. Every night, during the first 10 minutes after getting into bed (before I completely passed out from exhaustion) my own thoughts would haunt me at full force. Since I didn’t let myself process the grief, and I didn’t let myself cry or think about the memories with my husband, they all began to build up, and ALL of the grief would escape during those 10 minutes before I fell asleep.
Soon those 10 minutes turned into 30, which turned into 50…and even with the exhaustion, my anxieties wouldn’t allow me to sleep. So, now I’m exhausted from work, exhausted from not sleeping, and becoming ever-so-slightly more depressed each day.
As the days went on, I was increasingly not meeting expectations. I started sleeping through my alarm clocks, and getting my kids to school late. I quit volunteering at the animal shelter, even though it was likely the only extra responsibility that was actually helping me. Next I was kicked off of the school board for missing too many meetings, but I was told that they were “releasing me from my duties because I needed to focus on grieving the loss of my late-husband”. Next, I re-hired our old nanny to help drive the kids to their sports and playdates, so that I could stay home and sleep.
I quickly burned myself out and it got to the point where all I could do was focus on my normal day-job and nothing else. I couldn’t bear the thought of helping my own children with homework. What kind of awful mother prioritizes her work over her kids? Obviously I needed to pay the bills to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads, and while I loved them… I was just so darn tired all the time.
Even though I kept abandoning my responsibilities and creating more time, I was just getting more tired. I was exhausted because I was depressed, but I was also exhausted from holding everything in. I made two giant mistakes— taking on too many responsibilities & disregarding my thoughts. I learned that what I should have done was take things slow. I retracted my giant leaps, and decided to make my first small step: seeing a therapist for my emotional grief.
I hadn’t cried very much following the loss, and within one month after beginning to see my therapist, I cried more than I had in the past year and I felt better. I didn’t feel 100%, maybe only 70%…but that was much better than I felt in the past many months.
My therapist agreed that I had overloaded myself, and offered sound advice: continue to make small steps over time. These small steps could be anything: Sending one thank-you letter, making one new friend, reading one chapter of a book. If you’re lonely and want to find things to fill up your time, make smaller commitments. Don’t join a volunteer job if they require 10 hours per week, and you’re not 100% confident that you’ll be able to fulfill those expectations & maintain mental health simultaneously.
My first small steps went like this: if I had 15 minutes after work, I decided to take that time to enrich my life somehow. I’d go on a walk around my neighborhood, call up an old girl friend, talk with the neighbors, or whatever else it might be. After a few weeks, I felt calmer with these small “fillers” as I like to call them.
This is even more applicable to someone who is recently widowed. If you feel like you can’t bear to take care of everything in one day, then don’t. Take your time. On Monday, you can call your car insurance and let them know of your husbands death, on Wednesday you can visit the bank, on Friday you can call your family member. Take things at your own pace, otherwise you’ll burn yourself out.
Also, for your first small step, please take care of your wellbeing and mental health. Depression is taboo to talk about in our society, but it’s important to know that there are people who can help you. Think about how you’re feeling now… it isn’t going to last forever. Think about past tragedies, and how you’ve healed and overcome the pain. The first step is to not keep it all inside. Let it out, and seek professional help so that you can process your feelings.
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