Grief is a natural response to loss which affects the body, mind, and spirit. Although a wide range of roller coaster reactions are considered ‘normal’, grievers often feel like they’re going crazy. Symptoms can include loss of appetite, insomnia, disorientation, inability to focus, extreme sadness, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts, lack of motivation, forgetfulness, anger, anxiety, and depression. While these ‘acute grief’ symptoms may be most pronounced in the first year or two, most grievers experience periodic upsurges of painful feelings throughout the years.
Why? Does it mean that something is wrong? Or that the grief got stuck? Not necessarily. When you love someone deeply and have a dear relationship with them, they are always with you. Just as you continue to experience their love, you will occasionally feel the full impact of their loss as well. You learn to live with the love and the loss over time.
The following exercises build on the ideas described in my book “Transcending Loss: Understanding the Lifelong Impact of Grief and How to Make it Meaningful.”
Exercise Supplement to Part 1
These exercises are for use especially during the first year or two, during the following stages of grief:
Shock – when you come to accept the reality that your loved one is dead
Disorganization – when you face, experience, and express all the grief-related feelings
Reconstruction – when you adjust to a world without your loved one’s physical presence
1. Letter writing exercise – This exercise is designed to connect you to your loved one and to help you process feelings about your loss.
Part A: Write a letter to your deceased loved one. Tell them how you’re doing, how you feel, describe your life without them.
Part B: Write a letter from them back to you. Allow your mind to quiet and your spirit to settle as you imagine what they would write back to you. Put your pen on the paper (or your fingers on the keyboard) and let them ‘write you back’. See if they have any comforting words for you.
2. List exercise – This exercise is designed to help you remember ALL the qualities of your loved one that made them unique. It’s not useful to idealize your loved one or put them on an unrealistic pedestal. Embrace all that they were . . . forgive them for all that they were . . . love them for all that they were.
Part A: Make a list of 20 things about your loved one that you miss.
Part B: Make a list of 20 things about your loved one that you don’t miss.
3. Photographs Exercise– This exercise keeps you from avoiding your memories and your painful feelings. Some people busy themselves with many distractions in order to not feel, but the truth is that there is no way out of grief except directly through the feelings. Don’t put off facing this death. Sweeping your feelings under the carpet does NOT make them go away.
Make a collage of favorite photographs through the years of your loved one’s life. You can purchase a multi-opening frame to display 10 or more photos or simply create a collage on poster board of your top picks. Don’t be afraid to reminisce, cry, and connect while you sift through photographs and remember the past.
4. Journal Exercise– Journaling is an excellent way to express your feelings and process your grief.
Keep a grief journal in which you write every day or as often as possible about your journey. Use these prompts to help guide your process.
Today, my grief feels like . . .
Today, I’m surprised that I feel . . .
Today, I’m really missing . . .
Today, I wish that . . .
Exercise Supplement to Part 2, “The Lifelong Impact of Grief” and Part 3, “The SOAR Solution for Making Loss Meaningful”
These exercises are for use over time as you continue to heal, during the following stages of grief:
Synthesis – when you establish an ongoing relationship with your loss and with your loved one, recognizing that you are forever changed by this experience.
Transcendence – the intentional choice to make your loss meaningful: SOAR (in the categories of Spirituality, Outreach, Attitude, and Reinvestment)
1. Legacy Exercise
Brainstorm a list of some of the ways that your loved one touched you, influenced you, gave to you, loved you. Remember that every day of your life you carry that influence with you. You are the YOU of today because of that love. How can you now share it with others? Find a way to give thanks in their memory and to share the love.
2. Retriggering Exercise
Keep a diary of dates throughout a given year that have proven to retrigger painful grief feelings. Perhaps it’s on his birthday, your anniversary, Thanksgiving, the death day, the first day of school, the first frost, etc. Note which days are hard and/or what sounds, smells, music, movies tend to recreate your acute grief. Begin to anticipate those days or situations. Plan ways to honor these times and provide extra TLC for yourself.
3. Spirituality Exercise
Draw a time line (a horizontal line with dates on it) from your birth to your present. Chart your spiritual journey through life by noting the spiritual events, turning points, highs and lows of your relationship with a higher power. Have there been particular places, events, experiences when you felt closer to Spirit? Further from Spirit? What is your faith like now? Do you take time each day to open yourself to Spirit?
4. Outreach Exercise
Write a letter to someone you know who had a similar loss to your own. If you don’t personally know someone, ask around. Search grief websites and respond to someone with an open heart. Use your own pain to increase your capacity for compassion.
5. Attitude Exercise
In order to cultivate an attitude of gratitude, do the alphabet exercise from A to Z. List A to Z on a piece of paper and use each letter as a prompt for something that you are grateful for in your life and/or of all the fun experiences/people/places that you have enjoyed over the years.
A – apples – I love macintosh apples in the fall
B – baseball—I love the Red Sox, remember when dad and I had tickets?
C – cats – I adore my 3 cats, especially when they curl up in my lap.
D – dinner out – I remember special romantic dates at our favorite restaruant.
E – Ecuador – the best family vacation we ever had!
F – furniture – sleeping on grandma’s 4 poster bed when I was little.
….And so on, for every letter in the alphabet.
Exercise Supplement for Part 4, “Roadblocks and Detours to Transcendance”
Rituals are simple yet profound ways to honor a life passage. Having an intentional act or ceremony can lend import to a life experience and can also create momentum for new energy.
Create a ritual for yourself to symbolize your decision to reinvest in living. Consider playing some music, lighting a candle, burning some incense, creating a symbol that is meaningful to you that represents your return to life. Perhaps you take a black and white picture and paint it with color. Perhaps you decide to throw a ‘coming out’ (out of the grief closet) party with some intimate friends. Perhaps you decide to release a balloon in the sky or walk a labyrinth. Perhaps you have a ritual around a tree or garden planting. Keep an object on your desk to symbolize the ritual and remind you of your ongoing reinvestment in being alive.