Self-Care While Grieving

November 13, 2017

Ten days ago, my grandfather, PaPa, passed away. He lived 84 full and loving years. In October, I had the opportunity to spend time with him and have a conversation about my life in Atlanta. Little did I know, that would be my last conversation with him. During that trip to NC, I was fortunate enough to spend time with all four of my grandparents. The passing of my grandfather was the first time, in my adulthood, that someone close to me passed away. I have only attended two other funerals in my life. I have grieved friendships and romantic relationships ending, but this type of grief was new to me.


When I heard the news of his passing, I was on a plane that just landed in Denver. A few days prior, my mother told me of my grandfather’s worsening condition and I asked if I should take my trip to Denver as planned or go to NC. She encouraged me to go to Denver and enjoy myself as that is what PaPa would have wanted. Walking through the airport to baggage claim was surreal. I was physically there but emotionally and mentally I was somewhere else. I felt numb, disconnected, and did not know what to do, think, or even how to respond. Throughout the weekend, I remained in close contact with my family regarding the details of my grandfather’s services. I had the support of my friends and husband in Denver, yet I still was not fully present.  I kept thinking “what does it look like for me to grieve” and “I have never done this before.”


Returning to Atlanta the following Monday, I unpacked, just to pack again for NC. As I drove to NC, it still hadn’t hit me that he was gone. The funeral service was beautiful and full of stories of my grandfather from family members. The time I spent with my family was priceless. I was in NC from Tuesday to Saturday and on my drive back to Atlanta, I had time to reflect and sit with my emotions. I cried for at least two hours. For the first time since hearing the news on the 3rd I felt present grounded in my body. It felt freeing to release so many emotions via crying and I also felt tremendous heart break.



My heart broke for my grandmother, she was married to my grandfather and by his side for almost 60 years. To witness to their love over the years was a treat and something that I am grateful for. As a newlywed, I cannot imagine the pain of no longer having my spouse by my side. My heart broke for my mother. She deeply loved, cared for, and honored her father, in a way that I cannot understand, as my relationship with my father is quite different. He was her biggest support and was always there for her when she needed him, which is a theme for how he showed up in the lives of all that he touched. My heart also broke for my sister. She and PaPa were truly best friends. She spoke with him on the phone every Sunday and they chatted about everything from football games to health insurance policies. She would often drive to GSO from Charlotte and chat with him in the family room for hours. My heart also breaks for me. PaPa was a man of few words, and he loved his family and his friends. I could always feel his support, it was like a platform or stage for me to stand on. I felt this wherever I was. Whether I was in Atlanta, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Greensboro, I knew he was there, waiting to hear about my life whenever I visited him. I often asked myself “what would PaPa do?” before making any major choice. I know he is still there watching and supporting me and I will hold him in my heart and mind forever.


As I mentioned before, this type of grief is new to me. In one word, I would describe it as “hard”. I felt a physical discomfort when I returned to Atlanta a couple of days ago. Grief, to me, feels like when you are getting over a cold. Right at the end of it when you feel healthy and happy for a few hours and start doing your normal activities, then some of the cold symptoms sneak back in and you are reminded to take it slow and to rest. For example, I felt great all Sunday morning so I decided to go to the grocery store. When I got into my car, it was almost as if grief was in the passenger seat, waiting for me. I became overcome with emotion all over again and cried all the way to the store.


It is in those moments when I am reminded of the importance of self-care. Self-care is always important but even more so while you are grieving. Here are some tips to help you make sure you are taking care of yourself during this difficult time:


Nourish Yourself:

It is easy to forget about your basic needs when you are experiencing grief and profound sadness. Make sure you are taking the time to shower, sleep, eat, drink water, and breathe. Physical contact is especially important during this time. Hugging, hand holding, and cuddling have all been proven to increase dopamine, a pleasure neurotransmitter in the brain. Spend time doing your favorite things.  I continue to remind myself to drink water and stay hydrated as I am processing through my grief. Not taking care of yourself physically can make the experience of grief even more difficult than it already is. Spending time outdoors and nature in the fresh air and sunshine can provide just the energy boost you need.


Express Yourself:

It is important that you share how you are feeling and express yourself. This can be done by journaling, talking about it, screaming, and even crying. Keeping your feelings bottled up can make you sick and add more discomfort to an already uncomfortable situation. Also, remember that it is more than okay to feel angry or even confused during this time. Express those emotions as well.  It can be easy to feel guilty for the grief you are experiencing, especially if you compare yourself to those around you. Everyone experiences grief differently. The way your relatives grieve may not look anything like the way you grieve. You may reach a point when you don’t know what to do. It is okay to do nothing. This is also a great time to read books about grief or maybe even find a support group or therapist if needed. Creating a memory book, photo album, or a ritual to remember and honor the loved one that you lost is also a great way to process your grief while cherishing special moments. You can look back at what you created whenever you are feeling down.


Another way to express your emotions is through physical activity. Our emotions are directly linked to our bodies and can create physical discomfort if not addressed. Getting a massage, stretching, yoga, and running are all excellent ways to shift your energy and process sadness and loss. Punching a pillow or a punching bag can help you release any anger or frustration you may be feeling.


Be Patient With Yourself:

There is no set amount of time for grief. You might feel that you have processed through it then be triggered by a sound, smell, or memory and feel the feelings all over again. That is okay. Allow yourself to feel however you feel. As I mentioned before, if feelings of anger, guilt, fear, or worry arise, it is okay to feel those. You might go months or even years without experiencing grief then suddenly feel right back where you started. That is okay, honor your process. One of the worst things you can do is ignore or deny your feelings. Acknowledg how you feel and do not make excuses for your emotions.


One of the things I find most interesting with grief is that as you are grieving, the world around you is still going on as usual. It can be challenging to experience some of the most difficult emotions you have ever had while the people and things around you seem to be operating in “business as usual” mode.  When it is time to get back into your routine, pace yourself, take breaks, communicate when you need help, and allow the space for your routine to change. You may no longer have the same routine or schedule as you did before your loved one passed away. Your life might be completely different now. Allow yourself the time to adjust to the changes and the challenges that those changes might bring up. It might take a while, or longer than you expected for things to get back to normal. And some things may never be normal again, that is okay.


These tips have been helpful for me in processing my grief. I hope they will be helpful for you too.


Love, peace, light,

Erica James-Strayhorn, LMFT











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