As the host of End-of-Life University, an online interview series, I have had the privilege over the past two years of speaking with a number of experts on grief and loss. These individuals have all traveled their own journeys through the perilous territory of loss and trauma and now help others who are dealing with death and grief.
This is an important subject at this time of year since symptoms of grief tend to increase significantly during the holiday season. Past memories of happy times with loved ones who are no longer physically here can be a source of stress and pain for those on the path of grief, who may find it difficult to celebrate their usual holiday traditions.
However in my conversations with grief survivors I have found that all of them feel they have grown emotionally and spiritually because of the challenges they have experienced; and their current life’s work has been shaped and inspired by their grief, as well. While the grief process is unique to each person who experiences it, here are some of the tips these experts have shared with me:
1. Find connection with others.
After the death of her 2-year old daughter to a congenital disease, Blyth Lord found comfort in her relationship with her brother and sister-in-law who also lost a child to the same disorder. She stated that sharing her grief with others who understood her pain made it more bearable. Blyth went on to found the Courageous Parents Network to offer support to other parents coping with a child with life-limiting illness.
You might consider joining a bereavement support group, volunteering for a local charitable organization, attending church or service club events, seeking out a Death Cafe or Meet-Up that deals with grief in your community, or even starting your own Meet-Up.
2. Use grief to fuel creativity.
When fine-art photographer Sarah Treanor experienced the death of her fiancé, after also losing both of her parents earlier in life, she felt as though she had fallen into a deep black hole. But she decided to use her photography and writing skills to document her pain by creating a year-long project called “Still, Life.” By taking self-photographs and writing weekly blogs about her process of grief, she gradually found her way out of the hole. And the beautiful and profound work she created has become a source of inspiration for others on the same journey.
Utilize your own creativity by keeping a journal, drawing pictures, writing poetry or stories, creating collages, making a scrapbook, doing crafts, or taking an art or writing class at your local community college or senior center.
3. Create rituals.
In her workshop on Conscious Grieving, Rev. Terri Daniel utilizes rituals to help participants “move through” their grief and emotional stuckness. She herself has used several rituals since the death of her son, including baking his favorite cake on his birthday and scattering a few of his ashes in special places that have deep meaning for her. She says that even simple acts like lighting a candle or wearing clothing in a loved one’s favorite color can be healing rituals.
Start by setting aside some time once a week to focus on your grief. You might have a small table or shelf where you can collect special items that have meaning for you–candles, shells, rocks, photos, or other mementos. Use this time to acknowledge your love for the person who has died and to recognize that he or she is always with you in memory and spirit.
4. Tell stories.
Sarah Kerr, a death midwife who accompanies families as they care for their dying loved ones, emphasizes the importance of storytelling in mobilizing and healing grief. She helps families tell the stories of their loved ones as they create memorials and rituals to mark the passage of death.
Spend time with people who are also grieving and take turns telling favorite stories about the person who has died. Often these sessions end-up being filled with laughter and lightheartedness, which is a wonderful way to honor your loved one.
5. Take a “hands-on” approach.
Cassandra Yonder, a grief counselor and death midwife who lives on a homestead in rural Canada has found that being personally involved in after-death care and funeral preparations can be very helpful with grief. She described the death of a friend and how preparing the body, building the coffin, and digging the grave were all therapeutic for loved ones who participated in the natural burial process.
If there is a gravesite you can visit you might want to bring flowers or a wreath as a decoration or spend a little time clearing away leaves and debris or pulling weeds. In addition you can volunteer for some sort of physical work like wrapping gifts for homeless children, serving meals at a shelter, or visiting patients at a nursing home.
6. Let go of the past.
On her path of grief, writer, editor and musician, Heidi Connolly found that she had to let go of her attachment to memories of how her relationship with her husband had been before his death. When she was finally able to let go of longing for the past, she was able to move forward into what she describes as a “new relationship” with her husband in the afterlife.
You might want to create a ritual that symbolizes letting go such as releasing a helium-filled balloon, scattering flower petals on a body of moving water or releasing a basket of dried leaves to the wind.
7. Give to others.
When Cheryl Parker’s 8-year old daughter announced she wanted to be an organ donor shortly before her unexpected death, she provided her mother with the perfect path through her grief. Cheryl says the knowledge that Rachel’s organs provided life for other children was extremely important in her gradual acceptance of Rachel’s sudden death. Cheryl went on to become a spokesperson for organ donation and a grief counselor for others facing loss, as she had learned that generosity was the secret to her healing.
To focus on giving to others you might become a volunteer for a hospice, nursing home or hospital. Or join a cause that matters to you like organ donation, providing end-of-life care for the homeless, or starting a natural burial ground in your community.
8. View grief as an act of sacred service.
While caring for her husband through his terminal illness and in the months following his death, Carol Jones used her faith and spiritual beliefs to cope with her grief. She understood that the pain she was experiencing and the sacrifices she was making were part of a higher purpose for her life. She eventually wrote a book about the experience, incorporating wisdom that her husband Kenny shared with her both before and after his death.
Dedicate your grief to all others who are suffering with you by using meditation or prayer on a regular basis to contemplate the fact that we are all connected in our mortality and suffering.
The overall message from these wise journeyers is that grief does not have to be a crippling or destructive force in our lives. When we can embrace loss as a necessary fact of life we can begin to utilize the pain as a powerful tool for growth and healing for ourselves and others.
This holiday season may we acknowledge our own broken-heartedness and cherish the past while we also agree to move forward with the way things are now. Love and joy can truly flourish when we remain open, generous, creative, and connected to all others even while we are on our own path of grief.
To hear similar conversations about death, dying and grief be sure to sign up for the free online interview series, End-of-Life University. Click here to register.
Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician and the author of the award-winning book “What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying.” She is a frequent keynote speaker and radio show guest whose profound teachings have helped many find their way through the difficult times of life. Learn more about her work at www.karenwyattmd.com.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn’t make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let’s talk about living with loss. If you have a story you’d like to share, email us at .
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