Self-Care and Coping Strategies in Grief

By: Sarah Reid Hedberg
Monday, March 4, 2019

Self Care and Coping Strategies

The James Reid Funeral Home

Bereavement Support Program

March 4, 2019

Discussion Leader: Sarah Reid Hedberg


“What have you done for me lately?” Janet Jackson sung that song to a boyfriend who was taking her for granted.

When we’re left grieving the death of someone we loved, we can feel that a part of us has died too. We forget about ourselves. We take ourselves for granted.

What have you done for yourself lately?

Grieving is a descent into death back to life. You may have some thoughts like these: nothing matters now. I just can’t feel much joy. I want him back, period.

Mourning is believing that you are the holder of the love you shared. No one else knew them as you did, and do. You hold their memory, as well as the impact of their life. In a real sense, they live in the space you take up. So, to honour them is to honour you.

Caring for ourselves, learning strategies to cope in our grief, is a way to honour the person who died. As we choose life out of the troubles of death, to hold onto the good and the real.

We’ll consider some of the common experiences of grief.

We will then be looking at ways of caring for ourselves, and at coping strategies to help us through.


Common Grief Experiences


No two people have the same time of it. Yet, there are common experiences that bind most bereaved people together. These are sensations, thoughts, behaviours, and feelings that you may be experiencing and wondering if they are “normal”. Our hope tonight is that you will hear something from us or from each other which will help your own experience of grief.


Physical Sensations

Stomach: hollowness, ‘butterflies,’ hunger or lack of, nausea, diarrhea
Lack of energy, overall weakness
Increased sensitivity to noise
Change in sleeping habits and appetite



Disbelief; Sense of depersonalization: nothing seems real
Confusion, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating
Anger: “It’s not fair,” “Why did this happen?”
Regrets: “If only. . .,” “I wish. . . .”



Absent-minded behavior
Social withdrawal, less interest in personal hygiene
Marked increase or decrease in activity; restlessness; searching behavior
Change in work performance
Increased alcohol, drug or nicotine intake



Shock, numbness
Sadness, depression, anxiety
Anger, frustration, irritation, misdirected hostility
Victimized, helpless, out of control, futility
Not being valued
 ‘Skin hunger,’ i.e. touch deprivation
Relief, peace, resolution


The Wave Theory of Grief

Grief comes in waves, coming and going, rising and falling. It feels like fear. It brings on tremendous anxiety. You don’t know how you’ll go on. Then it’s over. That heightened state doesn’t last forever.

Over time, the waves do get shorter, and become less frequent. Sometimes a big one hits unexpectedly. You come to know for yourself that you will get through the wave.


Self Care


Caring for your Feelings

Soothe yourself, and this will lower your cortisol (stress) level: brush your hair or rub your scalp; call an old friend and tell an old happy story; do a strenuous chore; stretch to music; go to the water; walk outside, perhaps with our walking group; watch birds, pet animals.
If you feel you are unable to have a break from your grief feelings, or if you want to practice intentional grieving, you may want to try “dosing.” Set a timer (5, 10, 15 mins).

If you are overwhelmed by your loss, use this time to take a break from it. Give yourself permission to focus on something else: maybe that leaky faucet or dirty drawer you have been ignoring! When the timer goes off, say,”_______(the name of the person), I’m back!” Remind yourself that taking breaks helps you grieve them well.

If you want to focus on your grief alone, allow yourself to focus on the person and mourn them for this time. When the timer goes off, pat your chest to affirm your heart and breathe deeply. Remind yourself that hearts do heal, but slowly. Go to the next thing, perhaps a small task, refocusing gently.


Caring for your Physical Needs

Adjusting to different physical sensations: learn what is likely grief and what isn’t. Chart your symptoms.
Receiving Care from professionals: See your doctor regularly and get your blood tested. Take a multi-vitamin, plus Omega 3, Vitamin D, Magnesium and Potassium.
Eating: Good foods for mood are bananas, dates, broccoli, spinach, brown rice, salmon, raw vegetables, fruit.
Drinking: lots of water. Juices in the produce section are really good, also those with protein and smoothies.
Moving: walking, Aqua Fit, weights, getting outside. Get a fitness tracker with heart rate and sleep tracking.
Sleeping: sleep schedule, sleep cues, associate good memories.
Regular Massage: have a Registered Massage Therapist work out your stress and give you the good feeling of touch. Sarah at ‘Massage Addict’ & Robert at ‘Elements Spa’ are good and trustworthy.


Caring for your Social Needs

Where do you feel a sense of community and belonging? Go there, often. Say no and stop seeing people who are challenging.

Do you want to hibernate? Is going out very difficult? This makes sense in grief. Give yourself room to do that.  Social people may become introverted during acute grief.  
Are there ways you’d like to be connected with others that you’re not? Maybe you can! This can be a time of redefining yourself. When energy is sufficient, try the Senior’s Centre, the YMCA, a church, a class.


Caring for your Spirit

To be securely loved: go where the love is. You may want to make a collage of photos and magazine images that remind you of your loved one. Focus on shared interests, good memories.

To be significant: realize you still matter. Name 1-3 people who would miss you if you were gone. Plan an activity with them, buy something for them, or write them a letter, telling them what you like about them.

To have strong hope: reframe your future. Think of someone you know who lived into their 80s/90s. In what ways do you want to be like them? Or, what do you want to do to avoid being like them?


Coping Strategies


Holidays/Important Days

give yourself time to consider and plan
try to allow for flexibility in traditions and expectations
tell others what you think you might need
allow yourself to change your plans, leave early


Understand Each Loss Is Different

most of us have experienced loss throughout our lives
your life circumstances change, i.e. loss of a parent when you are working, versus loss of a spouse when retired
you may have unresolved grief from past losses. This loss may bring up past losses you didn’t have time or inclination to mourn.
In all cases, taking care of yourself is healthy and helpful for you and for others around you.


Sharing Your Grief With Others

It helps to talk without being interrupted. This is the time for one-sided conversations.
Talk about what it’s like to be without your loved one; what you did today; how you are eating, sleeping, your energy level; if you are crying or not, and how often and at what; your strongest feelings.
A friend or family member can be wonderful, as can a group, or a grief companion.

Compassionate listeners do more listening than speaking. They never make you feel as though you have been judged or misunderstood. You know that they know your pain, or at the very least, are trying hard to understand and be supportive. Blanket yourself with these kind of good people. They will help stabilize you. If you worry about being “too depressing” or “too bothersome” for your friends, a good technique is to expand your circle of supports. That way you are not burdening one or two people. I learned this approach when a young woman called me. She explained that her cancer had recurred and was spreading rapidly. The woman, a social worker and therapist herself, knew she needed to talk with others about her condition, but did not want to overload her husband and close friends. So she was reaching out and had identified several others she felt would be open to her and would listen compassionately. She asked if I would be willing to be part of that circle, and, of course, I was pleased to be included in her expanded company of supporters. Parachin, p. 17-18


Writing About Your Loss

A study tested the health benefits of writing about personal traumatic experiences. They had one group of university students write about superficial topics and one group write about such things as childhood sexual abuse and the death of a parent or sibling for 15 minutes for four days.

Not surprisingly, writing about trauma initially made people feel worse. However, at the six-month follow-up, Dr. Pennebaker found that the most dramatic drop in number of illness visits to the university health center was among those who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings surrounding the trauma. . . there were significantly higher levels of T-cells (known to help fight infections and virus) among those who wrote about their traumas. Parachin, p. 12-13

Taking care of yourself during bereavement is a difficult but important part of your life. It honours the memory of your loved one.  

Consider these possibilities, and try some to find a good fit.

Living with grief is a process, not a task. Take this process and make it your own, for you are worth it.



“Grief Experiences,” Canadian Mental Health, handout, adapted.


Parachin, Victor M. Healing Grief. St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2001.

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