Six Ideas for Moving Through Grief

A friend of mine who’s been going through a rough time recently asked me for advice about moving through grief. But soon after he asked the question, my baby started getting upset, and I got off the phone to help her. But I haven’t forgotten the question, so here are six strategies I would suggest for moving through grief as quickly as possible.

1. Feel the Grief as Intensely as Possible

The first and best idea I have (also exactly what my husband suggested when I asked him what he would suggest), is to feel the grief as intensely as possible by leaning into and welcoming the emotion. Let it flood over you, without trying to resist it, and it will pass much more quickly. I have found that once I really let my emotions in, they rarely last longer than minutes. Mourning something important will take longer, I think largely because there are many updates to process and emotions to release.

Especially when mourning something important, it’ll be on your mind anyway, but if you’re trying to push it away, you won’t really be processing it. Plus, allowing your emotions in instead of releasing them actually feels better. So it’s not just that if you do it this way you’ll suffer less overall, you’ll actually suffer less pretty much immediately.

2. Process Your Guilt First

Guilt will keep you stick feeling terrible unless you address it. When you notice a huge amount of pain that you’re having trouble moving through, ask yourself, “What makes me think I deserve to feel this way?” 

Listen to your automatic response, and keep in mind that it doesn’t have to make sense. Maybe some part of your brain thinks you deserve to keep being upset about breaking up with your girlfriend because you cheated on a test in fourth grade, or something similarly nonsensical. 

Once you become aware of any guilt you’re holding onto, it will usually be easy to let it go.

3. Uncover Any Anger

I don’t like thinking of myself as an angry person, and, because I didn’t like thinking of myself as an angry person, I used to be pretty bad at noticing and admitting to myself when I was feeling angry. I’m not the only one with this pattern. 

If you ever find yourself saying, “I’m not angry because X”, where X is a logical reason that it wouldn’t help the situation to be angry, or something like that, be alert for the possibility that you actually do feel some anger. It’s not just possible, it’s extremely likely that you’d have conflicting emotions, and emotions that you had good reason to believe weren’t helpful.

If you want to figure out what you might be angry about, ask yourself, “If there were one thing I were maybe a little bit annoyed about, it would be…” If you find yourself complaining about some aspect of the situation to other people, that also might be something you’re angry about.

And if you do uncover any anger, accept it and move on. It can help to admit it to yourself, so try saying out loud, “I’m angry because…” Being angry is normal, and it will usually pass quickly once acknowledged.

4. Follow the Sensation in Your Body

It’s very easy for me, for hyper-analytical types specifically, and for humans more generally, to get stuck in our thoughts to the point where it interferes without our ability to process our emotions. A good way to shift our attention is to find where we’re feeling the emotion in our body, and work with that sensation instead.

Questions to ask  yourself are:

  • “Where do I feel this in my body?”
  • “How big is it?”
  • “How big does it want to be?”
  • “Is it moving at all?”
  • “How does it want to move?”

5. What Are You Afraid Would Happen If…

The suggestions here may not work. My standard go-to if they don’t is to ask myself what I’m afraid would happen if I did them. So, if I’m trying to feel the emotion intensely and it’s not happening, I’d ask, “What am I afraid would happen if I allowed myself to feel my grief intensely?”

Or, if I can’t find my emotion in my body, I would try, “What am I afraid would happen if I felt my emotion in my body?”

I learned to ask questions of this form from studying Internal Family Systems, and I’ve found the practice to be very valuable.

6. Go at Your Own Pace

Processing emotions requires mental effort and sleep to recover, and I suspect that there are probably physical limits that we frequently run up against. And even if you don’t get to that point, most people have other commitments to attend to. 

So, while I advocate feeling your emotions as intensely as possible, there are limits. I know sometimes I’ll decide to dissociate, distract myself, and skip being in tune with my emotions from time to time. Trying to go too quickly will backfire.

Why we procrastinate the most when we’re working on the right thing

I’ve had trouble focusing today. A lot of the right things were in place: I had a short list of the most important things to do today, my schedule was almost completely clear, I was in my favorite work space with a good friend there to co-work, and I’d gotten lots of sleep.

Usually, these elements are a reliable formula for a productive day–so what happened???

As I noticed myself starting to beat myself up for not having accomplished more today and lamenting the wasted opportunity, I realized: I think I do know what happened.

Today, I was having trouble focusing because I was working on exactly the right thing, and for most of us, certainly including me–it’s when I can actually see the connection between what I’m working on and a picture in my head of getting something I care about, I balk a little.

It threatens my self-concept–not sure exactly how–but, to paraphrase some advice I’ve heard recently, who I am right now can handle exactly amount of success that I have in my life.

So, when I get working on something that goes beyond that, my self-concept is threatened and I get a chorus of voices saying:

“But this isn’t exactly the right thing!”

“This doesn’t feel right.”

“I don’t know what to do next”

And then there’s this kind of mental blankness, and the next thing I know, I’m clicking on the Facebook button in my bookmark bar.

(Okay, that exact problem will never happen again. Because just after I wrote that previous sentence I removed the Facebook button from my bookmark bar.)

I didn’t usually stay distracted for long, since I’ve gotten pretty good at pulling myself back, but even so, the total amount of time spent staring at what I was doing instead of making forward progress was a lot higher than I’d like.

Anyway, increased awareness about what was going on today–that I was butting up against some sort of identity issue–not only resulted in clarity and self-compassion, it also prevented me from making a strategic error.

When I was reviewing what I’d gotten done today, and wishing that I had knocked more things off my to do list, I could feel myself reaching towards a potential solution. I was imagining, probably accurately, that if I had started the day by taking care of a bunch of other things on my to do list that I don’t have blocks around, I would have had more to show for myself. But it also would have been a mistake.

There’s a time and a place for accomplishing more routine tasks, and I do like being on top of them, but I want to be the sort of person who tackles something important that feels uncomfortable…something high value that I’ve been avoiding because it seems hard, and I’m afraid I might not be able to do it.

Even when it means a day where I’m not as focused.

Thank you, Resistance, for letting me know when I’m working on something that I care about, and that I think has the potential to make a difference in my life.