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The case against helplessness in grieving: Handle your grief instead of it handling you

If you listen to conventional wisdom about grieving – don’t make any decisions in the first year, march through a series of painful stages before you can be trusted, grieve like everybody else or you’re doing it wrong, hurry it up – you’ll conclude that you are helpless until grief is done with you. Of all the myths about grieving, this is the most damaging, as it robs you of the chance to make something unique and powerful of your grieving.

That’s the single greatest myth about grieving – that we are helpless. Feeling helpless in the moment is one thing, a fleeting thing. Believing that you are helpless overall is just wrong. In fact, while your grief will be with you for some time, you can take action every day that will heal and strengthen you. It is up to you to handle your grief, not to let it handle you.

In every step of my therapy career, I’ve seen grieving people in action, sometimes the small (but not easy) victory of getting out of bed to face the day, sometimes medium-size ones like turning a platitude from a well-meaning friend into a teachable moment about what would help you the most. Sometimes a big step, like visiting a place you’ve always wished you could live, to see if that’s a realistic option.

This is not about following a sudden impulse to quit your job, sell everything, and take off on a sailboat next week. This is about exploring what will nourish you now that your life has changed in this unwanted way. It is also a reminder that you haven’t changed into a different person who is no longer able to be in charge of your life. This is an invitation to activate your powerful assets – your interests, your values, your desires – and put them to work in deciding how to spend your days. To grieve with intention.

But I have no energy, I can’t do anything but ride it out, you say? Grieving is exhausting; things that used to be routine are suddenly burdensome. Understood. But taking action as you can builds energy.

But my emotions are out of control, you say? Some grieving people live with strong emotion a lot of the time, others cycle between that and dullness, others feel flat all of the time, as if the power went out. Somewhere in the middle is a sweet spot where you can accept what you need to feel in that moment, but seek balance with action overall.

I can’t think straight half the time, you say? But then there’s the other half of the time when you can put your grieving in your own hands. Try it out – ask someone to take a walk with you because you aren’t getting out much on your own. Spend 15 minutes looking into what grief classes or support groups are available online or near you. (You don’t have to decide to go, just learn what’s out there – the decision about whether to go or not is a different one.) Go on YouTube for half an hour and browse the videos about grieving – some are good, some outstanding, some not so hot – but you’ll see different viewpoints and may find some ideas you like. Just use a timer and step away when it goes off – I don’t want to lose you down the online rabbit hole!

The most powerful thing to do is form a new habit: Every day, while brushing your teeth or taking your shower, remind yourself: I am not helpless. I have a whole day here to work with even if I don’t really want to. The actions I take today, even if small, will make me stronger.

This doesn’t insure a blissful day, but it affirms that you are in charge, of your grieving and your self.

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