Life Is Messy: & Coping with Grief/Trauma/Loss

Life is messy. Life is hard.

Over the past few months I feel like every conversation I have had has been about the messy parts of life that people are going through:

  • Divorce, loss of relationship, heat break
  • Loss of a dream, or a goal, or where you ‘thought you’d be in life”
  • Illness & disease
  • Death and grief and loss
  • Lack of clarity about the future
  • Job loss and job change
  • Injury
  • etc.

I myself recently experienced a massive heartbreak, and since then I feel like this blog has been writing itself inside of me, for me to share.

Emotional resilience and coping skills were not something that came naturally to me. I was really good at making my emotions “wrong”, numbing them out via booze, TV, shopping, exercise, being a workaholic, throwing myself into more projects, throwing myself at unhealthy relationships, overeating, caffeine, etc. I would make myself wrong for feeling sad or hurt, and compare myself to others who seemed to have ‘everything together’. I would worry that I was ‘too sad’, or there was something wrong with me for having such a strong reaction to an experience or situation. I’ve come to be able to realize that I am simply a human. I am simply a human, having a human experience. Since I started to become more ‘ok’ with my emotions, I have since had to learn how to deal with them. No more numbing, running, or hiding, it’s time to face them straight on. From this I have developed some strategies and coping skills for the times of extreme anguish in my life.

I want to provide you with a list of 13 things I have found to help me deal with heartbreak, grief, loss, and the tough times. I am in no way claiming to have all the answers, or to replace your psychologist, nor am I saying that these tools are right or wrong. What I do know is they have worked for me- and they might work for you too.

#1: Let it be OK! Honestly. This is one I struggled with so badly, and I think many of us do. Your sadness, your hurt, your anger, your fear, your deepest darkest hit the floor with your knees moments are all OK! There is nothing wrong with you. We often feel we aren’t ok because noone talks about those gut wrenchingly painful moments. It’s not often we vocalize the intensity of this pain with each other, and therefore it can be very isolating. I constantly had to remind myself that I wasn’t abnormal, that I was not ‘not coping properly’, and that I wasn’t ‘depressed’, I was freaking sad and hurt and I was justified in staying up all night crying. I gave up pretending I was ok, and instead told people the truth. I went to the darkest places of sadness, those places where you feel like you can’t breathe because you are crying so hard, or you never want to get out of bed, yet the whole time I knew “this is horrible now, and I know I will be ok in the future”. A friend who experienced a traumatic loss in her life told me that one of the things that got her through the acute time period after the loss was telling herself “In one year I won’t feel as shitty as I do today”. I found that a hopeful mantra for me to hang on to. I also realized that if I spent most of the day trying not to feel shitty, then I would end up feeling shitty for the entire day! If instead I went deep into how sad I was, I realized that surrendering to it meant I most likely was able to see the other side by the end of the day.

*Caveat: Don’t try to make yourself feel better right away. When you go through something traumatic, it’s important not to start trying to make things better immediately. If you need to cry 24/7 for a few weeks and eat ice cream sandwiches for 3 meals a day, then go for it. I did, and it helped 🙂

#2: Write shit down. Write down every single thing running through your mind. Get it out of your head and onto paper, or speak to a therapist or a friend about it. The simple process of writing out what’s going on with you is such a cleansing way to just get it out of your system. I find that each day when I write, whatever I am sad or stressing about that day seems to clear itself up after I finish writing. It doesn’t make it go away, but it does diminish that ‘monkey mind’ of thoughts that is causing so much suffering. I also found writing letters specifically to people to be very healing. That might be your ex husband, or your dying father, or the disease growing inside of you! After writing a big long letter and getting all of my thoughts out I found a much greater sense of peace and calm around the whole situation.

#3: SUPPORT! Feelings like anger, shame, guilt, fear, sadness, are afraid of connection (To quote Brene Brown J). When we vocalize and tell a trusting friend, or therapist what is truly going on in our mind it’s almost like a sense of relief is lifted off our shoulders. That emotion no longer has the tight grip on your heart strings. Talk, talk, and talk some more. Choose the people who you know you can trust to empathize, not judge, and who will be there to listen to you anytime. Tell them what you need from them (“I just need you to listen”, “I don’t need you to try and fix my situation”). Also, make sure you talk to a therapist, especially if you are worried about yourself, or don’t think you are doing ok. A psychologist has been one of my greatest tools that I’ve used over the past 3 years.

#4: Read 🙂 One of the most healing strategies I have used is to read books on these topics. Not necessarily books on the exact situation you are experiencing, but I have found books on topics that focus on love, and kindness, and connection, and not judging yourself to be very helpful. I can’t articulate why reading is so helpful for me, but I do know it’s just another way of moving through a challenging time. I have found reading to bring me a tremendous amount of peace in my time of heart break. Some of my ‘go to’ books over the years have been:

  • all 4 books by Brene Brown- but I would suggest starting with “the gifts of imperfection”
  • If you have a spiritual or religious side at all- I found Marianne Williamsons “A return to love” to be a life changing book for me to read.
  • A friend has recommended Tosha Silver’s book to me, and the excerpts she has provided me so far have been very helpful.
  • The audio version of books: podcasts ! These have also been helpful. I recommend Tara Brach’s podcast. She has various talks, as well as guided meditations, which have always been a tremendous help for me. A good list of audiobooks and podcasts that you can plug into temporarily to get out of your own grief can be very helpful- especially when there are things we ‘need’ to get done (homework, work, chores etc.).
  • I’d love to hear if you have any book recommendations.

#5: Faith and Trust. Faith can mean so many things for so many people. Whether it’s a religious term for you, a spiritual term, or just more of a “trusting the universe” kind of idea, it can really bring a person through a rough time. On my darkest days sometimes the only thing I had to cling to was the trust that “this is all for a reason, and in the end it will all work out ok”. Often times we struggle with the concept of trying to control situations, and are very uneasy around the feeling of the unknown. By finding some ‘bigger concept’ to trust outside of yourself it can bring a tremendous amount of hope into a situation.

#6: Music. Create playlists! I’ve got my 90’s hip hop playlist for going on jogs, my linkin park playlist for when I’m super pissed and I’ve got to lift some heavy weights to get through it, I’ve got my hilltop hoods playlist for when I feel like I can’t get through the day, I’ve got my Charlotte Cardin playlist when I want to stop worrying so much. I’ve got my evanescence playlist when I want to feel hurt and sad and shitty. I’ve even busted into the country genre on occasion!!! Music is an artists expression of their creativity and emotion. When we listen, or watch them perform we can relate to their pain. Music can have an instant shift in our mood. The lyrics can bring us through tough times.  As a bonus- I started playing the piano again, and if you are into learning an instrument I would highly recommend it as an emotional release, and an opportunity to focus your mind on something mindless and meditative.

#7: Using the Internet productively.   Nowadays there is a forum or blog for everything.   In the early days of my heart break I really turned to blogs and forums on the topic. It allowed me to see that I wasn’t alone, and it also gave me some perspective in that there were many more people in the world that were having a way shittier time than me! I know we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others, but I was able to have compassion for others experiences, which allowed me to have compassion for myself. I also used Instagram daily. I follow accounts that uplift my spirits, and post daily quotes that motivate me. I save those quotes as graphics on my phone. When I am really feeling overwhelmed I flip through all the saved graphics on my phone. This allows me to regain my perspective and reestablish some peace. Also- you might want to be careful with social media, especially if it’s a trigger for you. It’s important to recognize whether facebook is helpful for you- or whether it’s just a trigger, and a way for you to tell yourself negative stories. I’ve found that without facebook (for now) I am able to focus on my own experience, rather than getting caught up in the lives of everyone else!

#8: Ask yourself what you NEED. Do you need to cut back on your work hours? Have more time to yourself? Spend a bit of money on yourself rather than saving it for a few months? Go on a trip? It’s important to recognize what parts of your life are causing anxiety and overwhelm, and what you need to cut back on. I had to remind myself that these things didn’t have to be permanent. If I cut back on my hours temporarily for a few months to support healing my soul up a little bit, I can always get back on track down the line. Give yourself what you need, not to solve the problems or take the pain away, but to keep yourself grounded and focused on maintaining peace and perspective.

#9: Use this time to reevaluate what is important in your life. Depending on what type of grief/loss you are experiencing this might look differently for you. I have found this to be a great time to really look curiously at my life. Am I spending my time doing what I want to do, with the people I want to do it with? Am I working towards the things I want in my life? Am I living in line with my morals and values? Am I doing things that light me up and bring me joy regularly?

#10: Understand the role that you have played in your situation. If it’s a loss of some sort of relationship that you are experience, take responsibility for why it didn’t work, but don’t beat yourself up. It wasn’t just you! And it’s not because you are a bad person that it didn’t work out. This is a great time to evaluate how you would do things differently in the future, and at the same time recognize what you deserve and how you want to be treated.

#11: Try a gratitude journal. The purpose of this is not to erase your pain, but each day give yourself a moment to realize that not everything in life is awful. I use the 5 minute journal- which is a structured gratitude journal you can buy, but you could also just do your own thing. Write down 5 things throughout the day that you are grateful for. Sometimes that might just look like “The tea I had at starbucks”, or “the friend who texted to check in on me”.   Doing this every day will help you to gain perspective and not fall all the way down into that dark spiral of negative thoughts.

#12: Exercise, especially walking and other rhythmical movements. I think I’ve walked over 15 000 steps every day over the past 6 weeks. There is something about the movement of walking that is so physically and mentally clearing. It’s when we process our thoughts, enjoy nature, and gain a clearer perspective. I have been so fortunate to have adopted a dog in September. 3 times a day the pup needs to go out and off I go. Even on days where I’ve got my hat pulled down to cover up my teary eyes, we head out on a walk. Some days I even cried for the whole hour we were walking! And that was ok. I’ve also found dancing, jogging, a heavy intense weight lifting sessions to help.

#13: Focus on someone or something outside of yourself. Having to care and love a dog has been tremendously helpful for me. It made it so this process wasn’t all about me! There was another being that needed my love and attention and support. Also, by really listening to other people and trying to be there for them, it has helped to ease my pain a bit. If you don’t have a dog, or your friends aren’t going through much right now you could try volunteering somewhere, or offering your services. Volunteering at a soup kitchen, handing out sandwhiches on the downtown eastside, walking dogs at the humane society, collecting blankets to give to the homeless, or finding your favourite charities to donate money to. Also- every night I say a little ‘prayer’ before bed to all the people in my life that I want to send love, kindness, and support to. This doesn’t have to be a religious thing, just sending your positive thoughts their way. This can help to get out of your own pain temporarily.

With so much talk about positive psychology nowadays, and the idea that we need to ‘look on the bright side’ I encourage you to almost do the opposite! Don’t force yourself to stare into the sun if there are tons of clouds in the way! Be cloudy, be messy, just make sure you don’t lose hope of that little ray of sunshine peering in.

Mental health is a serious issue in our society. Every day we hear about the high rates of suicide, addiction issues, and the use of drugs and substances to try to take our pain away. As Brene Brown says “If you numb the bad emotions, you numb the good ones too”.

I hope something I wrote here for you is helpful. I’d also be more than happy if you shared what has worked for you!

Thanks for reading,

  •  Katherine

PS-  If you feel overwhelmed reading this blog and thinking about everything you should be doing to make yourself better, take a step back.  You might not be ready, just let yourself be sad for a bit first 🙂  This process might take weeks, months, or years.





4 thoughts on “Life Is Messy: & Coping with Grief/Trauma/Loss

  1. Gesina says:

    With relation to point 3 about feeling a load shift off your shoulders when you tell someone…. there’s a Dutch saying “Je moet je verhaal kwijt” which means “You have to get rid of your story” or “You have to lose your story”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Valentina says:

    It’s all so true! I should print this and reading it more often. I wish it was in italian too and I could share it with some of my best friends going through this.

    Thanks again for sharing this!

    Liked by 1 person

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