3 Tools for Surviving Grief and Getting Your Zest Back for Life

Photo by David Joshua Ford

Six months into the grief cycle, I had downed enough vanilla-flavored Ensure to feed an entire retirement home for a year. Emotionally overwhelmed, I could hardly choke down solid food, so I turned to vitamin-enriched milkshakes. There came a day, though, when I woke up and decided I couldn’t take it anymore. I was 25 years old and had more in common with my grandma than people my own age. It was time to take my well-being more seriously, get out of my pajamas, rise from my rocking chair, and swear off the Ensure for good.

Months prior when my dad unexpectedly passed, I lost my sense of normalcy. In the wake of the accident, I went from whooping it up in New York City where I was building a career in journalism, to living at home and running my dad’s construction business. Before the loss, I was full of life: energetic, enthusiastic, driven. After, I questioned the meaning of life on a daily basis. My body shook with anxiety, I lost 20 pounds, and my face looked as gaunt and shadowed as a creature from World War Z.

The feelings of despair and hopelessness continued on for months. Eventually, though, things got better, but only because I chose to grab my life by the reins and take things in another direction. Some years later, I now look back at that time and reflect on three different strategies that helped me regain my sense of vitality. Above all, it took work to get out from underneath the grief and start feeling good again. It didn’t happen instantly and there wasn’t just one cure-all solution. The process took time, effort, patience, communication, and consistency to welcome back the good vibes, but it worked.

Not sure if you’re ready to take on the world again? Here’s a test:

You know you’re ready to get your life back when …

  • You suddenly feel like if you ran into musician Sarah McLachlan in person, you’d throw a milkshake in her face. After six months of listening to I Will Remember You on repeat from your bathroom floor, she has it coming.
  • You simply MUST stop baking yourself brownies and downing Xanax on Friday night because it’s not a socially acceptable hobby to list on your Tinder profile. Okay maybe that flies on Tinder, but certainly not on Bumble or Match.com.
  • If your Jewish grandmother comments one more time on how thin you’ve gotten you’re going to lose it.
  • You find yourself laughing so hard at a comedy club that your eyes well up with tears, but then you can’t stop crying. Before you know it, you’re having a full-blown melt down.

Alright you get it. Basically you’ve reached the brink of insanity, and if you don’t do something soon to right the ship, you fear you’ll become literally crazy. There’s a big difference between forgetting where you parked your car at the mall, and getting lost in the parking lot because you can’t remember how you got there in the first place. Save yourself before the later scenario comes true with these three tools.

Schedule Fun As If It Were Your Job

At this point, the only thing that might sounds crazier than launching a milkshake in Sarah McLachlan’s face is having a great time. How could you laugh right now while your loved one is pushing up daisies? Shouldn’t you don a black bonnet and lock yourself up in a candle-lit room? Survivor’s guilt is such a bitch.

For a while there, I felt like a real jerk face allowing myself to have fun because I couldn’t stop thinking about how I was betraying my dad’s memory. I also thought I would look like a freak for posting photos of me rollerskating on Facebook when really I should have been acting more like a morbid pariah. I could just hear onlookers coming across my photos on newsfeed and saying, “why is she rollerskating? Shouldn’t she be crying somewhere?”

On the other hand, people would also not stop saying things like, “your dad would want you to be happy.” I’d be like, really? How do you know that? Last I checked dead people can’t talk.

Despite all of that, while it is necessary to express your pain (which I’ll get to in a second), it’s  just as important to experience joy. You are still alive and that’s the only permission slip you need to allow yourself to have fun. Forget what “they think” and just do it. Push beyond that mind-numbing sensation of sadness and pick something innocent and silly to do at least once a day. I honestly don’t care if you sob while you hula hoop, or you start scribbling in an adult coloring book and find yourself snapping crayons. The point is to start doing something joyous even if initially it feels contradictory. The simple practice of inviting more joy back into your life is what will help resuscitate your tired soul and help you feel good again.

Exercise: schedule 10 minutes a day and do something fun. If you’re in need of inspiration, click here to read 50 Simple Ways to Add More Fun to Your Day.

Lean Into Your Pain

Okay, I know I just talked about having fun, so not to be a Debbie Downer here, but the flip side of feeling better is allowing yourself to feel your pain. The emotions you feel in your body after a loss are real. Moving forward isn’t about “stuffing” it and pretending everything is hunky dory. If you cover up your emotions and try to ignore them, you’ll soon find that they will either build up then explode like a balloon, or  get channeled into something else or misdirected. Hold it all in and you risk either getting really sick or throwing an embarrassing tirade when a grocery store clerk gives you plastic bags instead of paper.

Exercise: block out a chunk of alone time to sit with how you feel. During this time you can listen to music, look at old photos, journal, watch the memorial video from your loved one’s funeral. Whatever is going to help you experience your feelings. This practice is super helpful because when you train your body to let out the pain on a schedule, you’ll encounter fewer incidences of random breakdowns. You’re literally training your body to let loose at a certain time.

For guidance, listen to my interview with Marilyn O’Malley who walks you through an exercise to tap into and release how you feel. 

Build a Supportive Community 

Especially during this time you deserve to be loved, cared for, embraced, and uplifted. No matter how badly you want to hide out in isolation right now because you can’t stand the idea of letting someone see you cry, we are hardwired for community. If you feel a deep craving for hugs, it’s because you need it on a very innate human level. Even though you will see some friends fall away from your life right now, the best news is there’s an opportunity to fill that space with new people who will show up to love you how you need. Trust me. Allow yourself to be surprised by just how incredible people are.

I became a different person after my dad passed, so it makes sense that some people I clicked with at one time suddenly just didn’t gel any more. And let’s be honest, some people out there just can’t deal with something as grave as death. That doesn’t mean you have to have dead people in common with everyone you become friends with after a loss, it just means there’s a new community of friends waiting to love you who get what the human experience is all about.

So where the crap are said people?

In order to find community you need to become a part of a community. If you’re looking to click with people on an emotional level, join a tribe like In the Middle Seat where you’ll get live group mentorship calls with my homie and life coach Josh Barad. It’s a safe and awesome place to get real. My friend and life coach Krystal Brandt runs a free Women and Wine group in San Diego, which is super awesome. In case you’re not in San Diego, there are more communities like it out there – just play around on the Google to see what you can find.

If you’re looking to connect with more muggles than spiritual types, then it really is as easy as picking an activity and signing up. Become a part of team that supports each others growth: take an improv comedy class, sign up for an intramural volleyball league, find a group on Meetup.com and try that. It might take a hot second to try out different groups to see where you feel like you fit in, but the idea is to be on a schedule where people expect you to be somewhere.

Exercise: Find a community, class, or event that interests you, sign up, and go. Repeat.

I hope these tools serve you in your quest to move forward with your life and start feeling better again. Remember that regaining your sense of vitality is a process that will have its ups and downs, so hang in there and keep showing up for yourself like your life depends on it.


Three Tools to Regain Your Zest for Life

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