Better Living

Becoming Resilient in the Face of Grief

BY Amy Delcambre TIMEMay 27, 2022 PRINT

Two months earlier, Mita’s partner had died suddenly. “I hate this. I hate it so much. When will it get better?” she asked. Her plea carried the familiar chest-crushing tune of grief. As a widow of three years, I knew too well that the truth would seem incongruous if not insulting. So all I said was, “I’m so sorry.”

The truth is that grief gets better when you’re ready to let it get better.

For those beginning a grief journey, it’s complicated to accept that the pain of grief can only alleviate when you accept it. This is why the final leg of the grief journey is called acceptance.

Many suggest that this internal peace comes with the passage of time. That’s not quite true, however. Passively ticking days off of a calendar is not a panacea for loss, and those who cling to this axiom may avoid the necessary act of sitting still with grief.

Discovering life after loss is an active process in which you learn the art of resilience. Resilience doesn’t mean toughing out hard times; rather, resilience encompasses awareness, wellness, motivation, compassion, forgiveness, and skillful courage.

Research supports the idea that by adopting a conscious practice of resilience, you can accept loss as a natural part of life and choose to continue living with purpose and joy.

The key to becoming resilient is remembering that it’s a practice and that grief is often complex—especially when loss comes in succession. As we age, we can experience substantial losses, including the loss of loved ones, employment, health, pets, and more. We cycle through the stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But we don’t go through these stages in a linear fashion, that’s something I became aware of when my husband died. It’s during our work through the stages of grief that we can become stuck in grief and develop maladaptive behaviors.

I was stuck for more than a year after my husband died. I expressed anger by cutting off people who I felt weren’t understanding or supportive; I avoided, disassociated, and denied my grief by drinking or shopping excessively; I bargained by dating too soon, creating a facsimile of the relationship I couldn’t accept losing.

When a person disassociates, they distance themselves from their loss and grief. This is one of the most common ways people become stuck. Disassociating makes learning resilience particularly difficult because resilience requires conscious vulnerability.

Beyond avoiding maladaptive behaviors such as self-isolation, substance abuse, and so on, there are several things you can do to work through your loss and practice active resilience.

Therapy and Social Support

I started going to therapy and joined online support groups with other widows. Humans are social beings, and loss can be very alienating. As we lose partners, parents, friends, and most tragically, children, we feel both physically alone and emotionally abandoned. As a result, we may withdraw socially; however, in becoming resilient, maintaining a social network is important.

Social support can come from many places, including your religious community and peer support groups. A therapist can offer you a safe place to face your grief. Your friends can do the same. If you’ve lost your partner and had few meaningful relationships beyond your marriage, or you’ve lost someone particularly important to you, it’s important to understand that you need people, and that may mean making new friends.

Building New Ties

Starting over with a new social group can be daunting. This is where the practice of awareness benefits you. Be aware that while you didn’t create your life’s circumstances, you’re not a helpless victim. You couldn’t control what happened, but you can control, to a reasonable degree, what actions you take next. Under the umbrella of wellness, maintaining a healthy social network is vital for resilience. Your network can comprise friends, family, a support group, or a therapist, for example. The experience of meeting new people and making new first impressions can be invigorating if you choose to allow it to be.

When I reached out, I made friends who understood my unique loss situation. Having that understanding made me feel less lonely. Through counseling, I was better able to see my own unhealthy avoidance and move away from those habits. I adopted new habits.

Journaling

Journaling is a resilience practice that helps you practice awareness, get unstuck, label behaviors and emotions, and set your intention for each day, or reflect on your day each night. Initially, I journaled twice daily—once upon waking and once before bed. Journaling let me map out my thoughts and emotions on the page.

In the context of resilience, a daily journaling habit is helpful especially as we move into our twilight years. The practice is reliable and familiar—like a companion—and it can help us express our feelings of vulnerability, fear, and insecurity in a constantly changing and inconsistent world. The stability of journaling and its vitality in a resilience practice can’t be overstated.

Meditation and Mindfulness

A part of my own healing included meditating and practicing yoga and mindfulness. It’s normal to experience an identity crisis after a loss, whether it’s the loss of a partner, a friend, a job, a home, mobility, or something else. After all, the loss isn’t just of the person or thing that you lost; it includes who you were within the context of that relationship or role. It’s easy to lose your sense of self during periods of grief.

Because yoga is a holistic practice that involves the mind, body, and spirit connection, it was logical for me to incorporate it into my grief journey. Through yoga and meditative breathing, I became more flexible physically and emotionally. Making space for muscles to stretch and grow conditioned me to make space for grief in my life; it gave me space to accept that loss and grief are ongoing parts of life. I mourned the loss of stability I’d clung to, and accepted that our world is in constant flux.

Note that yoga isn’t for everyone; you may find that you experience a similar transformation through ruminative prayer, painting, engaging with nature, or taking a daily walk.

Mindfulness practices, which are very much in alignment with stoic philosophy and biblical teachings, taught me to not label experiences but to observe them. Becoming resilient helps us face our feelings and contemplate them objectively.

For example, many observe that special dates like birthdays and anniversaries can trigger episodes of intense grief. Awareness allows you to prepare for these emotional landmines and give yourself more patience and space, and to ask those in your circle to help however you feel you need.

Ultimately, resilience is built on a continued practice of self-care—it’s an ongoing practice that allows you to exercise compassion, forgiveness, and kindness toward yourself and others. Building resilience is an active process that requires you to take steps to support your own well-being and face the loss you’re experiencing.

Becoming resilient in the face of grief doesn’t happen overnight; as Heather Stang of the Mindfulness & Grief Institute notes: “Time is not what heals grief either. It is what you do with your time.” Actively practicing resilience by adopting whatever practices feel comfortable and natural for you will prove transformative and will allow you to choose love and life when you feel overwhelmed by loss.

Amy Delcambre is a writer and editor specializing in memoir. Amy has a master’s degree in creative writing and publishing. She owns Creative Editing Services (CreativeEditingServices.com), and is president of the Mobile Writers Guild in Mobile, Alabama—where she resides with her three wonderfully wild daughters.
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