Wednesday Wisdom

May 29, 2024

Grief's Gravity

By Dr Kathy Weston

Grief's Gravity

Reflect

This week I was in touch with a parent who is feeling the full weight of grief following a shocking loss. For those freshly bereaved, loss can manifest physically and emotionally, precipitating feelings of utter exhaustion and fatigue as well as profound sadness and shock.

Life can sometimes feel like a fragile house of cards, and unexpected loss like a hand-swipe from the universe. One asks oneself, why has this happened to me? How can I make sense of it? How can I ever recover or be happy again?

Why when I have done everything right can something so wrong occur? Supporting someone through a shocking life event can also present challenges; what to say or not say? What is the right level of support to offer? How regularly should you be in touch? Impossible to say really, as everyone is different, but what we do know is that grief can feel isolating, so it is nice to know that others are thinking of us, that they care.

The grieving parent who wrote to me is also coping with supporting two teenagers, both of whom are in the thick of high stakes exams. Naturally, it is in moments like this that we need coping strategies and ones that are going to be impactful.

She asked me if I had any tips that could be easily shared to help her get through the coming week. Firstly, it’s good that she is just thinking that far ahead; one step at a time. The tip I would give is: breathe in and out deeply. Mindful breathing can help reduce overwhelming feelings of anxiety and give us time to gain perspective. Spending time outside in the fresh air, in the sunshine or the rain, can have an additional optimal effect. This can also be good advice for her teens when they need revision breaks!

Eating well in times of emotional shock can feel impossible, but again gently does it. Listening to music can help us process emotions as can journalling, scribbling, drawing, writing poems or playing music. Jotting down some positives amidst the chaos can be helpful too: what did I manage to achieve today? What did I manage to do, despite it being hard? Self-compassion can sustain us during difficulty and help ward off negative and entirely unjust self-talk. It is so easy to feel alone when we feel sad but reminding ourselves of at least five people that love us can be a real aid.

Help-seeking is something that can be hard to do as adults but finding the words to reach out matters. Don’t be afraid, as I suggested to the parent, to make simple requests of close friends to talk it through for ten minutes, to send you a loving voice-note or to walk with you in silence. It is good to give others permission to help us in ways that we find most useful. In the cognitive chaos of crisis, it can feel hard to think straight, to remember anything or to maintain any sort of beneficial routine. However, the latter can really help us find meaning in the everyday and provide temporal structure when things feel utterly overwhelming. Routines remind us that predictability feels good and can help us re-calibrate after loss.

Motivate

The same parent asked for tips to help sustain her and the teens’ motivation during this exam period. Not easy. High stakes exams require a whole family effort: to stay calm, focused and emotionally resilient. What helps during this ‘testing’ period?

Structure, routine and the establishment of small, achievable goals can work for everyone. What am I trying to achieve today? What are my revision goals? How will I feel when I achieve them? Small steps and deep breaths. How will I take care of my body and my mind today? Where can I fit in ten minutes of exercise? Of being outside? Of doing more of what I love? Scheduling can help add structure and a sense of purpose.

In terms of the nitty-gritty of revision, encouraging teens to test themselves in different contexts, to teach you something whilst you sit and listen, or to inject movement into their learning to make it more fun. They can walk around the block, garden or living room reciting or listening to relevant content. Need some economic ways to encourage them to take a quick break? I bought my son a frisbee, skipping rope and a pull up bar for the bedroom door frame last GCSE season – invaluable for restoring sanity and some fun during those study breaks! Such breaks really do matter. They give teenage brains time to absorb all that they have learned. You should find they return to studying with a little bit more energy and perspective.

It is sorely tempting for some teens in the middle of revision periods to eat unhealthily to sustain alertness through the consumption of energy drinks or bars, coffee and Coca Cola! Have a good chat to them about how these methods are not as optimal as regular sleep and healthy nutritious snacks. Energy drinks are ‘no-go drinks’ for teens who want to learn well and feel well, as laid out in this fantastic podcast with researcher Professor Amelia Lake of Teeside University in the UK. If you want to know what optimal nutrition looks like over revision periods, check out this list curated by a paediatric nutritionist. If your teen needs some inspiration when it comes to making their revision effective, this resource should help and if they truly dread the examiner’s red pen, reading last week’s edition of Wednesday Wisdom should help ease their minds.

Support

Clouds pass, and the rain eventually subsides, allowing for rainbows and sunlight to break through and shine. It is hard in the midst of difficult times to remember this, and this is where retrospective thinking can help.

Looking back and recalling how we coped during previous difficulties can help energise our efforts now. What worked? Who or what helped? Can these approaches help me now? What helps me cope better? Which activities allow me to zoom out and gain some sense of perspective? None of us is starting from zero when it comes to resilience! We all have reserves, skills and insights available to us internally. We just need to ignite or surface them.

Monitor your digital diets during difficulties when you might be feeling more vulnerable or susceptible to comparison anxiety. Everyone else’s life can seem perfect, just at the exact time you feel things have gone downhill. Surround yourself with joyful images, artefacts, memories and read some good news stories. I can recommend the BBC uplifting stories section or the magazine ‘Positive News’. My youngest son knew I was writing this week’s Wednesday Wisdom and has recommended everyone reads “How to be more Paddington’ by Michael Bond which is apparently full of sayings by Paddington Bear to help get you through stuff! There is a nice quotation in it for those struggling on page 32: “I am sure you did your best and meant well; those are the two most important things in life”. Not entirely evidence-based but feels like an intuitively helpful tip. Hear hear Paddington!

Are you a Tooled Up member?

We’re very proud at Tooled Up of the support we offer our members during grief and bereavement. This Quick Guide gives an overview of our resources alongside some practical advice. These Tips on talking to children about death and dying encourage an upfront and honest approach which acknowledges that children are perceptive about matters we might not expect. In this podcast, author Justin Bowen talks frankly about his own family’s experience of loss.

Learn more about mindful breathing and exercises to help control anxiety with this list of strategies. If you need some inspiration and encouragement for getting the family out the house, this list of things to do outside contains some ideas for everyone!

Exams will always be stressful to some extent! But we can help you prepare for a successful exam season. Our webinar on dealing with exam stress can help. This prompt sheet aimed at GCSE students can be great for opening dialogue with your teenager as exams approach.