The suffering of grief can begin to heal by accepting support and practicing self-care.
I remember every detail of that Saturday morning in 2016. It was June 18, and my husband, Bill, and I shared a beautiful snuggle before getting out of bed. I got ready for a ride with my cycling group as he prepared to participate in a sailing regatta. We kissed goodbye knowing we would reunite later in the day for dinner with his son and new daughter-in-law.
The rest of the day, however, is a blur—it was the day my life forever changed. My husband did not make it to the regatta. He was found unresponsive on our bathroom floor, and at age 48, in a flash, I became a widow.
But what came next surprised me. It’s clear from my fragmented memories of that day that I was in shock. I barely recall returning to my apartment or who was there to support me. But by the next afternoon, I was able to feel the intense pain and sadness of my devastating loss and begin to move through it. I knew I was safe—no matter what was ahead of me.
This sensation was a new experience for me. In the past, crises had shut me down. I would push others away and use my eating disorder as a way to manage what felt unmanageable. This time, instead, I was surprised to observe myself allowing my body to fully experience the pain. I was in crisis, and, for the first time in my life, fully present with the experience.
Safe Connection and Trauma
At the time of my husband’s death, I was a student and a patient of somatic experiencing (SE), a body-based therapy modality developed by Peter Levine, PhD. The theory behind SE is that negative symptoms of trauma—such as anxiety, depression, addiction, and emotional dysregulation—are a result of unprocessed trauma energy locked in the body.
The SE model contends that healing trauma requires releasing this stuck energy from the body, accomplished through heat, shaking, and tears. If you have ever observed animals after a potentially threatening event, you noticed their bodies shake. Humans need the same biological experience to release the stuck energy from the body, allowing us to gain capacity to be present, stay connected, and ask for help from safe and supportive people.
The loss of a loved one—especially a sudden, unexpected loss—can rob you of your sense of safety and well-being. And when you feel unsafe, your survival mechanisms of disconnecting from the experience (aka dissociation) often take over as a way to avoid experiencing pain.
We’ve all seen that person who doesn’t seem like they are grieving? At the core of this behavior is the person’s nervous system trying to help them survive the pain by numbing it. But in the long term, that disconnection only exacerbates grief—and a dysregulated nervous system.
Grief is about losing connection, so wouldn’t it make sense that you need safe connection from other loved ones to heal—to find some way to stay connected to yourself in the process? You cannot fully grieve and heal without being present in your body and restoring your sense of safety.
An Individual Process
The first thing I tell clients experiencing loss is grieving is a process: There is no correct timeline for healing. The layers of grief, sadness, and restoration will present organically if you set up a support system that feels safe, nurturing, and loving because your body intuitively knows what it can handle. It can thrive if a solid infrastructure is in place.
I recently worked with a client, Jane, who is a remarkable example of someone setting up an infrastructure for grief and healing to occur. Jane was the primary caretaker for her father during his long cancer battle. While her dad was alive, she maintained significant friendships via phone and email as a means of staying connected and supportive.
When her father passed, she immediately created structure, purpose, and routine in her life. She committed to traveling to see friends and hosted people in her home, returned to dance classes, and engaged in hobbies and volunteering. While she was still in pain, she kept her life and relationships moving forward. Jane shows us the power of connecting with herself and her support system. On the hard days, she knew to get out the door, dance, and laugh with friends. Within a year, she began to feel like herself again. She met a wonderful man whom she is now dating.
While each person will experience grief uniquely, it is essential to remember that connection is crucial in the healing process. Time alone does not heal. I see many people who get stuck in their grief because they cannot find the tools to move from the darkness to the light. Whatever path you choose, it’s important to remember your body holds the stress and trauma of grief. Bringing your body into the process allows you to create more connection to yourself so that you can safely be with the experience and move through it.
There are several small exercises you can do in the aftermath of losing a loved one. Dedicating a few moments daily can add up to a dedicated self-care practice: Five minutes a day equates to 30 hours over the course of the year. These exercises are grounding and assist in creating presence where healing happens—and can be done at any time, anywhere:
Voo exercise: Inhale deeply and exhale five to 10 times while making the sound “voo” This vibrational sound provides a massage for your vagus nerve, which works with your autonomic nervous system and regulates many functions in your body, including social engagement and emotional regulation. The gentle sound will help you bring awareness back to your body and the present moment, and help you move through intense emotions with more ease and safety.
Body scan: Sit in a calm, safe place, and begin by taking a few long deep breaths. Start by bringing attention to your feet firmly planted on the floor. Slowly wiggle your feet and focus on the sensation and movement. When you can feel your feet, move your focus up your body to your legs. Simply notice your legs and begin to run your hands along them. Then move to your arms and repeat. You can continue to touch and move other body parts, and get curious about what you notice. As you touch into each body part, see if you can name the different sensations you are experiencing. Making a connection between your physical sensations and your words builds a greater capacity to be present and calm.
It has been almost four years since Bill’s death, and there are still moments when I want to disconnect from the pain and memories. However, by listening to my body, I have stayed connected to my friends, work, and passions. I have authored a book, built a business as an SE practitioner, and developed new friendships—all the while coming to terms with my greatest loss.
Grieving is an individualized and sometimes unpredictable process. There is no quick way through it, but if we can take care of our bodies and lean into the pain, we can grow and develop a deeper connection to ourselves and others. Self-care, patience, persistence, and presence are essential in this process. Our greatest pain can become our greatest asset and teacher, if we can trust our bodies to guide our healing.
Wanna dive deeper? Read more on befriending grief.