Coping with Re-Grief
By: Rochelle Perper, Ph.D. | May 4, 2018
In our society, we are often expected to “get over” our grief and “move on.” Sadly, grief does not work this way as it is not an event but a process as unique as each individual griever. When you lose a loved one, coping with loss is something you do every day for the rest of your life. You must make room in your life to interact with your grief, especially when you least expect it.
What is Re-Grief?
Re-grief is part of the grieving process but occurs as a sudden and unexpected wave of emotion that can hit at any time. Triggers or reminders of the person who died cause re-grief. Some triggers you can control, and others you can’t escape. Re-grief grabs you suddenly and takes you by surprise. Re-grief includes vividly remembering the loss or experiencing the pain again as if it happened just yesterday. You may cry, feel overwhelming sadness, or believe you are moving slowly through a thick, dense fog. Everything comes to a halt. You feel immobilized mentally and physically.
When Does Re-Grief Happen?
Re-grieving causes difficulty in that it is neither predictable nor controllable. It just happens. One second you may be driving down the street and a song will come on the radio that reminds you of your loved one. Before you know it, you pull over to the side of the road crying uncontrollably. This can happen weeks, months, or years after a loss.
Triggers for re-grief include holidays, special occasions, and first experiences without your loved one. Cheryl Strandberg shares what she calls her “Year of Firsts” in her book entitled Option B. “Firsts” for Strandberg included her son’s first birthday without a father, her first wedding anniversary without a spouse, and the first anniversary of her husband’s death. She says “…they can come on unexpectedly, they can be overwhelming, frightening, and painful, like a kick in the gut out of nowhere.”
You can’t prevent grief bursts from happening, but you can prepare yourself.
How Can We Cope with ReGrief?
If you experience re-grief at an inopportune time, stop, and take a few deep breaths. During crisis, your body holds tension and you may forget to breathe. Focus on your breath by inhaling slowly through your nose. Then exhale slowly through your mouth, expelling more air than you took in. Tune into what you are feeling, then intentionally set those feelings aside for a more appropriate time. Construct a container for your grief by visualizing your grief then placing boundaries around it. This will help you feel a stronger sense of control over your reactions without pushing them away.
When you are able, perhaps when you get home at the end of the day, give yourself the necessary grieving time. Give in completely to what you feel. Gently remind yourself that your grief is ongoing. There is nothing wrong with you. And, you are not broken. Tell yourself: “Grief is an experience, not an event.”
Below are more suggestions for coping with re-grief:
Label Your Experience
Having a word for re-grieving makes communicating these days and moments easier. Say to yourself, “This is a grief day.” This not only validates your experience but also lets those around you know that you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed with emotion and may be slightly out of sorts. Since you don’t know when re-grief will hit you, communicate with your friends, family and coworkers that you reserve the right to change plans if you need to.
Take Time to Grieve
Decide to stop doing and just be with whatever you are experiencing. Turn towards your grief with compassionate attention. Give yourself permission to feel whatever is coming up for you. Do not be embarrassed or ashamed. You are not doing anything wrong. You are experiencing grief. The journey is both unpredictable and confusing.
Care for Yourself
Self-care is of the utmost importance when you are re-grieving. Listen to what your body is telling you. Sometimes you may need a good cry. Other times it means taking a break from your typical day and focusing on your self-care. Take a nap if you need it, and nurture your body with healthy food and exercise. On grief days, you may not be up for doing much. On these days, your routine will be disrupted as you work through your grief. This might look like an evening on the couch with a “feel good” movie and a cup of hot tea.
Learn from Re-grief
At these moments your grief is demanding your attention. Pay it the attention it demands rather than resisting it. Take time to reflect on the experience and ask yourself what you are feeling and the reasons surrounding it. The answers you find will help you to improve or modify the coping systems you have in place.
Identify your triggers and ways to manage them to prepare yourself for another possible re-grieving experience. Rehearse what the situation will look like and script conversations in your head ahead of time to feel more prepared. Share with others how you are feeling and ask to modify a situation to make it easier for you. Have a Plan A and a backup Plan B in case you don’t feel up to it.
Above all, be gentle with yourself. Remember that grieving is a process just as loving is a process. The pain you feel today is not where you will stay forever.