When Grief Goes On and On: Five Healthy Ways to Help Heal a Broken Heart
As Elizabeth Gilbert expressed in her book, Eat, Pray Love, overwhelming emotions can become so strong and familiar that they almost seem to have their own identity. I experienced this with grief: an old – but not so dear – friend. Grief came to visit when I was 32. Just barged on in the front door of my heart and took up residence like she owned the joint. And like any uninvited and annoying houseguest, she just wouldn’t leave. But I kind of got used to her hanging around, I guess, because as much as she was dragging me down and holding me back, being with her 24-7 had also become strangely comfortable…an excuse, if you will, for not moving on. But when months turned into years that threatened to turn into half a decade, I realized I had to put my foot down.
Grief had overstayed her welcome;
it was time for her to go. Funnily enough, it was a Christmas tree that finally drove a wedge into our friendship. A few years after my husband’s death, it was my Dad who pointed out – subtly, for he knew how close grief and I had become – that perhaps our relationship was no longer healthy.
“Maryanne,” he said,
pointing to the admittedly very sad-looking Christmas tree in my living room,
“that is a fire hazard.” To which I nodded. “I know.” “It’s March,” he said. “It’s been up for three months.” To which I nodded again. “I know.” “So why haven’t you taken it down?” he asked. I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
And I didn’t. It just didn’t seem to matter. Nothing seemed to matter anymore. It was just one lousy day after the other. The only difference between one day and the next was a few more pine needles under the tree. And the fact that I was watching a dead tree slowly decompose in my living room seemed a fitting metaphor for how I felt. And that, my friends, is what depression looks like – or rather, situational depression. And what is situational depression but grief’s BFF. Grief must have snuck her in through a window when I wasn’t looking! So I threw them BOTH out. Oh sure…they took their sweet time to pack their bags and leave. And then they came back once in awhile – okay, a lot – to visit. But I finally figured something out: instead of slamming the door in their face, I opened it and let them in. We’d have a cup of tea, a few cookies, a good cry…and then I would look at my watch and say, “Look at the time! I really must get back to my life and my positive attitude, proactive work, trying to be happy again and grateful for all that I have…” To which, of course, they rolled their eyes. But they got the hint and left. And eventually, they stopped coming by altogether. Because if there’s one thing grief and depression despise, it’s a happy heart. I sure don’t miss them – but boy, did those two gals ever teach me an awful lot.
Five Healthy Ways to Help Heal a Broken Heart
1. Be aware of what you are choosing as coping mechanisms Unhealthy coping mechanisms are ways by which we try to escape our pain…alcohol, drugs, eating (too much or not enough), shopping, incessant busyness, becoming a workaholic, etc. If the coping mechanisms you are using are no longer serving you, make a conscious change to healthier ones, such as: A) Get physically active B) Go out into nature. A walk in the woods or along a river can soothe the soul like nothing else.
C) Consider getting a pet. My two dogs totally helped me get through the toughest years. They were always happy to see me and their enthusiasm made me smile. They gave me unconditional love and they forced me to get out for a walk everyday! D) Volunteer. E) Read inspirational books and watch uplifting movies, especially comedies. F) Be around positive people who love you 2. Honour the hurt The sooner you acknowledge (admit to yourself) the full extent of your loss and the seemingly bottomless depth of the hurt you are feeling, the sooner you’ll be able to heal. When we deny our own truth – as horrific as that may be – we only postpone the healing process. So here’s a trick: whenever hurt comes to the surface, don’t run from feeling it. Instead, STOP whatever you are doing and simply FEEL the loss, the sorrow, the pain, the hurt, the anger – and then let it go. Yes, you will cry. But the sooner you release those emotions from your heart, the better. Mitch Albom’s wonderful book, Tuesday’s With Morrie, does a beautiful job of explaining the gifts that come from honouring one’s hurt. 3. Express/share what you are thinking and feeling Talk to a good friend and/or a professional about what you are really experiencing. Be honest! You may be thinking and/or feeling some awfully strange stuff (says I from experience), so the sooner you can get that out of you, the better. The catch, however, is to choose the person wisely. They have to be a good listener, empathetic and non-judgemental. Most importantly, it cannot be about them. You know you’ve found a good person to talk to when you leave the conversation feeling better than when you started. 4. Find a positive outlet for the negative emotions Whether that is finding a way to transform your hurt into something beneficial for others, finding a personal way to honour what or who has been lost, or simply finding joy and purpose in your new life…do something purposeful that is meaningful to you and makes you feel moments of happiness again. 5. Take it one day at a time – baby steps! Give yourself permission to make mistakes because you will – over and over again. And that’s okay. To me, for the longest time the grieving process felt like one step forward then two steps back. But the more small steps forward I took, the less time I spent beating myself up for taking the backwards ones.
“The only courage that matters is the kind that gets you from one moment to the next.” - Mignon McLaughlin
If we have the courage to truly love in this life, we will get hurt. Grief is a natural, normal and healthy response to the anguish that goes with learning to live without that which we have loved…be that a person, pet, relationship, dream, place – even our old self. Grief has its role – but it is up to you to recognize when it has become more of a hindrance than a healer.
Maryanne Pope is the author of A Widow’s Awakening and the playwright of Saviour. Maryanne is the CEO of Pink Gazelle Productions Inc and the Chair of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund. To receive Maryanne’s quarterly e-zine, The Watering Hole.