Like most people grieving, when everything was first going down and confusion was my default state of mind, I turned to the external world for coping. Food, music, exercise, hobbies, etc. And they weren't necessarily bad things... in fact, most of them (aside from junk food) could probably be seen as very good and healthy means of coping. I wasn't deep-diving into porn, drugs, alcohol, gambling, video game binges, extramarital affairs, or just completely abandoning my family. And trust me, if you're in the position where you're dabbling in that stuff to cope, I totally get it. It's just not really my flavor of coping, in general. And there's definitely ways to cope that aren't as destructive to yourself or your loved ones long term.
What do I mean by "disposable" coping?
It means choosing healthy coping methods while avoiding anything that you value and want to preserve.
For me, I really liked running, exercising with a group of guys early in the morning (F3), movies, and some really specific types of music. I also had a faith framework and regularly attended church. And I enjoyed all those things. They brought me comfort. So I went full-bore into them when I didn't know what else to do in the midst of my grief.
What I didn't realize is that as I engaged the things I loved during my grieving, my brain started to re-wire the emotional associations with all those things. What was formerly associated with joy, confidence, pride, and strength started to unintentionally pair itself with my overall sense of defeat, sadness, purposelessness, frustration, and weakness.
And I honestly didn't even recognize it at first.
It was several months after my son Ezekiel died, and I was moving into a season where I felt like I could breathe again for a few days at a time without being overwhelmed. But as I went to embrace all the healthy things I used to enjoy, I'd find myself immediately back in that emotional place of defeat that I'd felt in the early months of grieving. It was confusing. And VERY discouraging. I didn't realize that my grief had re-colored and re-purposed all those mental associations as I embraced the things I loved while trying to cope.
I'm no neuro-scientist, but I think of it like a big bowl of soup. The general emotional condition of my mind is the bowl of soup, and all the things I was doing to cope were like pieces of bread. I was dipping the bread into the bowl of soup hoping that the soup would change flavor, or at least that it would make the soup more palatable. But what was really happening is that the bread was saturating up the soup, and the bread itself was changing flavor, NOT the soup.
So here's my suggestions on how to cope in a healthy way:
- EXERCISE - If you like to exercise, do it! Just don't exercise in the way that you really love. Find a new exercise hobby for a few months or a year, so that when you're emotionally in a place where you start to feel a little "back to normal" you can return to the exercise you've loved all your life. Find a new gym. Do a new routine. Maybe pick up boxing, jiu jitsu, or another physical combat activity that helps channel your anger & aggression, but also one you don't plan to engage in for the long-term.
- MUSIC - If you like a particular artist or type of music - avoid it for this season. Find music that connects with your current emotion, but know that it will also kickstart that emotion for you later in life. For me, I absolutely LOVE Andy Squyres and Sleeping At Last because of their raw emotional honesty. But I also don't listen to them anymore unless I'm choosing to enter back into my grieving for a short time. Or if you
- RELIGION / SPIRITUALITY - If you are part of a religious or spiritual tradition, consider taking a break from regular attendance for a while. I know this may sound discouraging to disengage the thing that may primarily define your identity, but this suggestion is if you want to be able to return to that familiar place of comfort & peace you found in your spirituality once you're out of the intensity of grieving season. It's very common for people who go through trauma to see their faith structure affected in a deep way. You could be strengthened in your faith by the difficulty of the season. Or you could be so shaken during your grieving that your past faith just doesn't carry the same meaning that it used to. This is a much deeper conversation, and in no way am I trying to encourage anyone to walk away from their faith. On the contrary, this suggestion is so that you may find some preservation in your faith during a season that is very unpredictable.
- TV & MOVIES - Just know that the TV & movies you watch during your season of grief may bring you back to that place when you re-watch them later in life. This can be very cathartic and help toward processing your grief, but you may not want to watch your all-time favorite TV & movies to try and help you grieve. For me, Arrival and Interstellar are movies that remind me of my grieving season. I love those movies, but I also know if I want to watch them that I'll get kickstarted into some sadness because of the emotional ties for my season of grief.
- FOOD - This is probably the area that I failed hardest. And it has one helluva feedback loop! I absolutely became an emotional eater during my grieving. Primarily with sweets and junk food. I know how hard it can be to eat even close to healthy while grieving, but if you find yourself driving to the grocery store at 9:30pm to get Ben & Jerry's to make you feel better, I can almost promise you'll get that itch for ice cream around that time of night for years on end even when you aren't grieving. I speak from experience on this one! Food can also get tied to the activities or locations you're in while you're emotionally eating. This goes along with the TV & Movies category. We watched through The Office while grieving Ezekiel and scarfed down pints of Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's. Now when I watch the office, it makes me crave ice cream and feel a little emotionally numb at times.
You're going to cope. That's expected. But if you want to preserve some of the things you loved before your season of grieving so that they carry the same meaning once you're a little further "along the trail", try coping with some disposable methods. Because it can really suck to come out of deep grieving only to find that the things you loved are now "gone" too.
Keep pressing on.