The Mental Health Benefits Of Setting Time Aside To Deal With Grief

When we're faced with a sudden, unexpected loss, we can feel blindsided by an initial sense of shock or disbelief. This applies across the board, whether we've lost a loved one, pet, job, home, or meaningful relationship. The sense of longing, sadness, or even anger that envelops us can make even going for a walk hard. Our ability to be present for others, work productively, and maintain relationships can diminish when we're eclipsed by deep sadness. But there are real mental health benefits, for some, in gently guiding the grief process by consciously scheduling time for it.

It takes courage to face an emotionally challenging event. Scheduling time for grief, and even discussing it with anyone other than a therapist, might be a radical act of self-care. That's because grief is still considered a taboo subject. Mental health counselor Hart Haragutchi of Bloom Counseling writes, "Even within the mental health field grief can be a taboo topic, masked in diagnoses such as anxiety or depression ... Perhaps part of the reason is that grief, unlike a diagnosis such as anxiety or depression, does not necessarily have a clear-cut treatment plan." 

Somatic therapy can be an excellent option to handle grief, and there are also ways to kickstart the therapy conversation. We're all different, though, and sometimes talking through issues isn't enough.

How most of us grieve

Rabbi Earl Grollman, an internationally recognized bereavement counselor, said, "Grief is not a disorder, a disease, or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical, and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve." Said another way, we've got to feel it to heal it.

We all know, even as small children, that someday, humans, animals, and plants will leave the physical body and pass on. Yet there's such a profound impact on our system when loved ones do leave that simply knowing it's coming never prepares us. When someone has died, bereavement includes intense sadness, rumination, despair, and even rage or confusion. While grieving is a normal process, it can bring on depression, anxiety, tiredness, and trouble sleeping.

British psychologist and attachment theory originator Dr. John Bowlby studied babies whose parents died in the Battle of Britain during World War II. He was interested in discovering why they failed to thrive and eventually died, despite being attentively looked after in the hospital by a caring medical staff. Dr. Ralph Ryback, M.D., wrote in Psychology Today that via the study of these infants, Bowlby was able to determine that the the grief the children experienced through the broken attachment bonds to their parents was too difficult and painful for them to comprehend and process.

Is scheduling grief right for everyone?

Setting aside time to grieve may be perfect for some but not everyone. You might be in a business meeting, and suddenly become aware of a heaviness in your chest as you breathe deeply to pull in enough air. You may find it difficult to concentrate. Scheduling a grief appointment will let you fully explore feelings that are impossible to metabolize when you're at work or in other situations.

Licensed clinical social worker Gina Moffa told Well + Good that scheduling grief means creating a sense of security for ourselves by planning alone time. This lets us feel the intensity of our emotions with total privacy instead of swallowing feelings at work and then abandoning the task of dealing with them later. Scheduling can work well for people whose jobs provide minimal sick days, who must work because they need the income, and who have trouble managing their emotions.

Scheduling grief is not recommended for people with an avoidant attachment style. Avoidant types feel a strong sense of discomfort about their own and others' emotions, preferring to stay aloof and independent. Additionally, grief specialist Lianna Champ isn't convinced that everyone can schedule grief appointments. She writes at Huffington Post, "We can't always make it bubble up on demand and fit neatly into a schedule because grief is so often unpredictable and messy, catching us at times we least expect it to." She recommends scheduling self-care instead.

What setting time aside to deal with grief looks like

After you've cleared your schedule, you might also set your expectations — this is a messy, non-linear emotional process, with no room for goal-setting or attempts at self-control. You're giving yourself an open, sacred space to feel whatever is ready to surface while not forcing any particular outcome.

You might use a photo or just your imagination and talk to your loved one. Express how you feel, say whatever was left unsaid, and perhaps mend any broken communication from your end. Don't try to hold back the tears, which not only dispose of toxins created by stress in our bodies but replace them with endorphins, which help to relieve pain and improve our mood.

Among other things you can do, as suggested by the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute: You can write your loved one or pet a letter and place it on a small altar you create. Commemorate them with beautiful items that remind you of their spirit. Go through a photo album or make a new one featuring your friend. Play a song they loved or that you enjoyed together. Journal about your responses — and don't feel any obligation to feel better faster.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.