When we brought my mother home for hospice in the fall of 2018, after her battle with colon cancer, I experienced an emotional pain so deep, so excruciating, that I actually thought I might have a heart attack. I walked into her closet one day while she lay downstairs on her hospice bed and found myself doubled over in a cry I thought I would never recover from. In my book So Sorry For Your Loss: How I Learned To Live With Grief, and Other Grave Concerns, I call this GIEA: Grief Induced Emotional Avalanche.
My term might not impress actual physicians and medical researchers, but a recent study from the University of Arizona found that the physical and emotional toll of grief can cause a rise in blood pressure and lead to increased risk for cardiovascular issues. The University of Arizona is not the first to link heart issues and grief, and, as I write in my book, Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (also known as “broken heart syndrome”) is a legitimate medical condition.
Grief isn’t something we “get over,” or conquer. It’s something we need to integrate into our lives. Each day, I live with the loss of my mother and my sister Jackie, who died of alcoholism just two years after my mother’s death. My heart will always ache for them, and I have to accept that. If you do find yourself unable to escape the emotional pain, though, there are a few things you can do that might help ease the crush of grief, and protect your heart.
Talk about your grief
There’s a chapter in my book called “Telling My Safe Place To Go To Hell.” It’s about going into therapy about eight months after my mother died, and realizing that going to a “safe place” whether it be a gorgeous beach or a tranquil moonlit field, was not bringing my mother and sister back. I wanted a therapist I could talk to – about my pain, my anger, my sorrow. I eventually found that talking openly and honestly about my pain helped ease it. My dad finds great solace in his grief group, connecting with others and sharing his own story. Holding it in and retreating only causes more harm, emotionally, spiritually and physically.
Find a ritual
As I wrote and researched my book, I spoke to many people about their experiences with grief–parents who lost children, people who lost spouses or siblings or beloved pets. One universal thing I heard was that creating some sort of ritual, even if it’s mundane, helps people cope with their grief. For me, I talk to my mother and sister, out loud, all the time. I also buy a bouquet of hydrangeas, my mother’s favorite flower, every year on her birthday. Others wear necklaces or bracelets that belonged to a loved one. Finding a ritual is personal, and it can link you to the person you lost and help you stay connected to their memory.
Nurture your relationships
One thing that surprised me in the wake of deep grief is realizing that my relationship with my mother and sister did not end on the day they died. Your relationship with a loved one continues to evolve. Of course, I would rather have my mom and sister here with me, but I find ways to keep them with me (talking to them helps) and I tell my son stories about them, which eases my pain since I know that their memories can live on, through him.
Seek moments of joy
This one seems simple, and when you’re in the throes of grief it might seem like an insult. How can you seek joy when your heart is pulverized? Your loved one would want you to get back into the flow of life and find happiness, though. That doesn’t mean your grief will end, but it does give you permission to go on holiday or simply ride your bike along a woodsy path. Your mind, and your heart, will be better for it.
Dina Gachman is an award-winning journalist, a Pulitzer Center Grantee, and the author of So Sorry for Loss: How I Learned to Live with Grief, and Other Grave Concerns. She’s based in Texas.