How to take care of your mental health when you’re in the midst of mourning

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic a year ago has brought with it many lessons. The most painful of these has probably been learning to cope with grief. Of course, the families and friends of people who pass away from a terminal illness know this hard process all too well.

How does one cope with the immense impact of grief brought about by the death of a loved one?  During this very difficult and emotional grieving process, how do we take care of our mental wellbeing?

As we navigate the sadness that the impact of the coronavirus brings with it, here are a few tips to make sure you take care of your mental health.

Try to manage anticipatory grief

Grief expert and author David Kessler describes a lot of what we are feeling now as anticipatory grief, which is a common reaction when the future is uncertain. For example, when someone we love is diagnosed with a terminal illness, one of the strong underlying emotions is anxiety, which can greatly hamper a person’s mental wellbeing.

Kessler recommends that people who feel this way should try not to allow their minds to wander to thoughts about the future, but instead to remain in the present. Mindfulness practices such as meditation are very helpful techniques to learn, which will help alleviate symptoms of anticipatory grief, like anxiety.

Self-care is key

While it may be extremely difficult to take care of oneself after experiencing the immense loss of a loved one, self-care is very important,  and even just exercising basic techniques of meditation, relaxation or other means to de-stress oneself can be helpful.

Ensuring that you remain hydrated, eat regular meals, and are getting enough rest will strengthen you through the grieving process by keeping your immunity boosted and strong, which will aid you in fighting off infections. Even spending some time languishing in a bath with aromatherapy oils and bath salts, and practising calming breathing techniques can be relaxing and healing.

Recognise that grief takes time

Going through the steps that traditionally constitute the grieving process is a timeous affair.  According to Dr Kubler Ross, there are traditionally five steps in the process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It is also important to acknowledge the sixth step, often unbeknown to us, which is litigation. Someone needs to be blamed for what is happening to us and for the loss that we are experiencing. The financial bills that are piling up from medical treatment, funerals and unplanned expenditures can lead to great social anxieties. Fear of things like losing your house or reliable transport, and depression can all contribute to feelings of isolation and being alone in your grief. No matter the order in which you experience them, the grieving process itself takes time. Acknowledge that life without your loved one will never be the same, but that it will take time to get used to this fact. The reality is that the impact of your loss never really diminishes or disappears completely, but rather that one adjusts life to live around the circle of grief and loss.

Reach out

The pandemic has made it difficult to honour some of the traditions we have embraced when saying goodbye to a loved one, which has made it especially hard to grieve in the ways we are used to. Even so, reaching out to family and friends to share the grief you are feeling can be vital in not letting the isolation that COVID-19 requires get to us.

Discuss your grief with the people you stay with, and get in touch with others via telephone or video call. If feelings of grief are causing you mental distress, do not hesitate to contact a professional counsellor, therapist or psychologist.

Sihlangene is HospiceWits’s specialist psychosocial team, comprising a qualified general practitioner with a postgraduate specialist qualification in palliative medicine, a psychiatric nurse, specialist frontline workers, management, coordinators, and a diverse group of counsellors hailing from various training backgrounds and with varied experience. Sihlangene provides psychosocial care to HospiceWits patients and to their loved ones, as well as to members of our communities.

If you would like to find out more about Sihlangene’s services, please contact our office on 011 483 9100 or send an email to francois@hospicewits.co.za.