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Early Grief Survival Guide: The first month

In the very early days of grief, my children and I searched the internet for advice. How do we do this grief thing? What will we feel? How long will it last? Some resources were better than others, but few stood out. We wished someone had focused on the first few weeks to guide us through the fog and help us understand that what we were experiencing was ‘normal’.

We promised one day to share our experiences to help others, so here are some tips and insights on what you might experience during your first weeks of raw grief.

Numbness – this is an odd sensation; you have lost a loved one, but it hasn’t sunk in, and you can question your own grief response. It’s the minds way of slowly adjusting to the reality and protecting you from the full force of the pain of your loss.

Exhaustion both physically and emotionally – that can be so bad that it knocks you off your feet. Go with what your body is telling you and don’t feel guilty or lazy by doing so. Take regular naps or sofa rests and be aware that you can wake up from a full night’s sleep and still feel like you could do with another eight hours.

The days seeming endless – each day, especially pre-funeral, can feel ridiculously long. You just will the clock to move faster and are ready for pyjamas at 6pm.

Memory and concentration disappear – no, you are not going mad, your brain is overwhelmed and likely won’t perform sharply for many months. Write things down, use calendars, lists and notebooks. Use speaker phone to jointly attend important calls or meetings so you can share the load of remembering details.

Nutrition is vital – nausea, an upset stomach and anxiety can impact appetite. We used food as a way to come together, keeping occupied in joint preparation and reflecting on our day in a less intense way over a meal. Saying that, eat and prepare only what you can manage. If you need to rely on frozen meals or takeaways for a while, then that’s better than going without.

Getting outside – being cooped up in the house can drive you mad but you might dread bumping into people. Drive to a different area and blow the cobwebs away. Simple walks, the wind in your hair and the impact of nature and open spaces give a different perspective. Walking alongside one another reduces the intensity of conversation and the less vocal are more likely to share their thoughts and feelings as you stroll.

Downtime – reading and watching TV can be a struggle, your mind hasn’t the capacity. Triggers are everywhere and make viewing popular shows uncomfortable. Keep to safe options – basic quizzes, house makeovers, wildlife or cooking shows, or re-watch old favourites that you know the content of well.

Meeting up with family and friends – go with your gut instinct and set boundaries. Are you ready to see people and on what terms? Many will be keen to support you but consider if the meet-up will benefit you or not. People will understand if you need more time.

We visited relatives who fed us, and we could leave when we were ready. We met elderly relatives in the park for a short, less intense time. Walks with friends were also a more comfortable way to meet and chat than sitting face-to-face. Whenever you decide to meet up with others, the first time will undoubtedly be nerve-wracking – even if they are close friends or relatives – but it gets easier each time after that.

Alcohol – don’t judge yourself, drinking more alcohol than usual can help as a short-term measure, especially for dropping off to sleep and numbing painful thoughts. Set yourself a time frame to revert to normal levels.

Journaling – grab your mobile phone or a simple notebook and start documenting in the early days. Life becomes a blur – it helps down the line to be able to recall feelings, important details and milestones. In the moment, it helps you to reflect and unpick what you’re feeling. Journaling has been shown to be as useful as therapy, especially for those who don’t find talking about their feelings easy.

Messaging – receiving texts or messages on WhatsApp or social media can be overwhelming and bring a reality that your numbness can’t relate to. You can feel a pressure to respond. A simple heart or thank you can be a holding message. Getting others to coordinate responses is useful. My partner fielded my friends, so they were able to keep in touch without direct contact when I wasn’t up to it.

Indulge those pets – savour their unconditional love and company that doesn’t involve deep conversation or awkward silences. Having to get up to feed them each day also helps with routine. They often sense changes and bring you the tactile comfort you desperately need.

Getting the balance – don’t be afraid to smile or laugh if it feels right in the moment. I was trying to transfer my son’s Spotify account and was asked to send a photo of his ID but instead sent customer services a bunch of my random holiday pics (told you your brain won’t be performing sharply!). When I realised what I’d sent, it was a moment of pure, raucous laughter. And it felt right. I still laugh about it now.

Grief changes as you emerge from the initial numb stage. Some things get easier, others get harder as the reality of your loss sinks in and people around you move back into their regular routines, as you try to figure out where you go from here. Extra torment can come from judging or rushing your own grieving process. Being kind and patient with yourself is one of the best things you can do at every stage.

by Suzanne Howes

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