A Survival Guide for Life after Loss: Ten Ways to Nurture your Soul

With Barbara and Steve

With Barbara and Steve

This is the second of three Survival Guides. The first focused on Body and the next will be about Spirit.

1. Share your grief with close friends. Steve said my grief allowed him to feel his own sadness, and many others invited me to share my feelings. I often felt exposed and vulnerable, but I did not feel isolated.

2. Grieve with your children and family if possible. My sons and I spoke about our memories, love, and loss. We grieved for the same person, although I had to avoid overwhelming them with my sorrow. They needed space to speak of their loss or to say nothing at all.

With my sons' David and Anthony and my daughter (in-law) Liz

With my sons’ David and Anthony and my daughter (in-law) Liz

3. Notice who welcomes your tears and sadness. Reach out to those who offer support. My grief was too much for some old friends and family members. Most were still there when I wasn’t so sad, but not everyone. New friends arrived when I reached out.

4. Go to a therapist or bereavement group. I needed to talk with people who listened for the wisdom and intuition beneath my grief. This was especially important because I shared life’s smallest details with my husband Vic.

5. Follow the trail of your dreams. If therapy isn’t possible, tell your dreams to a close friend. I wrote my dreams in a notebook I kept by my bed. I drew them, made collages, or sculpted them in clay. Dreams helped me digest the loss of my old life and find my new path.

With Lauren in Carmel, CA

With Lauren in Carmel, CA

6. Take trips alone or with friends. It was sometimes good to get away for an afternoon, a day, or a week, but I could be a difficult travel companion. It usually felt good to return home to my own life after a break in grief work. Coming home to the reality of what was missing brought deep sadness for a few days, but it was a time of integration.

7. Write each day. I kept a record of my experience. I could look back and see my life and I were slowly changing over the months, even if I often felt stuck. I was a bit lost, but my journals were a map.

Dream painting

Dream painting

8. Paint your emotions, your dreams, and your memories—even if you have never painted before. Try the vibrant colors of oil pastels or watercolors. Painting and drawing calmed my emotions, when I gave up judgment about artistic merit. I often wept while I painted. With watercolors, tears became part of the image.

9. Read books related to your particular loss. I appreciated books that saw grief as a teacher and transformer. I found books at the Hospicare and public libraries. I searched widow or bereavement at Amazon. I browsed my local bookstore shelves and often found great poetry there.

10. Read poetry that speaks to your grief. Try Mary Oliver’s Thirst or Stephen Levine’s Breaking the Drought. Read poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, Rumi, and Emily Dickinson. MoonSearch for grief poems on the web. I have many favorites, including this poem called “The Window” by Rumi.

Your body is away from me
But there is a window open
from my heart to yours.
From this window, like the moon
I keep sending news secretly.

What helped you nurture your soul in times of loss, whether it be from death, divorce, loss of a job, or a major life challenge? Are there books you recommend?

  1. beautiful words Elaine and so true !! it completely resonated with me… thank you so much for sharing this.. this is so important when we are grieving our losses….hugs tonight XO

    • Thank you, Jean. I loved revisiting what worked five years ago to find it still works. Had a great time finding photos to go with the ideas. Thanks for your supportive words and loving energy. Sending you the same. Elaine

  2. Wonderful to see your wisdom synthesized so clearly for others. Thanks dear Elaine.

  3. Elaine,

    Your words always speak to my heart. I shared your blog to FB and Twitter. 🙂



    • Thank you, Kathleen. I appreciate your support and encouragement. So many places to share, and I appreciate all of them.
      Keep inspiring those students. I watch for your pub date.

  4. Your grief survival guide is turning into an essential handbook, made all the more readable with the photos. My particular favorite is # 5, following the trail of your dreams. How creative you are, Elaine!

    Right now I’m reading Eleanor Vincent’s Swimming with Maya: A Mother’s Story, which tells of loss but the recovery of “balance” that followed, which of course (like you) included writing.

    • Swimming with Maya sounds like an interesting book, Marian. Thanks for the recommendation. I put it on my “to read” list. I focus on books about spousal loss and will be for a while longer–but I long to branch out and read (and write) in other genres as I did not long ago. I’m a fortunate dreamer and long talking with my dream therapist about them. It’s tricky to write about dreams because they are so subjective, but I experiment occasionally. Thanks for reading the blog and commenting. Much appreciation.

  5. This is so helpful and true, Elaine. I love the succinct words and the photos are perfect. I think writing was my biggest soother, although I think painting would have come in second if I had tried it. Thank you for sharing this and I look forward to more from my wise friend.

    • Thank you, Patti. But you always had photography. This has become a great healer for me and a wonderful exploration of noticing details. Today’s detail is snow. Bird feeder is active, and it’s wonderful to be snowed in and stay put for a day.
      Sending you love and joy as both enter your life right now. How long will Patti stay in Alaska? How long can she resist? The next questions to be answered.

  6. Of course, I agree with your wise words, Elaine. And I would add one thing from personal experience…to watch for the way meaningful coincidence reminds you of the love that is still wanting to be expressed. Big hugs, Jenna

    • Excellent addition. You say it so well, Jenna–without using the word synchronicity and sending people into an intellectual tailspin. I will see if I can include the idea of synchronicity in the guide to Spirit–although it fits under Soul equally as well. This shows you I am a dreamer while Vic experienced synchronicity dramatically and regularly. Thanks for your encouraging words and hugs, Elaine

  7. Elaine, this piece is so well done, personal, and helpful. Everything you write is so wonderful and personal. Thank you. I actually did/do all of what you suggest in this piece and it has made all the difference in my journey. I have read more books and will send you a list of some of them when time allows. Reading was extremely helpful for me. I think I devoured about 40 during the first several months…and am still doing that…now as well as great articles like yours. Peace, Mary

    • Thank you, Mary. I’d love your book list when you have time to send it. At this moment, my head is stuck in books recently published by widows–all under 40, it turns out. Interesting since most widows are sixty or older when they lose their partners. Many excellent books, but the impulses, opportunities, life experiences, and needs differ because of age. My mom was 44 when my dad died, so these books help me understand some of her actions. I also want to thank you again for what you offer and share at Personal Growth and Grief Support Center and online support groups. Sending you love and peace, Elaine

  8. Thanks for this insightful list, Elaine. Like you, I found that I could share my grief with some friends and family, but not with others. Some were too overwhelmed by it.

    Keeping a journal has always helped me, and since I paint most days anyway, I could express my feelings through the process.

    Therapy and Hospicare grieving groups also helped tremendously.

    And finally, I took a class on play-writing and wrote a play about the experience. It was painful but cathartic.

    • You did so many helpful things to heal yourself. It’s hard to watch women who waste years on bitterness rather than figuring out how to deal with the new reality. I’m always happy to hear about the joy and healing painting brings you. I paint for fun. You’re truly a painter, and a writer, too. Thank you, Lynne.

  9. Elaine, I wish I could express in words just how much you inspire me. One of the great comforts to me following the loss of my mom after her long battle with ALZ has been meeting people like you who truly “get” me. Our losses are different, but at the core of it all, the compassion and understanding is there and that can be hard to find. Much love and respect to you. ~Ann

    • Ann, I feel the same about you. We “met” in this odd social media world as your mom was dying–a time of suffering for your mom, you, and your daughter. You turned that harsh loss into greater dedication to Alzheimer’s advocacy and finding a cure. No matter what the loss–parent, spouse, child, divorce, an encounter with violence, a fire or tornado–it seems to be our job to rebuild our lives, open our hearts to the lessons, and try to offer something to others. You do just that, and I’m grateful to you since Alzheimer’s is part of my family history, too. Also grateful for your encouragement for my work. With love, Elaine

  10. Wonderful as always, dear one, and well worth sharing ~ which of course I intend to do ♥

    • Thank you, Marty. I saw an excellent post at Grief Healing yesterday and intend to share it on FB tomorrow. It’s a mutual admiration society. I love what you write and what you share. Your work has been a touchstone and guide for me. I wonder where you are this time of year–perhaps AZ rather than northern Michigan. About this time of year, I long for desert light, but the sun reflecting on snow is bright today, so that helps.

  11. Elaine, I love this post offering encouragement for those on a sad journey. You give of yourself so freely. I am currently reading an author friend’s book called ‘Mourning has Broken’ which is all about the grief and the motions one goes through when we lose a loved one. Check out Carol Baldawyer’s book. P.S. I just got back from vacay 2 1/2 glorious weeks so that is why I was practically non-existent. 🙂

    • You needed a vacation, Debby. I probably do, too. Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll take a look (the pile of unread books seems insurmountable and grows larger). Thanks for reading and commenting. I hope you went someplace warm and sunny.

  12. Loved the Rumi poem. I cannot say I did these things because I am one of those who kept all emotion to myself and kept it away from others…most especially my sons. Felt they had enough to contend with of their own sorrow.

    I was very isolated and from this experience I grew and grew and grew…it was either that or be swallowed up whole by my grief. Looking back I realize I was like a hermit in a cave. The experience of this profound isolation was actually beneficial in the big picture because I needed it to become reacquainted with myself as a singularity.

    I eventually moved back to NYC and reconnected with old friends and made new acquaintances. I am still growing away from my old vision of myself and working with the cosmic forces in re creating myself and like a caterpillar to butterfly undergoing a metamorphosis. My art saved me but I do think one has to have a desire to make lemonade from the lemons they have been given.

    That was a favorite expression of my late husband.
    I think you are a brave warrior, I can see it because I too am one.

    • So beautiful, Randi. Pulling into isolation was natural for me. My sons were older and came often. I had a strong community of friends. Still, I needed to be alone and absorb my new reality. I needed days alone and still do. I thought I would move from the land Vic and I bought in 1972, but surprised myself and stayed. I found and still find healing here. Friendships have shifted some, although I’m still part of the same community. I like being with my women friends, but always did. I haven’t sought a romance or been interested when that was offered. There’s something I need to do on my own now–a transformation that needed a stronger relationship with myself. Time will tell. I like the lemon to lemonade expression, or an omelet from a broken egg, or potting soil from compost.

      The brave warrior part was something I let my husband carry, and this is part of what I had to learn on my own. How to make my life matter again and try the things that scare me.
      With love and connection,

  13. reading poetry that speaks to your grief, yes. and Rumi is such a great poet. I loved this Rumi poem you shared. and the photo of the moon with just cracks of branches. I also found reading related memoirs helped.

    • I found widow/widower memoirs helpful, too, and first loved C.S. Lewis, “A Grief Observed.” Then “Loving Grief” by Paul Bennett. I didn’t do so well with the how to get over grief and move on books. I wanted to absorb it, learn from it, and grow. You had the powerful surprise of your own daughter’s poem messages. How could you not fall in love with poetry?

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