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SIMPLE THINGS I DID TO SURVIVE, ADAPT AND CHANGE IN THE FIRST YEAR OF MY GRIEF
Todays blog post is all about my personal journey on how I’ve dealt with loss and adapted and changed to grief in the past 10 months. I lost my brother to brain cancer 10 months ago and it was a three-and-a-half-year journey. In this post I cover the things that I did shortly after he passed away that helped me to progress, change and deal with my grief as well as I could. So, if you are currently grieving or know someone that’s grieving this blog post (or podcast – see above!) is for you or them. Please feel free to share it to anyone that you think might need to hear this. I really hope that by going through my journey and how I dealt with loss, something resonates with you and helps you in yours.
Grief is big topic. It’s a difficult topic to talk about. It’s definitely something that until you go through it, like anything, you don’t really understand it. The reason that I’ve made this the first topic for my blog and podcast is because I was reading Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and one of her first chapters was about the elephant in the room. She went through how grief is not spoken about how it’s often avoided. And that’s something that really resonated with me because I have found that people often avoid the topic with me. I have family members that don’t even mention my brother’s name. It’s almost like he didn’t exist. And that can be quite difficult to go through, especially when you feel like people are avoiding it, it almost makes you feel like the person that you’ve lost didn’t exist. It can make you feel as though the grief shouldn’t be there.
So today I wanted to go through my journey over the past 10 months and how I’ve dealt with the loss of my brother Pat. These are simple things I’ve done to help me adapt to all the massive changes that come with grief. I have found too, when I’ve spoken to other people that have dealt with loss, you can get really comforted by the fact that other people also have the same feelings. I hope the same happens here for you. But most importantly, please remember with anything, if something resonates with you, that’s amazing, is something doesn’t, let it go. While I found these things worked really well for me everybody is different and everybody’s experience of grief is different so don’t be afraid to drop something if it it doesn’t work for you.
My journey starting from rock bottom…
The thing about grief was it was mind blowing for me how quickly your world changes. For me, I felt like I was starting from the bottom again. Grief changes so much of who you are as a person. It strips you of so your beliefs and limitations and feelings that you feel like you have to start from rock bottom again.
That’s how I felt, especially being the carer for Pat for the three and a half years he was sick. Being a carer can be very really taxing, not just physically and emotionally, especially when it’s for a family member. Obviously nobody wants to see a sibling suffer and I was really, really close to my brother. So it was an extremely painful and difficult journey that at times like a lot of people do in grief have to mask their emotions for the person that is unwell. I often kept up a pretty humorous attitude from my brother and I don’t regret that. I think that helped both of us in our own journeys. But that’s the biggest feeling I remember – feeling like I needed to build up who I was from scratch now I was no longer needed by my brother anymore. This is when the loss of identity kicks in.
Journaling to help me find a new sense of identity
When my brother passed away, I decided to go to the beach house with my mum for a few days to sit and reflect. Our house had been full of people, flowers and cards and basically, while we had amazing support, it made it hard to breath and have space.
My strongest memory is on the drive up there. As I was in the car thinking about how much life had changed in such a short time I realized that I with the loss of my brother I’d also lost my sense of identity and purpose in life. I had no idea who I was anymore. Being his carer full time meant I had very few moments to myself (which I didn’t mind at all because I loved my brother and would’ve done anything for him). But the problem with that was when I had the space and time to have a good, hard look at myself, I didn’t know I was looking at. I had no idea who I was, what I liked to do. I had no hobbies or interests that didn’t include taking care of my brother or spending time with him.
My way to start processing this was to get a journal – just a basic notebook, nothing fancy – and start writing. I started journaling whatever I was thinking. The biggest personal change came for me when I wrote a mind map that asked the question “have I honored myself” in the middle. This forced me to look at how I’d responded to things in my life and how I’d treated others and myself. I also realized how much effort I’d spent through my entire life trying to control everything. And most importantly how that had actually taken me further away from who I wanted to be.
These are some of the things I wrote around this mind map when I reflect on this question:
- Actions were and have always been out of fear.
- Doing everything I can to avoid situations I cannot control
- No lightness or joy, always so heavy
- Honoring others before myself.
And then I wrote some points like:
- Honoring yourself is not easy
- Honoring others first is easy because it encourages us to avoid
- Always in fight or flight
- Never really surrendered and felt like I always needed to see ahead when I don’t
After I’d written those points down and really thought about it and reflected on my life I then decided to write a list of what I thought honoring myself was. And I think that was a really important thing because it was almost like setting a set of rules for myself or expectations of myself to help guide me in this change that I was feeling. This is what helped me transition from the identity of being my brothers carer to finding some ground on my own.
The things I wrote on my life for honour myself were:
- Being ok knowing I don’t have all the answers and never will
- Choosing myself always even when it hurts others (basically to stop worrying about what everyone else thought and whether or not I was going to accidently upset someone)
- Committing to finding myself and respecting myself
- Having the courage to openly know my values and stick to them
- Putting my feelings first while still considering the feelings of others
- Not doing something out of guilt
- Trusting my inner knowingness first before others
- Having good intentions
- Always pursuing my soul needs without worrying of focusing on what other people think
- Honoring my body and nourishing it.
It doesn’t take the pain, but at least gives you a bit of a guideline on how you want to move forward and what you expect from your life. I guess seeing my brother go through so much really made me want to shape my life differently and really made me look at how unhappy I was even before my brother’s diagnosis. So that’s really where these lists in this mind map came from at the very beginning of my journey.
Deciding to whether or not to get back into work
Another big decision I had to make after my brother passed away was whether or not I was going to get back into the workforce. This was a big step for me because I’d grown up in a family where work was who you were. If you were fit enough too, you worked. The truth was though, the 3 years of looking after Pat and now losing him left me depleted. I worried that work was not going to help me get back into routine but instead be a distraction for me. Something I would drown myself in to forget how sad I was feeling. I was also aware that if I did do this, I was running the risk of using work to push my feelings down so far that they would manifest in a mental break down many years later. That was when I decided to take the year off.
This was an interesting struggle for me because we’ve grown up in a society where work has a lot to do with your identity. The first thing people ask you when they meet you is “what do you do for a living” and when they do know you it’s “how’s work”. Not only was taking a year completely against the grain but it also forced me to create a new identity without relying on work to define it.
So I decided to choose myself. To take the year off and give myself the space to reconnect, find myself and most importantly grieve the loss of my beautiful brother.
Looking back I realize that this decision was also what gave me the power to find my own path. Instead of listening to everyone else, I honoured myself and did what was best for me. I stopped worrying about what everyone else thought and did what I truly felt I needed to. This not only helped me grieve but also helped me recreate my identity as I started to listen to my own inner voice again.
Finding new hobbies, interests and setting new goals for my life
After giving myself the time to breath, I decided it was time to rediscover what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be. I had learnt so much because of my brother and I didn’t want to waste all the lessons he had taught me. I didn’t want his struggle and journey to be in vain. I couldn’t go back to the ambitious, external striver that I was. I had learnt how little that really matters in the end. So instead I decided to set myself some simple, lifestyle goals and spend the year focusing on who I was and who I wanted to be.
Here’s the goals that I wrote down:
- Running 5k in 20 minutes
- Run 20k (half a marathon to prep for 2020 because I wanted to run a marathon and raise money for brain cance)
- An amazing relationship with a guy that is my boyfriend and best friend. We laugh, joke and have fun together on our little team
- A new amazing direction for searching for better with the podcasts
- Meditate every day
- Workout 6 times a week
- Walking outside with the dog every day and get fresh air
- Train my dog really well
- Go to Europe (back to Italy to see family and have a holiday)
- Fun, supportive friendships
- Yoga 3 times a week and master a headstand
- Nourish my body with amazing foods
Looking back I realise how important these goals were. They had helped me look forward and helped to start shaping my life. The last thing you can imagine in grief, is moving forward without that person. While setting goals doesn’t always help with the pain, it became a small stepping stone to how I was going to rebuild my life whilst carrying all that my brother had taught me.
Related posts on goal setting:
Learning to be comfortable by yourself again
Another big stepping stone with grief is learning to be by yourself again – particularly if you lose an only sibling, if you’re a carer or a partner/spouse.
Watching someone through an illness consumes you. Your life becomes solely about them. When they pass, it can be really difficult to be by yourself again because you’re so used to being there for them.
To help me learn how to be by myself again I started to do things by myself that I thought I could only enjoy with other people. For me, going to the beach in the morning and reading was great. I took long walks in nice areas. I also went out to cafes by myself.
All this helped me to be in my own company more. It was as simple as finding the things I loved to do and doing them alone.
Looking back, I realized that at the time the benefits of doing these things didn’t always feel like they were there. But slowly, over the past year, I’ve developed a different sense of self and started to feel better in my own skin and this is due to all the above. It’s helped me process my grief in the best way I can and helped me to move forward as best I can.