I like having a list of potential ways to fix a problem. When Brady and his sisters were babies and one (or more) was crying, I’d run through a mental checklist — Is the baby dirty? Is the baby hungry? Is the baby sleepy? etc. — while I heated bottles and sniffed diapers and otherwise tried to get them to stop wailing.
It’s not that something on the checklist always did the trick. Sometimes it did. But about as often, working my way through it distracted me while the babies worked through whatever was bothering them and they calmed down on their own.
With that in mind, this post shares a list of 55 separate strategies for coping with grief. That’s a lot more than I had for dealing with crying babies, even if it is probably not too many given the nature and size of the problem we are dealing with.
It’s called the Checklist of Strategies for Coping With Grief and it is possibly the most useful single resource for bereaved people that I have located so far. It’s as practical, concise and comprehensive a toolbox or recipe book for dealing with loss as you are likely to find. I urge you to check it out.
Hopefully, something on this checklist will help you, or at least distract you from your pain for a while. The way I see it, every second stolen from the blackness of grief is a triumph for life, no matter how you come by it.
How to Use The Checklist
The checklist was assembled by a pair of headshrinkers. Donald Meichenbaum is a hot-shot psychologist I referred to in my last post on Risk Factors. The other, Julie Myers, is well-educated, with more degrees than a thermometer.
The checklist appeared in a book edited by Robert Neimeyer, a prolific and influential grief researcher. Neimeyer was also featured in the risk factors post. (It’s a coincidence. I am not president of the Neimeyer and Meichenbaum fan clubs or anything.)
The authors say the list was developed from “treatment literature, clinical experience, and focus groups with survivors and their mental health providers.” So it’s not all based on research studies. There’s much practical hands-on field wisdom. But I figure it’s evidence-based enough to fit the Grieve Well template.
I recommend you click on the link — here it is again — and read the whole paper. It’s about 10 single-spaced typed pages, roughly 3,500 words total. It shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes to read all of it.
The authors caution that this is not supposed to be used as a stand-alone intervention for complex loss or trauma. The list was published in a handbook for therapists, not a self-help book for laypeople. But I don’t see why we can’t at least potentially get some benefit out of a do-it-yourself approach. And risk of harm seems low.
The recommended way to use it is to go through the list, checking off strategies you’re already using while also, of course, being on the lookout for strategies you’d like to try. If you can get another griever to do this with you, compare notes and swap ideas.
The recommended way to use it is to go through the list, checking off strategies you’re already using while also, of course, being on the lookout for strategies you’d like to try.
Also note any strategies you know of that aren’t on the list. The idea is to mount a full-contact, no-holds-barred, bare-knuckle campaign to feel better. Actually trying the strategies is, obviously, key. You have to implement them to do any good.
The opening paragraph of page 6 makes an important point. This list is not to be used to grade the way you’re doing grief. It can help you identify coping strategies you are already using and suggest others to consider. You don’t have to use all or any of them. If something seems like it might help, you could give it a try. That’s all. Just something to think about.
Coping Checklist Themes
I use many of these strategies now and I look at the list from time to time to see if there’s something else I could try. Rather than going through each one here, I’ll highlight the major themes and a few of the strategies I think are worthy of emphasis. Below are the five themes the 55 strategies are organized around:
- Sought comfort and help from others
- Took care of myself physically and emotionally
- Stayed connected to the deceased and created a new relationship, while recognizing the reality of the loss
- Created safety and fostered self-empowerment
- Moved toward a future outlook and a stronger sense of self
These track the currents of Meichenbaum’s prior writing on grief. They also echo some prominent themes in grief research and treatment.
Theme One: Rally Your Peeps
The first theme emphasizes the value of social support. This is well-established. All research I’ve seen supports the view that, in most cases, you’ll deal with your loss better if you don’t do it alone.
While this theme may be pretty broadly applicable, every individual strategy won’t fit every individual griever. I’m personally hesitant to embrace number 7 — “I learned to grieve and mourn in public.” I’m just not comfortable sobbing like a toddler in front of anybody but family and close friends. It may be a fine thing, but my machismo is not solid enough to let me embrace that enthusiastically.
Every individual strategy won’t fit every individual griever.
Exception: I wept without restraint or shame at my son’s memorial service in front of hundreds of people. That wasn’t really a choice though. It was either cry publicly or go home. I also openly shed some tears at a ceremony at half-time of a soccer game when Brady’s high school team awarded me his letter jacket. But mostly, I don’t want to do this.
Theme Two: Take Care of You
Next up is taking care of yourself physically and emotionally. This covers exercising, eating healthy, keeping up personal hygiene, avoiding excessive alcohol and the like.
I think number 18 is particularly powerful. It says, “I examined the thoughts and feelings that kept me from taking care of myself physically and emotionally, such as guilt, shame, sense of lost self, and loss of the will to live.”
I’ve had these thoughts and feelings about not wanting or being able to take care of myself and it seems like a very good idea to challenge them. If they take over, life is going to suck worse than it already does. I don’t want that.
Theme Three: Maintain Connections
The third coping theme is on staying connected to the deceased. This reflects the modern view that it’s therapeutic to maintain ties to your lost loved one. It contrasts with the older, Freud-inspired attitude that the main task of mourning is to sever those connections.
This theme covers strategies like visiting the grave, assembling photo memories and writing letters and talking to the deceased. I’ve done many of those and gotten varying amounts of help from them. Grave-visiting, I’m not crazy about. But I like having pictures of Brady around, and from time to time I go by the soccer fields where he played and practiced for so many years and sit for a few minutes on the memorial park bench I had installed for him. It makes me sad, but I definitely feel connected to him at those times.
Theme Four: Seek Both Comfort and Challenge
The fourth theme — “Created safety and fostered self-empowerment” — has two sub-themes. These are the contradictory objectives of cutting yourself some slack and also forcing yourself to do some things that are uncomfortable.
I want to call attention particularly to the first strategy in this set, number 41 — “I examined the thoughts that fuel my fears, avoidance, and the belief that I cannot or should not feel happy and that things would never get better.” I think this is a major problem for many grievers, including myself. It may be the first challenge, even before acceptance, that we could consider tackling.
If you don’t think you deserve to be happy or you think there seems little point in even trying. No coping strategy is likely to help.
If you don’t think you deserve to be happy or you think there seems little point in even trying. No coping strategy is likely to help. I’m still working on this, but I hope to eventually completely disarm these self-destructive viewpoints.
Theme Five: Create A Life Worth Living
The last theme is about moving forward. It describes strategies to develop a future you can believe in and aspire to.
Again, in this theme the first strategy, number 50, takes aim at self-defeating attitudes. It goes, “I examined the thoughts and feelings that kept me from moving forward, such as ‘I am dishonoring the deceased by getting better,’ or ‘I am leaving him/her behind,’ or ‘Feeling happier means that he/she is no longer important to me,’ or that ‘My love for him/her is fading.'”
This is critical, in my opinion. I struggle with these self-blocking thoughts and feelings and many people have expressed to me similar or identical ideas, sometimes in explicit and forceful terms. After repeated exposures to other bereaved people’s self-defeating attitudes, I realized that a lot of people don’t really want to feel better. About then I began to recognize those same attitudes in myself.
After repeated exposures to other bereaved people’s self-defeating attitudes, I realized that a lot of people don’t really want to feel better. About then I began to recognize those same attitudes in myself.
Folks, I don’t make a lot of absolute statements. But surely it is self-evident that if you believe you are worthy of happiness and that your happiness would be a good thing you will have a better chance of achieving it. I recommend a hard look at coping strategy number 50. You are worth it. Believe it.
A Few Additions
At the end of the checklist are blank lines for adding other strategies you’re using or want to try. I was surprised, given that Neimeyer edited this book, that there was nothing in this list that directly addressed finding meaning, making sense or identifying benefits from the death. Most of his research and writing revolves about the importance of finding meaning. I would consider adding meaning, including sense-making and benefit-finding. You can learn more about this in the post on Making Sense of Senseless Tragedy.
Another strategy that seemed to be missing was volunteering. The term never appears in the list, in any event, although some items do suggest helping others. I personally volunteer regularly. I deliver meals weekly with Meals on Wheels (a government-supported program to help feed mostly elderly shut-ins.) I show up for park cleanups and the like. I don’t know why, but it helps. I heard today that, “It’s hard to be sad when you’re being useful.” Maybe that’s it. I wrote more about volunteering as a grief coping strategy in this post.
What would you add to this list?
The Helping Strategy: Why Grieve Well Exists
Many of us use the coping strategy of helping others suffering from a loss (number 40.) Maybe that’s because we learn best by teaching. Or perhaps we feel empowered when we position ourselves as authorities. Maybe we’re trying to give back because people helped us when we were even lower than we are now.
Whatever it is, I think I help myself every time I share evidence-based bereavement grief coping strategies. Researching a post suggests or reminds me of strategies I’d forgotten. Writing forces me to try to put it together in a systematic way. When I interact with other grievers, they often suggest helpful grief hacks. In these ways and others, it’s good for me. Thanks for being part of it.
Again, none of this is intended to be about scoring, ranking, judging or comparing your approach to grief. These are ideas for coping that you might not have thought of. I’m describing my experience of grieving the death of my only son to suicide in October 2016, not trying to tell you how to handle your own loss. (Mostly, that is. I do offer some recommendations, admittedly.)
None of this is about scoring, ranking, judging or comparing your approach to grief.
Thanks for reading, liking, commenting, re-posting, sharing and subscribing. I hope you’ve gotten some help from this and, whether you did or not, I hope you get at least a moment of peace today.