Several months after Brady died his high school soccer teammates presented me with the letter jacket he had earned for his athletic accomplishments but never saw. I acquired a large shadowbox to display it. I selected some of his personal items to put with the jacket as a memorial to my son and the activities he loved. Then I placed the shadowbox on my dining table where it sat for the next year and a half.
I just couldn’t face finishing the arrangement, securing the items to the shadowbox and installing it on the wall. I moved it on the occasions I needed the table, then moved it to my new home a year or so later, but otherwise it sat untouched, gathering dust.
Many bereaved people describe similar difficulty facing tasks, settings, items and situations connected to their lost loved one. Things bereaved people describe as difficult or impossible to take on include:
- Sorting through a deceased loved one’s belongings
- Selling, giving away or otherwise disposing of the loved one’s personal things
- Entering a deceased loved one’s bedroom
- Living in the home where the deceased person lived
- Attending an event where the loved one will be discussed
Being unable to face a grief-related task can be a real problem. For instance, not a few people find themselves unable to move from a home where they lived with a lost loved one even if the home is too large, too expensive, too difficult to keep up or inconveniently located. Sometimes people keep loved ones’ bedrooms untouched for years because they can’t face cleaning out their possessions.
Being unable to face a grief-related task can be a real problem.
This kind of clinging to the past is not generally considered helpful for recovering from grief. It likely is beneficial to maintain a connection to your lost loved one. But keeping a room like a museum for years is likely going too far. It’s associated with complicated, prolonged, debilitating grief.
In my case, it took a year and a half. I finished arranging his personal items in the box, fastened them so they were displayed to best advantage and installed it in a hallway where I saw it often. Once I was done, I felt better, more empowered and more capable of dealing with my grief. And it was nice to have the top of the dining table back.
I did it with the help of an evidence-based technique. I learned about this one in a book called “Overcoming Depression One Step At A Time,” by two psychology professors, Michael Addis and Christopher Martell. Although the book is about depression, the example the authors used in describing this technique was about a bereaved person. That made me think of trying it on myself.
The key tool in this grief hack is called the SUDS, for Subjective Units of Distress Scale. It was developed back in 1969 by a psychologist named Joseph Wolpe. You can learn more about it here.
Wolpe was mostly interested in treating people for anxiety and phobias. His idea was that by gradually approaching something that was upsetting you, you could ease into it, get used to it and overcome your fear of it.
SUDS was used to help figure out what activities, objects or situations were upsetting you and come up with a graduated approach to confronting and coping with them.
The way you use SUDS is to envision a situation, such as walking into your lost loved one’s bedroom. Then you answer the following question: “On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is the best you can feel and 10 is the worst, how do you feel?” (Wolpe used a scale of 0 to 100; either works.)
This scale is subjective, so it’s up to you how you answer it. However, for many people a 10 might mean that they are completely overcome and out of control. A 9 is a step below that, nearly unbearable upset and almost losing it. You could also assign a 10 to the worst possible upset you could imagine, and work your way down from there.
At the bottom, 0 might be utterly at peace, without a care in the world. A 1 could be basically great, but you could work up some worry if you tried.
After you get a feel for SUDS, take the task that’s challenging you and break it down into smaller steps. Then give a SUDS rating to each step.
The next step is the key one. Arrange the steps by how emotionally difficult they seem.
Now, start by tackling the easiest. Then gradually take on the more upsetting ones.
As you move up the progression, the idea is that you get more and more used to whatever is upsetting you. When you get to the one that bothers you the most, you have accustomed yourself to it, step by step, and you can do it.
As you move up the progression, the idea is that you get more and more used to whatever is upsetting you.
For example, a person who was afraid of dogs might start by looking at a photo of a puppy, then move to looking a real puppy on the other side of a fence. By gradual steps involving closer proximity to larger dogs, the person could get to a point where he or she was able to let a large dog lick them in the face.
In practice, things don’t always work out so neatly. You can’t always start with the least-challenging step and find that naturally leads to the next and so on. However, if you do this exercise, you can gain some important insights into what’s stymieing you.
Here’s an example of how I used SUDS for a non-threatening task to put away some camping gear.
- Bring all stuff together in one room: 70
- Sort backpacking, camping and kayaking gear: 60
- Pack gear into separate containers: 30
- Put containers away: 20
- Decide which room to concentrate stuff in: 10
- Load stuff in other room into container: 20
Next I reorganized the list from easiest to hardest.
Decide which room to concentrate stuff in: 10
Load stuff in other room into container: 20
Put containers away: 20
Pack gear into separate containers: 30
Sort backpacking, camping and kayaking gear: 60
Bring all stuff together in one room: 70
By doing this I realized that I was stuck on the step of bringing all the stuff together into one room so I could start sorting it and packing it away. Much easier was deciding which room to use for this purpose. So I started there and, once I’d begun, I was able to move through the steps in their logical progression.
For the “Finishing and installing Brady’s shadowbox” task I broke it down into these steps and gave them SUDS ratings (I used a scale of 1 to 10 for this):
Look at box contents: 1
Decided if I want to add or remove items: 2
Arrange items for best appearance: 3
Secure items as need with pins, wire, etc: 7
Select display location: 4
Drill holes, attach hangers and install: 4
Looking at this list makes it clear that I was mostly stuck on the question of how I’d attach the items to the back of the box. Step 1 was actually not threatening at all. So I started there.
When I got to the problem step, number 4, I had built up some momentum and gotten involved and committed to the task. I wound up sewing items such as the headphones and scarf to the fabric of the letter jacket. That was much easier than drilling holes and wiring, which was what I thought I’d have to do.
The whole project took maybe an hour and a half. When I was done I felt much better.
As noted, SUDS doesn’t always lend itself perfectly to you specific situation. However, it can in ideal circumstances lead you from easy to hard so you can do something that seemed impossible without a great deal of difficulty.
At worst, you may be able to get some better understanding of why you are having trouble. Then you can sidestep that part, and ease into it another way.
Getting started is the hardest part of almost everything you try to do. It’s also the most powerful. Be careful what you start, because you’re likely to finish it.
Getting started is the hardest part of almost everything you try to do. It’s also the most powerful.
Grieve Well is for people who have lost loved ones and want some ideas about evidenced-based strategies that might help them start feeling better. I hope this look at SUDS has given you some ideas about things you could try that you might not have thought of otherwise.
Thanks for reading, liking, commenting, sharing and following Grieve Well. I’m sorry for the losses that brought us here. I hope we can each get at least a moment of peace today.