What are some good methods or techniques for managing previous traumas and grief?

I have had a few traumatic events happen in the last few years and I have not able to grieve throughly. Going on 2 and half years since the first and I still can barely even think about it without crying. I will stuff the thoughts down deep because they are too painful to deal with and I simply don’t know how to. I also am dealing with a very sick loved one who is not expected to make it much longer and I don’t know how to handle it so I have also just put it out of my brain acting as if it’s not really happening. Even my closest friends don’t know the severity of their condition. I can’t seem to face it without a complete breakdown and I don’t know how to get through it.
Asked by Fiona

Thank you for submitting a question. I am sorry that you are struggling with these difficulties right now.

We have a tendency in life to want to put things in neat little boxes and have timelines we can check off. This sort of compartmentalization can work wonderfully and be beneficial in some circumstances. Yet, when it comes to challenging emotions like grief it is not the most effective way to go about things. We want so desperately to want to know how long the grief will last. We want to know how to properly process and sort it. We want a guide showing us the way through it and we would especially like, in many cases, to know where to find someone who can be responsible for successfully navigating us through it. 

There is a well-known psychologist who devoted much time to studying and educating about the topic of grief - Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. She completed research about dying, death, and bereavement. Her work is helpful to consider in terms of grief in general as well as in regard to death and illness. One aspect of her efforts includes the identification of stages we might encounter – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. You may experience one or all of them. You might go through them as outlined, or in an order unique to you. You may experience one, move to another, and then go back to the original. There are certain commonalties in grief. But we are all so very individual and unique. And the situations which bring us grief also look so very different. How we move through it all through will be a path that won’t look like anyone else’s. Essentially, we can’t ever compare ourselves and our reactions to anybody else. It might be helpful to you to look into her work more.

Grief is never linear. It is more like a maze or labyrinth full of twists, turns, and dead ends. It can be like swimming in the ocean. You feel like you make it a good way out until suddenly a wave crashes over you, pressing you down and pushing you backwards. Grief comes with breakthroughs and setbacks. There are feelings, triggers, barriers, and resolutions. It is messy, unexpected, and unpredictable. Typically, grief will diminish over time – although it likely will never entirely go away.

And here is something you might not know – because so much can vary from person to person, some individuals do experience grief feeling harder in the second year. What?!?! You would think “by that point surely I will have gotten over it!” You mention that you are two and a half years from the first crisis. Logically, our brain will think “I made it through year one, it’s all going to get easier from her.” Sometimes. Maybe. But not for everyone. Again, grief is not black and white. It’s very grey.

Why might it get more challenging in year 2 or even 3? You might have expected it would get so much better. But a new year doesn’t necessarily mean that will happen. And simply putting the pressure on ourselves (setting a timeline) can equate to self-judgment and stress – which will contribute to making us feel worse. Also, over time you might become less patient with yourself (you “should” feel better) and/or others might not check in on you as much (the support that perhaps came right at the onset is perhaps absent now).

Many people actually find the second year of grief actually feels harder. That is common and normal.

You note that are other tough circumstances and difficulties have taken place. This all adds more complexity. You had one enormous event to contend with, and then before you could really properly deal with that and adjust, more kept coming at you. This can mean you are dealing with a more complicated grief scenario. Whenever there are multiple situations, grief takes longer. You have the added element of a current sickness with your loved one. It truly is a lot. You have both the past and varying events you are trying to recoup from – and that becomes far more difficult and overwhelming as you are now in the midst of a new, active trauma.

It is normal to want to set it all aside as it simply feels like too much. And it is entirely to be expected that you would struggle to open up without encountering what you rightfully explain as a “complete breakdown.”

First, there will not be a right or wrong way to feel. And while it might seem easier to ignore the feelings (they are painful) avoiding them won’t make them go away. You are still going to hurt whether you pay attention to the emotions or do your best to stuff them down. This could be a good time to consider seeking support. You mention not talking about this with friends. You don’t have to talk about any more details than you’d like, but even just spending more time with friends and family will be helpful. Just having someone to sit with helps us feel connected. Working with a therapist, too, could be a good option. They will help you work through the experiences in a way that is gentle and suited to wherever you are at.

Try your best to take good care of yourself. Be mindful about getting some exercise and eating well. Try to commit to some good sleep habits. Think about what things in life bring you pleasure and try to work more of those into your schedule. Are there hobbies you enjoy? Maybe you can schedule a walk with a friend? Perhaps find a good book and enjoy it while taking a hot bath? Make stress reduction a top priority.

Here is a simple exercise for in-the-moment when you might be feeling especially overwhelmed. Sit in a chair with your feet firmly grounded. Close your mouth and put your tongue on the roof of your mouth. Breathe in and out through your nose. Keep your breathing calm and quiet. Then, look around the room and find four objects that are blue or white (or any color you’d like).

Your question indicates you have quite a bit going on. You do not have to endure all this on your own. Seek out a therapist and get some support. A therapist can be there with you even if you want to just sit quietly and not say a word – because again, even just having another human present with us can make a difference.