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Grief: 6 Reasons to Give Yourself a Hall Pass

02/26/2015 05:22 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2015
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After your loss have you sometimes wished you lived in another time, where those who were grieving were excused from social commitments for up to a year? Imagine, no pressure to attend family gatherings, or go to friends' engagement parties or baby showers for a year following a death. No compulsion to put on a happy face for the sake of others. Some of the customs of a hundred years ago seem constricting, like wearing only black for many years, but I'm sure many of us wish that there were fewer expectations to snap back to "normal life" following a death in the family.

Carving out sacred time for grieving is possible in this day and age, but it requires you to be strong and willing to say, "No." For many people saying no is difficult, especially for women who are used to trying to please everyone and accomplish everything. The world tells women that the worst thing she can do is not be nice -- making it difficult to say no to requests for favors from friends, neighbors, and acquaintances.

Remember that being kind is important, but put yourself at the top of the list of people to be kind to while grieving. Experiencing a loss takes a huge toll on your energy levels, affecting your whole body physically and mentally. It is important to honor your healing journey by giving yourself a "hall pass" during this period, and letting yourself say, "No."

Alma's family had always counted on her to pitch in and plan and host family gatherings. When her siblings needed a last-minute babysitter, or an aunt needed a ride to the airport, Alma was the first one they called, and she never let them down. She was lucky to work from home, quitting her job as a school secretary after her blog became successful, so she often had busy but schedule-free days. After her husband, Freddy, was killed during a seemingly routine traffic stop during his duties as a highway patrolman, Alma found herself lost, spending the days after the funeral mostly in bed, struggling to find the energy to keep up the most minimal housework or update her blog.

Her family tried to offer her support, bringing her food, her brothers helping out with housework, but she could sense their growing resentment when she said no to their requests. One sister-in-law, who wanted Alma to pick up her children from soccer practice, said, "But what are you even doing today?" Alma snapped, "Watching Law and Order," and hung up. She felt guilty at first, saying no to her relatives who she knew counted on her -- she'd always considered her role indispensable.

Gradually though she noticed that each one of them was stepping up to the plate. Her sister-in-law drove Aunt Louise to the airport. Her cousin Jeffrey shepherded the kids to soccer practice. Her brother, Joe, planned a big family get-together at his house. She noticed, and was pleased, that without her at the hub of social interaction, the rest of the family was growing closer. She found that suddenly she had lots of free time, and as the weeks wore on she had more energy. Alma started saying yes again to requests for visits from nieces and nephews, choosing to say yes only to those activities she thought would feed her spirit and not wear her out. She even decided to start a new blog about her grief journey.

When you do have the energy and enthusiasm, try to say yes. Perhaps you do not have the energy to be the chairwoman of the bake sale at your child's elementary school, but you might be willing to donate money, coordinate donations, or donate supplies. Sometimes, your help might be as simple as words of encouragement to someone else, perhaps saying, "I'm honored you want to include me in this project, but I simply can't right now and I know you and your team will do a fantastic job. You are such a talented leader." Saying no doesn't mean that you are bad, or unhelpful. Saying no simply means that we all have limited resources, and unique priorities, and it is your right to choose how to use your time and energy.

Reasons to give yourself a "hall pass":

  • Healing: Your most important job right now is to heal. Anything that diverts, or drains your energy without a clear benefit, from that intent is a distraction.
  • Grief Takes Time: You need to schedule time to sit and remember. To cry. To grieve. Sometimes it's tempting to fill up your days with diversions, but if you bottle up your feelings for too long you might find yourself breaking down in the grocery store, or at work. Remember, "Tears water our growth."
  • Physical Wellness: Many of the physical symptoms of grief mimic the flu -- body aches, headaches, nausea, exhaustion. You wouldn't feel guilty saying no if you had the flu, so don't feel guilty now.
  • Time For Yourself: Be unequivocal. Don't say "maybe" when you mean "no." If you decide you want to change your answer to a yes later, that is easier than leaving people wondering whether or not to count on you.
  • Grieving is work: You may feel lazy laying on the couch watching TV, or going for a walk when you would normally be volunteering, but you are processing tremendous changes in your life. Creating your "new normal" is some of the hardest work you will ever do, and you deserve to relax.
  • Real Friends Understand: Think of the commitment you most dread in the week. Is it teaching Sunday school? Playing tennis with your old boss? If the commitment isn't paying your bills, consider taking a Grief Sabbatical. You don't have to quit forever, but let people know you are taking time off and you will let them know as soon as you are available again.
 

Remember that you do not have to explain yourself to anyone when saying no in social situations. Saying, "No, that doesn't work for me," is enough. People who push for more are being inappropriate, even controlling. Sometimes when you give elaborate reasons for your refusal, the person asking sees this as opportunity to negotiate, trying to wheedle around or object to your reasons.

If you say you won't be able to help paint props for the school play after work, they might respond, "Oh, but if you leave a little earlier, you could miss all that traffic, or we could start 15 minutes later." Avoid the rigmarole by giving a firm no, offered with a smile.

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