In Chinese Five Element Theory, autumn is governed by the metal element. Metal relates to the emotion of grief, so it’s a key time to resolve sadness and release thoughts and feelings that no longer serve us. If we don’t give ourselves the time and space to do this, we risk leaving our lives cluttered with unnecessary physical and emotional ‘stuff’. This stuff weighs us down and holds us back from living our best lives.
Writer Franky Shanahan was 22 when her father died of leukaemia. Today, she’s sharing her experience of living with grief for more than a decade and explaining how she uses self-care to help her let go of sadness.
What Is Grief?
‘Those who’ve experienced grief know its messiness. Sadness mixed with anger and resentment, with a sprinkling of anxiety reminding you not to get too close to anyone lest they die.’ – Lucy Lucraft via The Pool
Intense sorrow, heartache, anguish and misery. Grief can be all these things and more. In simple terms, it’s a normal, natural emotional response to loss or change of any kind. In many cases, it’s characterised by conflicting feelings. For example, the extreme sadness experienced when a loved one dies can be accompanied by a sense of relief, especially if they’ve endured a lengthy illness and are no longer in pain.
It would be misguided to associate grief solely with death, but given my personal experience, I find the description offered by The Bereavement Trust to be accurate. They suggest grief is particularly acute immediately after a death. Even when expected, the shock can be intense, dominating our thoughts to the exclusion of everything else. Once the formalities of the funeral are over, we may find ourselves operating on autopilot and living in a kind of haze.
My memories of the first 12 months after my dad’s death are fuzzy, to say the least. I recall feeling constantly vulnerable and raw, not to mention physically exhausted. It’s the only time I’ve experienced emotional pain in my body. I literally ached for my father.
Gradually, the fog lifts, but unexpected reminders may trigger a strong reaction at any moment. Something on TV or a song can bring back memories. Certain times of year, such as birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas and New Year can be difficult. I find distinctive smells, such as the waxy scent of a new Barbour jacket, painfully evocative. Caught off-guard by this earthy aroma, I’ve been known to weep quietly on the shop floor of a busy department store.
‘Grief is like wandering through a minefield, as my mother puts it: however carefully you tread, a sudden detonation can happen out of nowhere. A song played in a supermarket; an overheard phrase; someone in the distance who your mind cruelly suggests is your loved one for a fleeting moment. Grief can be a powerfully malevolent force, too, a rat gnawing at your emotional wellbeing.’ – Owen Jones via The Guardian
Will I Feel This Way Forever?
There are no set timescales for the process of grieving. Just as everyone is different and unique, so is our experience of loss. 13 years after my dad’s death, there are times when I feel I’m still deep in the trenches, experiencing thoughts and emotions I’d rather block and avoid. I can ugly-cry as if he died yesterday, but also discuss his passing with stoic detachment.
At first, grief is all-consuming. Although it never entirely disappears, over time it becomes smaller and more manageable. The grief is still there, but a new life expands around it. The sadness I’ve carried with me since dad died is interwoven with so much joy. My husband, my children, my career – he’d be so proud. Rather than mourning his death, I find myself grieving the things he’s missed out on, the experiences we’ll never share.
Self-Care for Sadness and Grief
Even the smallest acts of act self-care can be incredibly powerful when navigating grief. During the initial throes of pain and suffering, it’s not always easy to meet your basic needs, but if you can include something simple in your daily routine like a moment of mindful breathing or a gentle stretch, it may give you renewed strength.
When difficult periods arise, and I catch myself feeling ‘grievy’, I’m glad I have these tools to fall back on. Checking in with myself and listening to my body is vital. Basic things like sleep, movement and nutrition are incredibly important for my long-term emotional resilience. Everything is harder when I’m not getting enough rest, especially grief.
For me, letting go of sadness and grief doesn’t mean ignoring their presence. Instead, it’s about acknowledging tricky emotions and moving through them. I find journaling useful in this respect. It allows me to identify what I’m feeling and process the thoughts and memories that might have led me there. If it’s difficult to say things out loud, sometimes writing them down is the next best thing.
In recent years, the kindest thing I’ve done for myself is carve out time and space to simply feel my feelings and grieve unapologetically. For the most part, I know my triggers and can predict which events and experiences will be particularly painful or difficult. This allows me to be extra gentle with myself when I need it most.
I also find it helpful to have a good cry every now and then. Crying is a natural response to sorrow and frustration and it’s proven to reduce emotional stress. Watching a weepy film or listening to music that reminds me of my dad is usually all I need to release any pent-up feelings of sadness.
It can take time to tune into your own needs and learn how to respond in a kind, gentle way. Although I’d give anything to have my dad back, I’m glad sadness and grief have forced me to pay attention to my thoughts, feelings and emotions. It hasn’t been an easy path, and I suspect there’s still plenty of pain to come, but I’m grateful for the healing I’ve done so far.
Love Franky, Lizzie and the SOL team xxx