Five Tips for Living With a Grief Monster
By Eleanor Haley
So, you’ve recently acquired a brand new grief monster. Not on purpose, of course. No one willingly invites a grief monster into their lives. They just show up–like a fly that snuck in through a crack in an open window–and no matter how much you flail and swat, you can’t seem to make it go away. Except unlike a fly, grief monsters are more than just annoying. They’re downright destructive as they drag their too-long limbs and massive tail through your life, destroying everything in their wake.
Anyway, I’m guessing you’re here because you’ve tried everything you can think of to make your grief monster go away.You shut it in triple-locked closets. You opened all the windows and all the doors and tried shooing it away. You ignored it–figuring if you didn’t give it attention, it would get bored and find someone else to torment. But none of it worked; every time you turn a corner, the monster is still there.
So now you’re resigned to the fact that your grief monster is a permanent resident in your life. I’m sorry for the pain and distress you’ve already had to experience just to get to this place. I know it isn’t easy because I have a grief monster myself. He came to me the day my mother died, and for a long time, I tried to keep him locked away. When I finally realized that he wasn’t going anywhere, I decided to let him in and, this is what I learned.
What you need to know about grief monsters:
Grief monsters are always scary at first:
A big part of why grief monsters are frightening is their mystery. No colorfully told bedtime story or painstakingly written character description could have helped you understand what it would really feel like to be in a grief monster’s presence. As a result, most people panic when they meet one because they don’t know what the beast is capable of, and they aren’t sure how to survive the encounter. Heck, even those who have met grief monsters feel unprepared.
What are grief monsters, really?
Grief monsters come from the loss, but don’t mistake them for the loss itself. They didn’t cause the hole left in your life, and they don’t relish in your pain. They’re simply what happens when the chaotic jumble of thoughts, emotions, and memories about the past, present, and future come together.
They don’t mean you harm:
Grief monsters think and feel the same way you do – love, sorrow, guilt, anxiety, hope – but they are big and intense. And they live in a world 1/20th their size that plays by rules they don’t understand, so they inevitably cause a little destruction.
They don’t want to harm you, but sometimes they remind you of something sad at the worst possible time. Or they point out how your life is different when you’re already feeling down. Maybe they say your darkest, deepest fears out loud. Or they bring on a storm of emotion much too intense for any tiny human to easily handle. So, in this way, they may cause you pain.
Five Tips for Living With a Grief Monster
Your grief monster has moved in and he isn’t leaving, we’ve established that. Now, you have to figure out how to live with him.
Tip #1: Try not to panic.
Contrary to grief monster mythology, they cannot make you lose your mind, and they cannot cause you physical harm. Nor do they want to. When people panic, however, they sometimes react in ways that can cause harm. For example, someone might use harmful substances to try and numb their pain. (Note: If you’re experiencing stress and anxiety to a degree that makes you feel extreme physical discomfort, it may be helpful to speak to someone like a mental health counselor or your doctor.)
Tip #2: Stop running.
As mentioned above, it’s common to try and avoid your grief monster any way you can. When something seems scary and ugly on the outside, of course, your first instinct is to run. But with grief monsters, you have to ignore your first instinct and, instead, turn around and look them in the eye.
Hear this one truth if nothing else, grief monsters are scariest when forced to live in the darkness. It isn’t until you finally stand face-to-face with your grief monster that you learn you can tolerate being in it’s presence. And when you let them into the light of day, you find that they aren’t as terrifying as you thought. They have some rough edges, yes, but they also have some good qualities.
It takes many people a long time to realize the more you avoid your grief monster, the worse it gets. It wants your attention, and it needs your help figuring out how to exist in this world in a way that doesn’t cause you constant and intense pain. Though it may feel like your grief monster was sent to terrorize your life, with a little attention and guidance, he can actually become a tolerable member of your household.
Tip #3: Teach your grief monster:
Your grief monster can take feedback and instruction. For example, if he’s always bringing up memories of your loved one at the worst times, like when you’re at school or work, tell him that. Say, “I will take time to think about my loved one when I get home from school, but I have to focus on my work right now.” Or, if you’re worried he’s going to share your private thought or emotion, say, “I understand you feel the need to share, but I’d like to keep this between us and my journal, therapist, or close friend.”
Tip #4: Find coping tools to help you tolerate the things your monster can’t change:
Though your grief monster means well, he is a monster after all. Some things about him can’t be changed or tamed. For example, a rainstorm of emotion to him may feel like a hurricane to you. So you’ll need coping tools to help you deal with your grief monsters trickier moments. For example, knowing who you can call for support, learning ways to calm yourself down, or having creative outlets can be helpful.
Tip #5: Notice what’s good about your grief monster:
As we mentioned, your grief monster feels a lot of the same things you do. For example, after a little while with my grief monster, I learned he just wanted to think about my mom and remember her. At first, it was hard for me to do these, but it became really comforting to remember her in time. After living with my monster for many years, he’s actually a welcome companion. He’s a place that I turn to when I want to connect with my mother. And sometimes, I even go to him for comfort when I feel sad.