Easing Grief Through Connection (Coping Strategy for the Holidays)

Easing Grief Through Connection (Coping Strategy for the Holidays) [Image description: jar of dimes]By Carolyn Comas, LCSW

Grief can be complicated and a painful process. This holiday season many of us are experiencing the loss of the past year we were supposed to have. For those who have lost someone special this can compound the difficulty of this years’ holiday season. 2020 has not been easy for many of us and finding joy during the holiday season may feel challenging.

Many years ago when I was first starting out as a therapist I was seeing a client for grief counseling. This client shared with me something I had never heard about. They discussed that when you find a dime it is a sign the person you’ve lost is reaching out to you. It is a sign they are with you. This client told me how they had been finding dimes all over the place. That evening, after having met with that client as I was packing up to go home, I looked down by my chair and noticed a dime.

This concept was not lost on me years later after my own mother died. I would find dimes all the time and kept each one that I found. In a grief support group that I was in many of the group members shared about the signs they received from their loved ones. Some talked about coins they found, some said it was a certain type of bird they’d see, and for others a certain song that came on the radio. What I learned was that it did not really matter what the thing was but how that thing  we found kept us connected to the person we love. It brought comfort. It brought peace. It brought healing.

It is okay if you are not spiritual or religious. A sign doesn’t have to signify anything more than a memory or a feeling of connection to that person. Right before Thanksgiving this year my brother sent me a picture of a sweater he saw at a yard sale. It was adorned with carousel horses. My mother was obsessed with and collected all types of carousel horses. In that instant I had goosebumps. “She’s with you,” I said. And he agreed. “I feel it,” he said. “It is nice to think she is here with me.”

Coincidentally, my mom also collected dimes that she found as she believed they were messages from relatives and friends she had lost in her life. I didn’t know this until my dad told me after I shared with him about my new coin collection. Knowing this was something my mom also did made finding a shiny dime even more special. It  really makes me feel like she is with me.

Losing someone you love can be difficult. Finding ways to stay connected through a sign is one way to ease the pain and bring comfort to your aching heart. During this holiday season, if you are struggling with the loss of a loved one think about something that connects you to them. Is there a holiday tradition you use to do together or a song you both sang? Maybe there was a food that was enjoyed together that you could make now. Whatever it may be, know that this could potentially help with healing from the loss you feel during this holiday time or during any time of the year.

Recovery When Grieving by Carolyn Hersh, LCSW

Grief and Eating Disorder Recovery [image description: blue butterfly on a leaf]On May 8th, 2017 my mother died due to complications from cancer. It was an unexpected death. I still cannot believe she died. My mom was diagnosed in January and passed away in May. She had gone to the hospital for trouble breathing and never left.

I can clearly remember going back to my childhood home and seeing her sneakers in her room waiting for her to return to them. I cried so hard seeing everything she had touched just days before but left, never to feel her embrace again. I was one of those things she left.

It’s been more than a year now since I lost my mom. It was a year that tested me in so many ways: emotionally, physically, and spiritually. One thing I had to face was how my eating disorder and my longstanding recovery would play out through the worst thing that has ever happened to me.

I have my own history of emotional eating and bulimia nervosa. It started at a young age. Whenever I was sad as a child my mom’s solution to cheer me up was a trip to the bakery for a giant cookie. My emotional eating and my hatred of being the larger kid was just one of many factors that led me to a path of destructive behaviors of binging, purging, and restricting.

I’ve been through enough therapy and treatment that I am able to recognize moments when I find myself starting to eat mindlessly. I check in with what emotions or events are going on. I have, for the most part, overcome being an emotional eater. But, then I was hit with an intensity of emotions that I had never felt before. The seven stages of grief are very real and I definitely went through and felt each of them.

My anger, my sadness, my pleading to bring my mom back, to having brief moments of acceptance washed over me on a daily basis. My sadness felt like someone placed a brick on top of my heart. Trying to breathe became difficult at times. I was angry, intensely angry, at cancer, the doctors, the hospital, at God, at my mother, and at myself. We hear so often how eating disorders fester when we feel a loss of control. Losing my mother was the ultimate reminder “you have absolutely no control over this.”

In the early weeks and even months of living in a world where my mother no longer existed, I wanted comfort and distraction. I wanted food. I wanted alcohol. I wanted anything that would take this pain away. And in those moments of pure sadness, I consumed. I knew full well this wasn’t the way to handle my emotions. I decided I need to reach out to my dietitian because yes, even professionals need tune-ups. I remember sitting in my dietitian’s office crying because I gained weight and was feeling out of control with my body and my feelings. I quickly felt hypocritical as an advocate for all bodies are beautiful and guilty because a weight gain should not be something I should be crying about. I lost my mother. Worse things have occurred other than gaining a few pounds. My dietitian reminded me that I know how to eat and that my body will go back to where it should be when I honor my hunger and satiety cues. But, then she shocked me by saying, “Carolyn, maybe you needed to allow yourself to binge in those moments. So it happened. You binged. It’s done. Now, go back to your real coping skills.”

My dietitian gave me permission to accept my binges. She demonstrated compassion for me when I had no self-compassion. She was right. Sometimes we have to be okay with where we are at. My dietitian did not give me the green light to revert back to maladaptive behaviors. She pushed me back on a path of not beating myself up during a time where the last thing I needed was to hurt myself more.

So, how do you manage recovery in a time of grief?

  • Don’t go back to your eating disorder. Just don’t. You know it won’t help and when you are feeling low why make yourself feel lower? But, if you skip a meal or eat a few extra cookies just know that it is not a relapse. I do not consider my binging moments a relapse. They happened. I engaged and then I stepped away. Be gentle toward yourself and give yourself permission to say “It’s okay it happened. Now, what can I do to get back to my recovery?”
  • Go back to your coping skills. Maybe I could have engaged in binging and purging. Maybe I could have thrown my hands in the air and said: “what’s the point?” But I didn’t. In all honesty, I knew this wasn’t something I wanted. So, I made a list of things for me to do to help me through those really tough moments. I took time off from work and went figure skating with friends. The ice was always a very therapeutic place for me, and just being able to feel that cold air whip across my face me feel happy. I spent time journaling, cuddling with my dog, and reaching out to friends and family when I needed to talk. I began nightly walks with one of my girlfriends where we had heart to hearts. I made self-care a priority. You have to. The small lapses that I fell into never once trumped the real self-care that I was doing for myself. If I had beaten myself up for binges and weight gain then it could have sent me on that spiral back to a full relapse. Self-care may mean forgiving yourself for your lapses. Forgiving myself helped me continue to move forward.
  • Death really sucks. Losing someone you love is painful. It can be a torturous pain. There is no way around that. Losing my mother and thinking about her still to this very moment makes my stomach twist, my heart pound, and my eyes water. There will be bad days. I use a lot of radical acceptance in my grief where I acknowledge this is how it is and I have to figure out now how I continue to live in a world where my mom isn’t calling me. It’s hard to do. Believe me, there are days I do not want to accept this, but if I have to pull from my DBT workbook, acting the opposite is what gets me through the rough days. I don’t want to accept my mother is gone, but that is the reality. I do not, however, have to forget her and how she has impacted my life.
  • It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to feel whatever it is you are feeling and it is okay if those feelings come and go in minutes or if they last for days. There is no wrong way to grieve. During my grief I went to Nashville for a vacation, I would go out on weekends with friends and laugh, and I eventually moved to California. I managed to feel happy on some holidays and cried on others. I did not stop living, but I allowed for my grief to take space in my life.

In the end, going back to my eating disorder would just have caused more chaos in an already chaotic time in my life. I know it won’t give me control, it won’t make me happy, and it certainly will not bring my mother back. I have this blue butterfly pendant necklace my mom bought me before I went into an intensive outpatient program. It gave me strength then and I wear it now to continue to remind myself that my mother was every bit a part of my recovery and is every bit still a part of me. Now, why would I want to throw all that away?

Carolyn Hersh is available to see patients with eating disorders and has Saturday hours. Contact us for more information. 323-743-1122 or lmuhlheim@eatingdisordertherapyla.com