Using the outdoors to help with grief

Grief comes in many different forms. We usually associate grief with the death of a person or animal we loved deeply. But it can also be triggered by other events, such as the end of a relationship or the loss of a job. Grief plays out differently in everyone and there is no way around it. But there are ways we can help ourselves through it.

In 2014 I lost a partner to suicide. A traumatic and unexpected grief which forced me to learn some coping mechanisms very quickly. A few months ago my Mum passed away after fighting cancer for years. You can read more about my personal grief experiences on my other blog.  Again I was thrown into the fathomless waters of grief. And again I am swimming for the surface. I know that using the outdoors will help me get my head above the waves. So here I’m sharing a few tips to help anyone else who’s suffering with grief.

5 ways to use the outdoors to help with grief

1. Be outside

Taking care of yourself is key. It’s so easy to stay in bed an extra hour or two, to not eat breakfast and to allow yourself to get into a cycle of stressful activity. Friends and family can advise and encourage but the only person who can help you is you. Get into a routine; get out of bed, feed yourself well and step out the door! Every day dedicate at least one hour to being outside doing an activity you enjoy. Whether it’s walking, gardening, running, climbing – anything – just make sure you always get that hour in.

Some days it will be cold. Some days it will rain. Those are your times to make a choice. Being in control of your life and not allowing yourself to take the option of staying in is so important. Throw yourself out of that door and try to see the magic in sunrises, rain drops and all the other wonderful things nature has to show us.

2. Talk to others

One great thing I have discovered through grief is that people don’t mind listening. Take your friends with you on your hour outdoors and talk. Talk to everyone you know. Repeat the same things over and over. And cry while you’re doing it if you like. Honestly, no one minds if you cry! Please, if you’re a man, don’t ‘man up’. Let all the grief flow out of you. Only by releasing it can you ever begin to move forward. Gradually you will find that laughter and happy memories come into your chats. It will get easier but it takes time.

And on the subject of time…there is no time limit on grief. People may seem to drift away and forget but they will still be there for you if you just reach out. When my partner died I was told ‘you won’t feel normal again for at least three years’. There were so many things about that statement which I disliked. Did I have three years of misery ahead of me? If I felt ok before those three years were up did that mean I didn’t care? It turns out I had three years of laughter and happiness ahead, mixed in with the grief. It also turns out there would never be a ‘normal’ again. Don’t worry about that. Just take your time.

Don’t forget there is a whole virtual world of people willing to listen too. Some of my best interactions and greatest support came from people I met on social media when I was grieving. I have virtual friends I have known for years.

3. Raise your heart rate

Ever heard of endorphins? Or, as one of my friends calls them ‘happy dolphins’. A pretty basic description of them is they’re chemicals or hormones released by the body during exercise. And they make you feel happy. Who doesn’t want that?

When we are grieving we live on past memories. Turning them around in our heads and focusing on what was lost. We must not be afraid to make new memories and find new happiness. Whatever we want the world cannot stop turning. Taking up a new hobby (or returning to an old one) which raises your heart rate, releases endorphins and  creates new memories is a great way to keep up with that turning world.

The internet and social media provide us with so many ideas and options. Get online and search for your perfect new hobby! Local running groups, open water swimming, paddlesport, dance lessons…whatever fits for you.

4. Practice mindfulness

When we are grieving we can get caught in a web of thoughts which tumble in our head. Conversely we sometimes find our head is blank. Since my Mum died I’ve been in the latter camp. My brain deciding it’s not yet ready to process the total loss of such an important part of my life.

We must allow thoughts to come to us and not block them. But it’s also important to be able to break free of those thoughts when they become destructive. I previously wrote a blog on The Power in Letting Go. This talks about some mindfulness techniques you can use when feeling anger or hurt. The same techniques apply perfectly to grief – which can also leave us feeling angry and hurt.

I use a basic mindful technique to break thought cycles. Whilst you are outdoors start to mentally list all the things you can see hear and feel. For example ‘I see birds. I see clouds. Trees. Grass. Water.’ The list will go on and on and will change as you walk. Focus on what you feel ‘I feel my jacket against my skin’ etc. You can list the sounds and even the colours around you.

If you can focus on using this technique, even just for a minute or two, you will find those destructive thoughts are broken. It truly gives you a sense of relief. You can read more about getting started with mindfulness in this article.

5. Care for others

This final one is so important when grief is overwhelming you. Allowing people to care for you is essential but so is caring for them. If people are close to you they may well be grieving too. Or they may have other things going on in their lives which cause them stress.

I found that, when I was grieving for my partner, people would say ‘you don’t want to hear about my problems. Yours are much bigger’. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Grief and other life issues do not need to be compared. It’s not a contest. I found that listening to others and caring for them bought things into perspective.

Use your hour outdoors to ask someone how they are feeling. Pay back the love they are showing you. Share the wonders of nature and exercise. Listen, smile and cry together.

You will break through the waves

Grief is incredibly complex and we are all different. I know that being active outdoors has helped me through one grief and will get me through the one I am going through now. I hope you find it helps you too. If you need someone to talk to I am always ready to listen.

You can read more about my experiences of grief on my other blog and the recently written All That is Lost: The Death of a Parent.

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