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7 Steps to Ease Depression after Bereavement

Learning is a gift. Even when pain is your teacher - Maya Watson

‘The trouble is we did everything together’, Viv said sadly.

‘There’s a gaping hole where he used to be, like the empty chair by the fireplace. My life doesn’t feel complete any more and there’s nothing I can do about it.

I feel like I’ve ground to a halt, like an old car that’s broken down by the side of the road.

I haven’t got the energy to get it going again and I don’t know how to fix it.’

Grief serves a purpose

The truth is you can’t fix grief.

Depression after bereavement is a normal and natural reaction and the price we pay for love and attachment. It’s often helpful to understand what’s happening in the brain during this time and how the pain of loss actually serves a purpose.

The brain’s emotional intelligence system is constantly pattern matching incoming information to stored memories. It attaches emotion on all incoming data and categorises on the basis of these stored memories.

This ‘system’ is processing every moment of our waking life and in our sleep too and it is constantly updating itself so we can adapt to changing circumstances. If it didn’t do this when we lose a relationship or when someone close to us has died, we would continue to pattern match to all our stored memories of the dead person and never relocate them as not present in the here and now.

This pattern matching process is why, when somebody close to us dies, we begin ‘searching’ for them, often ‘seeing’ or ‘sensing’ them everywhere as our memory’s patterns of them are looking for pattern matches in the outside world.

So it’s an essential task of grief for the brain to consciously bring to mind the memories of the dead person, or the lost relationship.

In this way, we recognise that they are not going to be pattern matched again. That recognition is what generates the powerful feelings of depression after bereavement, a sign that we are adapting to the new circumstances.

But, while we go through this normal and natural pain, it’s essential to support ourselves by getting our emotional needs met, so that a normal and natural process does not deepen into long-term depression

How to get your needs met while going through the grieving process

The need to give and receive attention

As you stop going out and being with people, you automatically receive less attention and give less of yourself to others. Low feelings can make us ‘selfish’, so that we tend to focus on ourselves and how we are feeling. We tend to spend too long ‘looking in the mirror’ and not long enough looking out of the window of life.

Isolation is very bad for the human brain. We thrive in the company of others. It gives us the sense of connection we need at a very deep level. Isolation causes depression after bereavement.

You may have to force yourself to go out more at first, but being out in the world and doing something will allow you to focus outward. This is an essential part of any recovery programme.

Taking care of the body/mind connection

It’s really important to take good care of yourself. If you were a car you would not expect to run well on second grade fuel!

Eat regularly and well; get exercise, rest and relaxation. Being tired and undernourished will aggravate digestive problems. You need to provide the best environment for the body to start to repair itself and rebalance.

Avoid too much sugar or refined carbohydrates. When we are under par, we tend to be attracted to these kinds of food as they give us a lift, being absorbed by the body so quickly, but they can lead to those blood sugar crashes that then make us want more of the same.

Sugar and refined carbohydrates mimic the effects of stress hormones and raise anxiety.

Lean protein, complex carbohydrates, a mix of vegetables and fresh fruit will keep blood sugar stable and provide the energy to get you through the day and supporting your mind and body while you recover.

The need for meaning and purpose

Begin to focus outward again.

We can start to put off doing things until we feel better, but the astonishing thing is that, by doing things we will start to feel better.

People may put their life ‘on hold’, waiting to get rid of low feelings or depression but, the less you do, the more time you have to worry and ruminate about yourself and your loss.

What you focus on is what you get

Making plans and having interests and activities will automatically deflect attention from your self.

Ask yourself ‘while I am waiting to feel better, what can I do for someone else, what can I be getting on with? Who else could I be helping?’ Interestingly, helping others makes us feel good.

The need for creativity and stimulation

The human brain is an astonishing organism. It is designed to take on board new information, to learn and broaden its knowledge.

Think of when you arrived in the world and had to learn how to walk, talk, how to survive in society. Your brain feels most alive when it’s learning new things all through your life.

Without stimulation, your brain, like a mischievous monkey, will start to play tricks on you, so keep it occupied…keep it busy!

The need for connection

We all need that feeling that we are totally accepted or acceptable to someone or something else. This need can be met by another person or even a pet!

The need for control

This is a very important one. If you feel you have no choices in life, depression and anxiety can soon follow. We like to feel we are in control of our lives but grief and loss can make us feel we are losing control.

Remember, we were born into this world with all the resources we need to get through everything life can throw at us. That is why the human species has done so well.

You can get through this…….

Frances Masters

Frances Masters is a BACP accredited psychotherapist with over 30,000 client hours of experience. Follow her @fusioncoachuk, or visit The Integrated Coaching Academy for details about up coming training.