I was recently asked to collaborate on a grief project with a focus on barriers to moving forward after loss. This got me reflecting on my own experiences and those of my clients at Coaching After Loss. I provide 121 coaching support to help people regain purpose, meaning and focus after bereavement or significant life changes.
When I refer to ‘moving forward’ I should firstly clarify what I mean. Moving forward, to me, means leading a life of purpose and hope while taking your lost loved ones with you on this journey. Our life-changing experiences can often give us an enhanced appreciation of what matters in life. We understand the importance of seizing the day and have huge potential for personal growth.
Grief is complex and unique to each one of us so trying to make life changes in the aftermath of loss can be a physical, emotional and psychological challenge. It should not be underestimated, rushed, or forced but allowed to gently evolve as part of the grieving process.
Here are my thoughts on some potential barriers that can hinder the process and my suggestions for taking the first steps.
Everyone needs the time and space to grieve, and it is such an individual process. The initial numbness and shock are protective but mean life feels surreal for some time. Processing loss can come in waves and adjusting to your new reality ebbs and flows. You can encounter a myriad of emotions, feel like you are making progress and then be thrown back into the abyss of suffering.
It is vital that you move at your own pace and are not bound by expectations or the influence of others. You will eventually know when you are ready. This may come in a restlessness to bring about change or a sudden drive to seek out what support.
When loss happens our lives are de-stabilised, we lose the familiarity and safety that keeps us grounded. Life can be dominated by fear and anxiety, forever expecting the worst to happen. A loss of confidence can manifest, we withdraw, and more change becomes daunting.
My experience of sharing experiences with others in similar positions was incredibly helpful and made me feel less alone. Immediate family, support groups and the online grief community were wonderful. Journalling was also a life saver, capturing my feelings in the moment, avoiding judgment and starting to unpick my fears.
3. Physical health
Grief has a huge impact on your physical health. Poor sleep, low energy, memory and concentration issues coupled with restlessness and anxiety can leave you exhausted and depleted of your regular coping mechanisms.
Making changes and exploring your future takes time, energy and motivation. Focusing on maintaining your basic physical health is essential. Invest in self-care and be gentle with yourself. Don’t judge yourself, don’t set expectations and certainly don’t make comparisons to others.
I found I had short bursts of energy and needed to capitalise on this. I would ensure I wrote things down, made lists, mind maps, completed simple coaching exercises – grabbing my phone to capture my thoughts in the moment. I sometimes find random entries in my phone notes and am blown away by the depth of thought at my lowest times and I’m so thankful I kept a record.
Our identity, sense of self and roles can be thrown into chaos following loss. Expectations from others that we are going to ‘return to our old self’ increase our confusion. Sitting with the reality that we are changed forever is uncomfortable, a strange limbo between your old life and the new. Trusting in your strengths that have got you this far and recognising your progress can provide hope for the future.
Building a life where your loved one isn’t physically present is tough and can leave you feeling guilty. How can you go on, have a life, even have moments of happiness again?
I found avoiding platitudes, which had no place following the tragic loss of a child, was essential. I dug deep to explore how I could use my strengths and unique experience to build a future that honoured them. Talk about them, know they are always front of mind, never left behind, they are the special part of the new you.
Where you live, work, socialise, even shop can be heavily impacted by loss. So many memories, connections and potential triggers at every turn. Learn to adjust, put your needs first and appreciate that your tolerance or reactions might vary and that this is ok.
I had a fear of bumping into people I knew and seeing the sympathy in their eyes. I did my shopping online and kept dog walks to remote places. I also chose to change my environment completely and, a year on, have moved to a different city. This won’t be the choice for the majority so focus on what serves you, where you feel comfortable and what takes or gives you energy.
7. Support network
Having an effective support network following loss is crucial. Have you got a community to connect with? Have they got your back or are they holding you back? It doesn’t always come from those closest to you. I found much of my support online, the relative anonymity provided safety. I wasn’t judged and received kindness and validation.
There is a wealth of grief support available and I would encourage anyone to see what works for them. External support comes with an objectivity that often helps.
If any of what I have covered resonates, here is some further support for taking those tentative first steps to move forward.
Head to my resources hub for tools to help you assess your readiness for change and exercises that will help start your thinking. For a deeper reflection and practical guide to planning a future full of hope and possibilities, download my free workbook: Finding meaning & purpose after loss