In our culture, we tend to be overly self-critical. Sometimes we are so preoccupied, we aren’t even aware of how harmful our thoughts can be to our well-being. We are hard on ourselves when it comes to our weight and appearance, whether we are achieving enough in our workplaces and in our homes, and whether our children are in enough extracurricular activities, and the list goes on! Oftentimes, we feel guilty. Guilty that we didn’t make it to the gym enough, guilty our work obligations got in the way of making it to all of our children’s activities, guilty we got take-out too often, guilty we didn’t have time to volunteer our time more. These thought processes hold true when we are grieving, too, and it is time we start to practice releasing critical thoughts and replacing them with tender thoughts.
When we are grieving, we are already consumed with sorrow, and so it is especially important to release guilt and practice self-compassion. This exercise of replacing our disparaging thoughts with tender ones requires many steps and effort. These are suggestions for you to try. Please note, this will take time and is a process, not a step by step guideline.
Track Your Thoughts
The first step is to actually consciously examine your thoughts. Some thoughts randomly enter our heads, and then leave just as quickly. Other times, however, our thoughts have patterns, and it is important to pay particular attention to these. What repetitive thoughts are plaguing you?
I will give you an example. One woman lost her sister, and they were very close and considered each other to be the best of friends. Before her sister died, her health had been deteriorating for several years, and so it was decided that they should live next door to each other. The woman cared for her sister, took her to all of her medical appointments, and visited with her often. Despite her dedication, her thoughts in her grief held the theme that she did not do enough for her sister before she died. Begin tracking whether most of your thoughts or helpful or harmful.
Write Your Thoughts Down
Writing and journaling can be very therapeutic. Sometimes in order to be fully aware of the thoughts we have, we must write them down. It can be shocking to see on paper the thoughts we secretly have. In order to change our thoughts, we first must be honest that we have them.
The woman who lost her sister wrote down the thoughts of one occasion that she kept dwelling on. She had worked all day and was exhausted. Her sister had the habit of calling multiple times every day, and she had already spoken to her several times, so she refused to answer the phone when she saw that her sister was calling again. She felt badly about this after her sister’s death. She kept thinking she should have taken the call and been willing to talk to her. Now her sister was gone and would never call again.
Be Willing to Fight Negative Thoughts
We mistakenly believe that we cannot control or fight our thoughts. We think that we are helpless victims of the aggressive, cruel, and often twisted ideas that enter our minds. This is not true. We can take active measures to fight the thoughts that we know are not healthy or helpful in our grief.
All you need is one or two skills to start the fight against harmful thoughts. Hopefully, you can learn some skills from this article.
Perhaps there is some truth in the thoughts you are having. In the example earlier where the woman lost her sister, there was true commitment on her part. She had done everything she could have. In some cases, however, perhaps some people didn’t realize their loved one was sick. Perhaps there was more that could have been done. Maybe the priorities could have been rearranged so that more time could have been spent with the loved one before his or her death.
If this is the case, after writing down your thoughts, be willing to forgive yourself. Write down that you admit you made some mistakes, but you are now ready and willing to let the guilt go. Imagine your loved one being in his or her perfect state now and granting you forgiveness knowing that all is well now. Your loved one would extend compassion and forgiveness, so you should accept it.
For some reason, we find it easier to grant forgiveness to others than we do to ourselves. When other people do us wrong, but they apologize and try to make amends, most of us try to forgive. On the other hand, when we make mistakes, we find it difficult to forgive ourselves.
In your journal, write down specifically the mistakes you made. Then write “I forgive myself for___________________________________.” Then, write: “This is what I learned from my mistakes:_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________”
Any time we make mistakes, it is an opportunity to learn and grow. Accept we are imperfect but now have gleaned some wisdom that will shape our future.
Imagine you have boxing gloves in your mind. Whenever a negative thought returns, you could picture the boxing glove punching the thought squarely right back out of your head. You could use self-talk and say, “I already dealt with you. You are not welcome in my head. Get lost!”
Whenever the woman in the example thinks yet again that she didn’t do enough for her sister, she could replace that thought with the truth. She could remind herself that she went to countless medical appointments, visited countless hours with her sister, and prepared countless meals for her. She could replace the negative thought with “I was a caring and dedicated sister. My sister knew I loved and was devoted to her.” Be tender towards yourself.
Share Thoughts with a Trusted Friend
All of us need a true friend that we can be completely honest with. A true friend listens without judgment as we share the thoughts we are having. Perhaps you have pushed your close friends away in your grief. Try to reach back out because you are loved by your friends, and they do desire to help you. Tell them the truth about the guilt you may be experiencing and that you need help in releasing it as you know your loved one would want you to so that you can go on to have a full life and experience joy.
There is a proverb that says, “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). Our thoughts do shape our behavior and can either help us grow or hinder us. If we harbor negative thoughts, we are holding ourselves back from healing in our grief. I hope you can begin the process of examining your thoughts and extending tenderness to yourselves as you grieve.