Suffocating Grief
April 17, 2023 5:25 PM   Subscribe

Quite simply: My marriage ended, and my children (mainly my daughter) dislike me. I have no money (see previous question), no family and not a lot of prospects. I am seeing a therapist and taking medicine for a condition that I live with. I suffer from horrible social anxiety. What on earth should do to get over this heavy, stifling grief? I'll take any pearls of wisdom or advice.
posted by Mr. Hazlenut to Human Relations (27 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: and I should say, I did sign up to volunteer at a homeless shelter in hopes to get out there.
posted by Mr. Hazlenut at 5:36 PM on April 17 [2 favorites]

Walk. Ideally in the woods, with a dog, but anywhere will do. Just start walking and keep walking.
posted by HotToddy at 5:46 PM on April 17 [37 favorites]

You're going in the direction I'd suggest; find some ways to be in service to others - whether they be human or furry. Food Banks may have times you can help sort or pack backpacks of weekend food for kids (e.g.). Rescues in your area might have a Hiking With Hounds or something similar. You may not be turned away if just wanted to chill with the cats. Be aware however that sometimes "approval to be trusted with our animals" can be (justifiably) harder to earn than other volunteering options.
posted by achrise at 5:53 PM on April 17 [3 favorites]

N’thing walking. There’s science to suggest it works! This book may help (if your library has it)
Walk Your Blues Away
posted by dbmcd at 5:55 PM on April 17 [5 favorites]

Sorry, it sounds like you're in crisis mode. I generally find building structure into one's life helps - it's great you've signed up for volunteering.

-Agree, regular walks are excellent, even better if in woods, and even better if by moving water (running water has been shown to calm the mind).

-Rewatch a favorite TV show that's more or less positive/light

-Pick a hobby that you'll be able notice improvement in a matter of weeks. You can buy a basic yoga mat for $20, Yoga with Adrienne is free on YouTube, and you'll notice your flexibility improving in weeks. It doesn't have to be yoga, but people aren't just making up the mental benefits of doing breath work - it's helped me. Another idea would be to look up the different types of kitchen scraps that can be grown into plants (cheap!) - I find tending to some living thing to have a mental benefit - I also find it weird satisfying to observe something slowly growing.

-I'm guessing you've had to move out of your home? Even if money is tight, spending a little bit on a few decor items to make your new space feel a bit homey is worth the cost - it can be as simple as a poster, a colorful table cloth, etc. $25-$50 can make a space feel much happier.
posted by coffeecat at 6:04 PM on April 17 [5 favorites]

Best advice I was given in a similar situation: be your own best friend. Which is to say, imagine someone else is going through just what you are. What would you tell them? You would be kind, and sensible, and maybe push them just a little but not too much. When you feel like you're really stuck, adopt the perspective of your best friend, and address yourself that way. Write a case report in the third person ("Mr Hazelnut is...") that describes your situation fairly and makes loving recommendations.

This is a bit meta, I know. But you know your situation best. What can be missing is the ability to assess it and process it. Stepping back into the best friend perspective can help.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:22 PM on April 17 [15 favorites]

I'm sorry you are going through this, but it will get better. I agree with all of the suggestions above. Here are some other ideas. Start writing in a journal. It's a good way to get your feelings out and can really help you understand yourself better and become more self aware. Do it regularly, once a day, just write what you feel, don't worry about how it sounds. Another thought is to plan some time with your kids. You say your children dislike you, which is sad, but it is not necessarily permanent. They're going through a tough time too. Maybe write about that and ponder why. But possibly you can plan time with them where they get to do something they want to do? Have some ideas in mind so when the opportunity arises, you'll have them as suggestions of things to do together. Or ask them, or maybe just invite them over for a simple dinner and movie? Good luck.
posted by j810c at 6:27 PM on April 17 [2 favorites]

Man that sounds tough! One piece of advice you may not need - avoid alcohol, it will only make it worse.
posted by charlesminus at 6:27 PM on April 17 [9 favorites]

Grief is brutal and acts on its own schedule. Be patient with yourself and everything while you do whatever you do to take care of yourself.
posted by kokaku at 6:43 PM on April 17 [4 favorites]

I find this YouTube channel great for listening to while lying in bed with headphones. It’s guided meditation with gentle music in the background. It really helps me relax and clear my head. Kind of hypnotic, and I’m happy to be hypnotized with positive messages!
posted by waving at 7:58 PM on April 17

Focus on nourishing yourself. I mean this literally and metaphorically.

Make a pot of soup, or your favorite pasta dish, or a bunch of dumplings - something that’s your favorite that makes you feel full and like you haven’t missed out on food groups or anything, that you can have leftovers of in the freezer, that reminds you that you can feed yourself. Eat the fruit that’s in season and picked nearest to you, have salads of fresh picked greens with locally baked bread, have warm cups of tea with honey and good quality chocolate. Grief can make it hard to eat, or to eat well, or make the meaning of “well” change in ways that cause further anxiety. So focusing on getting enough to eat, and eating things that can rebuild your confidence in yourself, or things that can connect you to the world around you, can be helpful.

I also mean this metaphorically in the nourishment of your mind and soul sense. Going for walks absolutely counts. Also, listening to music, engaging in stories, observing visual art - all these things are part of giving yourself what you need. There’s making art, too, which might be complicated for you depending on who you are and your relationship to creativity - when I’m grieving or in an otherwise bad mental space I can’t create, but some people find it freeing and like it can create paths out of grief and suffering. I do suggest giving it a try if you haven’t, like maybe taking photos on the nature walks you take, making collages, playing around with music software like Audacity, or teaching yourself how to moonwalk, or whatever inspires you to try out. Give yourself things. Give yourself fresh air, and music, and kindness, and time.

Even though you have social anxiety there are ways to dip your toe into life with other people. Eat at counters in cafes, read in libraries, shop at the farmer’s market. If you like sports, a sports bar might be a great place to go - as long as being around alcohol isn’t a concern for you (I agree with the above answer about avoiding drinking any) - you can watch a game and respond to the energy of the other patrons, or just sip a soda, eat some onion rings, absorb the atmosphere, and go home. Find ways to be among people, even if you’re not going to directly interact with them.
posted by Mizu at 9:10 PM on April 17 [4 favorites]

The situation you are in is one that clergy are used to helping with, for free.
posted by brainwane at 10:05 PM on April 17 [4 favorites]

A journal
Letters un-posted
Lists for future you
Resonant words of wisdom and hope
posted by Thella at 12:32 AM on April 18 [1 favorite]

Sometimes dealing with my own thoughts is so hard that it makes it difficult to do things like make food, clean, work, be alone, go for walks, and so on. When that happens, it often helps to put on headphones and switch to thinking about something else - music, podcasts, audiobooks, anything. Pimsleur language tapes were surprisingly good at serving that purpose.

It's escapism, which has some downsides, but on the other hand I think it can be a valid way of coping. Watching engrossing tv and movies and reasons engrossing books also helps. Some media, on top of being engrossing, can also help you laugh or feel comforted or optimistic; ymmv regarding which shows or books do that for you, but finding media that helped my mood has gotten me through a lot.
posted by trig at 2:07 AM on April 18 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you're having a really hard time, and I'm sorry. There's a lot we don't know about your situation so this suggestion could be wildly off-base, but as I look at the big basket of problems you're coping with it seems to me that you might really benefit from getting a new job or a side gig that involves working with the public.

I've had social anxiety forever, but it actually improves quite a bit when I'm forced to interact with random people and I have a ready script to fall back on. (When you're working retail or whatever there are always a thousand questions you can ask a customer to fill up any awkward silences.) While I don't care much about money in general I find that my self-esteem does improve considerably when I'm making enough that I don't have to worry about getting by. Plus, then I can afford to treat myself a little when I'm feeling low.

Maybe you're imagining some hellish, humiliating job where you're spending hours every day doing something you don't give a damn about, but it doesn't have to be like that. If there's a subject you're really interested in, try to find a job at some place related to that, where your existing knowledge would be valuable and you'd meet other people who are into that thing. There's got to be something you're obsessed with, everybody's a geek for something, and there's probably some business nearby where your obsession would be a real asset.

I don't know how you got to this place, where your wife told you to leave, your kids are angry at you and you're suddenly broke. Maybe you did something bad, or maybe you've just had a run of terrible luck. In any case, life is long, if we're lucky, and things inevitably change. Your current situation won't last, because nothing lasts. Whatever your kids are mad about, they're your kids, and if you love them and want to be part of their lives, eventually I bet they'll give you another chance.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:31 AM on April 18 [2 favorites]

The uncomfortable adage about difficult emotions is that the only way out of them is through them. It's trite, but it's worth reflecting on. In part because it's a sign of your humanity. As a wise person pointed out to me a few years ago, what would it say if you weren't in deep grief right now?

Many good suggestions above. I'll add:
1. When you're in the thick of it, a way to channel your experience is to read about it in a way that takes on the emotional valence from your situation but uses details that are entirely separate from your situation. There are a lot of folks who've written from your state of mind, and they've made illuminating works. Katherine May's nonfiction Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times came to me at the right time. So did Saunders' fiction Lincoln in the Bardo.
2. At night, do what you can to help yourself sleep. Your brain and body need more energy than you think to deal with the heaviness of grief. For a solid year, I fell asleep listening to Jack Kornfield's honeyed calm voice work through his Guided Meditations for Difficult Times. The material got me through a lot in that first year, and introduced me to very good historic lenses into the unavoidable truth that all things change with time, including what seems in the moment like infinite grief. I still dive into these and other guided meditations from Kornfield. His entire opus might be a good point of reference for you. I check his audiobooks out from the library.
3. Identify the people you can lean on for support. Do you have a really close, trustworthy friend or member of your family you'd be comfortable sharing your situation and feelings with? If so, now is the time to call in a favor: I need your support, because I am overwhelmed by grief. I did this with a handful of people who, my goodness, really pulled thropugh for me. That includes a few people who I never expected I'd have those discussions with, and a few who I'd always known would come through when I needed them. Needless to say, there are six people who I will always always always drop everything to talk to, because they were holdfasts for me when I most needed it (and I send them cards all the time to express my gratitude, no minor holiday is too minor to send a brief expression of thanks).
4. On that last note, are there people who you're already grateful for? You can send a card or two every week to that effect. People used to do this quite a lot, a little card to say that you're thinking of them. Can you get yourself into that habit? It can even be notes of thanks to people who you don't know personally: writers, public figures, nurses, the burger shop workers who always give you extra pickles, on and on. There's no limit to how many people you can give a tiny moment of grace even when you're feeling at your worst.
5. Write. Write for yourself. Write notes to your kids that you don't send (or maybe you do send them, eventually, one day). Write and revise and rewrite those letters to your kids. Rad them aloud to yourself and revise and rewrite again. Repeat. Clarify your ideas and thought processes about what's going on right now. Write a journal into which you can pur everything with no need to be nice and plan to burn it in a year (I did this in my Worst Year and it felt very good, not just the writing, but the experience of getting my ruminative thoughts out on a page, seeing how those thoughts changed over weeks and months, and ultimately letting all of that energy pop and sizzle into a pile of ashes). Write on autopilot, just to write. You can join the Metafilter IRL Artist's Way in a couple weeks to get some group motivation to do this.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 6:32 AM on April 18 [4 favorites]

I heartily disagree with advice that assumes you did something wrong that you must repent for now. You should be kind to yourself, and shouldn’t beat yourself up over wrongs that (very likely) did not happen.
posted by crazy with stars at 8:15 AM on April 18 [12 favorites]

For a while I had a (cheap, not especially healthy, but delicious) dine-in burrito at a particular shabby shop at very regular times because the crew was friendly to each other and to regulars and I could be a tiny part of that and be friendly to them too. As someone said above, you can start with simple predictable interactions.
posted by clew at 8:19 AM on April 18 [4 favorites]

After my daughter died, I really fell back for a year or two on things I had enjoyed before I ever thought of having kids. For you I would suggest casting back to before your marriage - what brought you joy? Did you play an instrument or go to book launches or work out or work a quirky job in a video store. There's only one of those you couldn't do now.

Basically, it's okay to feel terrible and that will gradually pass. But also, look for times you felt good outside of the things you've lost, and pursue things that look like that.

Volunteering is awesome.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:39 AM on April 18 [3 favorites]

I heartily disagree with advice that assumes you did something wrong that you must repent for now.

Thanks for saying this. I was about to write the same thing.
posted by tangerine at 11:12 AM on April 18 [6 favorites]

I'm in a similar circumstance: my ex left 1.5 years ago, took our youngest child (teen), our older two left home, and I'm generally unpopular with the middle child (no longer speaks with me). Empty, quiet home after decades of noise and family. Add in financial issues and hoarding on my part.

My grief was unimaginable as I broke my attachment to my ex. This is the "dark tunnel" as we continue forward without happiness, hoping for a light at the end. The light eventually came, but it took time. As others have written, there's only one way and that's through it. I have abandonment issues; this process forced me to face my worst fears and I can't believe I'm surviving.

Here's what I did:

- Went to bed earlier and woke up earlier. I found my worst times were in the evening, when I was tired and my mind had time to race. Arising early and going to bed early permitted me to overcome this period which lasted about six months.

- Joined a support group. Mine was religious in nature, but that was more due to timing than belief (I started three days after separation, so I was raw). In my case, misery loved company, nobody judged, and it is great to have one night a week where I know supportive folks are going to be.

- Read a lot of poetry. My anxiety made reading books impossible as I couldn't focus long enough. Instead, I picked up Emily Dickinson. Some of her pieces spoke straight to what my heart was feeling, which helped. I branched beyond her work and found some other poets. Wasn't really a poetry reader before this, but reading bite-sized chunks helped.

- Therapy was a big help. I had already been working with someone and he was a blessing through this. It helped with the acceptance. I was also doing DBT work, which permitted me some distance from reacting to my emotions. It also led to:

- Meditation. There are many apps and web sites for this, but I found that guided meditations gave me a good start to my day or a break from my emotions when I was overwhelmed. Apps I tried: Balance, Calm Radio, Insight Timer, Calm, Waking Up. That said, there are plenty of free options for this, such as YouTube. Find something you like and set aside a few minutes each day to try.

- Meals and movies. Once a week I took myself to restaurants and to movies, forcing myself to be comfortable being alone after decades of never doing anything by myself. Whatever I ate or saw, I posted on social media (never posted anything person about my ex or kids; my lawyer checked ;) so I had a timeline of what I did during the dark period. Did you have healthy hobbies or habits you left behind when the family came along? Go back to them.

- Resurrected friendships. I reached out to friends I may have been neglecting, all of whom had been divorced. They're my backbone, emotional sponge, and feedback loop. I needed to talk, vent, or whatever. These three guys have been my anchors, closer to me than my siblings, and they pulled me through the dark.

- My lawyer has been great concerning my financial situation and we've established control of our negotiation process. For example, I don't read anything from my ex's lawyer as their writing is inflammatory and upsetting. My attorney reads their feedback, gives me her thoughts, and we respond when and where necessary. I'm not in a hurry (the divorce wasn't my idea) and my lawyer works hard to ensure that I'm being fair and the person I want to be, not the monster I'm being described as. I lucked out with my lawyer.

I'll leave you with this: what you're doing is really difficult and painful; I physically hurt at the start.

It isn't just the loss of the partner and the kids. You're also be forced to figure out who you are NOW. I was a husband, father, home owner, and breadwinner for a family. Who am I today, with much of that stripped away?

I wasn't expecting this, so I was standing on quicksand for a very long time. I'm still putting myself back together and I'm sure you will, too. Best wishes.
posted by bacalao_y_betun at 3:34 PM on April 18 [10 favorites]

Take yourself to the best Goodwill or charity shops and buy something that will improve your life (like a piece of cookware) and something that makes you smile (like a funny mug). Ask on Facebook groups if anyone has plant babies ... boom, you have a plant. You are raising a new human ... the new you post-divorce. Be kind to that human and make a nice home for them.
posted by cyndigo at 3:47 PM on April 18 [2 favorites]

When I was in the depths of struggle after great loss, some things I did were helpful. I won’t say they removed my emotional distress or healed my broken heart, but it was a way to function.

Some days, just doing one thing was a win. I wrote a task on an index card. It ranged from need to do stuff (funeral logistics, banking stuff) to daily life stuff (putting gas in car, taking a shower).

I accepted it was all effed up.

I accepted there was a a shock to my system. My brain was so slow and addled, I was not able to decide simple things, so it took effort to drink water, go outside etc.

I read a lot of poems.

I did a lot of cleaning. This does not need to be expensive (vinegar, bleach, soap, rags or sponges can take care of pretty much anything). A valuable distraction that did not require thinking and showed a positive end result. I also did random home improvements, organizing/rearranging/enhancing-one day it was hanging a plant bracket over a window.

Assuming you want to repair and rebuild your relationships with your kid(s?), I think you need to stop with the boo-hoo, my kids hate me and pony up here. It might take time, but with sincere effort, you can improve on this bleak status. Don’t give up on yourself as a parent.

Not sure if this is helpful, but: A saint is one day away from being a sinner, and a sinner is one day away from being a saint.

good luck to you.
posted by rhonzo at 7:28 PM on April 18 [1 favorite]

Take a walk in the nearby parks. They are great places to have an occasional sighting of something refreshing even if it’s familiar. On Saturday 3 turkeys crossed our path, we hadn’t been doing anything more than walking (my sib and I) the same route for close to 10 years. Pack a sandwich and scope out a pretty place to sit and eat. You might see or do something to share with the kids. Ask them about the last bird they saw, something simple, they are grieving too, maybe it will resonate, and you will likely have better timing for the grief flare ups as time passes. Maybe see where they like to walk and pack a lunch.
posted by childofTethys at 7:50 PM on April 18

Money was tight for me after both big breakups from a committed relationship, so I ended up taking a second gig both times. The money helped, of course, but the work also gave me a little break where I had something else to think about instead of replaying things in my head all the time.

When you're feeling a little more like yourself, think of something you'd like to look forward to, short term and long term. It can be as simple as a visit to a river or park, it could be a trip to a city that you have always wanted to see. Having something to look forward to always helps me feel more grounded and focused.

That first big split I had, I started planning a trip to Machu Picchu. And it helped. I was alone, stranded in central Pennsylvania with no friends, it was freezing, my job was low paying and actively hostile, and the office itself was within whiffing distance of a dog food factory. I couldn't think of any place more far flung, both geographically and spiritually, than Peru. Thinking and planning for the trip helped keep me afloat.

What you're experiencing, it's hard. It really is. Please be kind to yourself.
posted by mochapickle at 8:28 PM on April 18

It's so good you're reaching out. You're also helping others by giving voice to the quiet suffering that many others experience. I like a lot of the advice above. My list that overlaps with a lot of it is:

Routines (Go to bed by x time, wake up at x time, do yoga Mon/Wed/Fri, walk the shelter dogs Saturday mornings, take yourself out to the taco truck Sunday afternoons, call your sister on Thursday nights, etc. Having a PLAN is good IMHO).
Exercise at least 5 days a week
Be in nature often
Agree with practicing a skill you can get better at over time: Drawing, Learning a language, juggling, playing harmonica, whatever)
Buy yourself little things that make you happy at the thrift store
Consider a support group or some other social milieu where it is appropriate to be vulnerable
posted by latkes at 3:49 PM on April 19

Another suggestion, borne out of some unrelated research this weekend. I came across this study, which looks at a number of things that aren't directly relevant for you. But they point out a few things that might be useful for you to hear and to bear in mind. Notably, they talk a lot about mind-wandering, especially as it relates to stories we tell ourselves about situations and thoughts that are hard to share with other people. Traditionally, the idea has been that concealing these difficult thoughts is inherently bad, in part beause you're cutting off your ability to see your difficult situation with fresh eyes and input from helpful conversations with trusted people in your life (etc.). But some situations are kept provate for a very long time, maybe even for life. What does it mean, then, to turn these things over in our minds?

Turns out it's not a bad thing, inherently. The negative consequences seem to be conencted to turning that thing over and over in your mind with a focus on things that have happened in the (unchangeable) past. When people think about these big, hard-to-discuss things and they have an emphasis on how they can focus on they manifest in the (changeable) present, incuding how things may change in the future.

I hope you can keep this in mind. When you find yourself ruminating about the historical context for how you feel now, can you see what it's like if you try to make a habit of shifting your focus to what that context looks like today, and how you might respond to it in ways that lead you into your still-in-the-works future?
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 6:00 AM on April 23 [1 favorite]

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