Tips from a widower on coping with grief

June 2019

Healthy body, healthy mind: some tips from a widowed dad

WAY member and blogger Mark Wilcock offers some tips on how he has coped both mentally and physically after his wife died two years ago...

Grieving is how we naturally convey and release our loss. We experience our grief for the simple fact that we have loved. It can change your whole perspective on life. It can make you question the future in a way that probably wouldn’t happen in a life without bereavement. It’s never a straight path to go down. It’s plagued with mental and physical booby traps that will leave a trail of destruction if you charge through it without support. It’s easy to lose your grip

I can remember back to my start when it all started to change. It was a time when I became preoccupied with thoughts, memories, and images of my wife. Dealing with her sudden death had shaken the foundations of meaning and produced considerable suffering for me. I had immense difficulty accepting the finality of her loss. I was hit by wave after wave of sadness and yearning. These expressions slowly became physical, emotional, and psychological issues.

My outward release of tears and silence were physical and identifiable for those supporting me. In terms of my mental state, being a psychological expression, it wasn’t as noticeable. At first, I refused to seek help as I didn’t want to change course. I was very comfortable to suffer alone as I resisted the grief.

Accepting grief

Over time, all the deviations and facades of “I’m doing OK” came apart and the misery then took over. This was when people started to notice, and everything came crashing down on me. I became dependant on alcohol, I had anxiety issues and I cried, a hell of a lot. I was incredibly sad and lonely. I knew my life was never going to be the same again. I needed help desperately, and I needed to ‘somehow’ help myself.

Like many other people in my position, I learned the hard way. I somehow developed coping strategies as each episode of grief took place. Strategies that worked for me and helped me overcome or at least manage the stress. The first and most significant episode was accepting that I needed to give myself the time to accept my grief. To open myself up to it – to just let it take me.

Learning to accept grief was so important. I knew it was going to catch up with me at some point if I didn’t let it. It was a very tough, complex and complicated decision to accept. I guess I had little choice but to survive as I had a young child who needed me more than ever before. I started to accept that I needed to somehow, learn to cope without my wife for the first time. It led me onto a path that slowly allowed me to introduce some other small changes to my lifestyle.

Support from others

Whilst it was painful to see people, I knew it was important for me to maintain connections with my social circle. It reminded me that I was not alone, even when I felt isolated, I had family members and friends who wanted to help. At first, I didn’t know how people could help me, even they didn’t know what to say or do. The turning point came when I began to share the ‘support’ resources I had discovered online.

These resources came from various sources such as WAY Widowed and Young, Care for the Family and Cardiac Risk in the Young. It provided my friends with a clear starting point on how to support me from day to day, especially when they didn’t know how to. It demonstrated that they could perform simple tasks to help me, like helping with the shopping, cooking a meal or even just cleaning my bathroom. It empowered them in ways they would have never thought. These tasks never quelled the discomfort of grief, but they helped organise my home whilst I managed to grieve properly.

Healthy Body = Healthy Mind

With the distraction of my grief-induced emotions, I also neglected my own physical health. My exercise levels and diet seemed like the most impossible elements to balance. I rightly focused on my own daughter and not me. I drove myself into a rabbit hole. I didn’t bother exercising, I simply wasn’t motivated to do anything practical and it made me feel stressed. Subconsciously I knew I ought to be looking after myself. This stress would then trigger cravings for sugar, which led me to reach for feel-good, high-calorie and high-fat processed foods. What I didn’t realise was that these foods just made me feel worse. It was a brutal cycle to be stuck in.

I only managed to change the sequence when a work colleague offered to take me to the gym one lunch time. The thought of someone accompanying me made it actually feel possible, I had never thought of asking for a gym buddy. I can recall the entire session made me feel bleak and it was so unbearable, but I had managed to introduce some moderate exercise. How I felt the following morning was inspirational, it literally was a wake-up call.

Having a workout buddy really helped me change my focus and my agitation towards exercise. After a few weeks, I managed to build 1 session a week to 3 and my attention started to change. Exercise became more manageable and attainable in my life and my diet followed. I started to be more balanced as I introduced more vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins, I even exchanged alcohol for water in the evening. When I managed to include these changes to my life the mornings became so much more bearable and clearer. The feel-good chemicals were flowing, I could feel the positive outcomes on my body and mind.

Exercise of the mind was also an important aspect of my wellbeing. When I became a WAY member this year, I discovered various support routes by speaking to others in the same position as me. This gave me an additional support network to soundboard and benchmark to further mental wellbeing and recovery.

Looking back

Looking back over the last two years, I’ve realised that I am now at a point where I was balancing the demands of my grief, my wellbeing and the demands of my child. I understand we’re all very different and express ourselves in our own way. You have to remember that physical, emotional, and psychological issues are things we will need to invest time in for ourselves. After all, no one has ever built up a six-pack whilst watching Game of Thrones on the sofa. Mental and physical wellbeing are not simply gifts bestowed upon us. My journey didn’t happen overnight, it took self-dedication and openness to find mindfulness and some empathy from others who understood what I was going through.

The advice and support I received helped me to understand and accept all the heavy and hard stages of grief. I’ve since managed to accept them as each one came. I’ve waded through each one in my own time until I was ready to move onto the next wave. Timely support protected me against the risk of poor mental and physical wellbeing. Ultimately you could also assume that giving yourself time was also a massive part of the healing journey. A journey towards slowly learning to survive with an open wound.

Mark Wilcock blogs at No Rain No Rainbows