Grief Recovery: Find Strength in the Little Things

Grief and recovery: finding unexpected sources of strength

By Elizabeth Harper Neeld, Ph.D.

I surprised myself…A young man servicing my car told me I needed some air in my tires and asked how many pounds the tires were supposed to carry. My first thought was to respond as I had in other situations like this: This is my husband’s car, and he died a few months ago…I don’t know how many pounds of pressure for the tires…I don’t know what to tell you.

But this time I did not tell my usual story.

“Just a minute,” I said to the attendant. “I have to look it up.” I opened the glove box, took out the owner’s manual, and located the information the young man needed. I sat back in the seat as if I had just climbed Mt. Everest. I felt such satisfaction! I felt so capable, so strong! Why, I even felt like someone who might have a future! (Excerpt from Seven Choices by Elizabeth Harper Neeld)

While we might wish for a miraculous change over night from feeling deep in grief to feeling joy in living again, this usually does not happen. Instead, we move forward in our grief process in starts and stops, in bits and pieces, in what feels like forward one step, back two. The outer changes necessary to live our lives without the person we have lost usually feel thrust upon us. The internal changes we are required to make are slow and often imperceptible.

One of these internal changes occurs at those moments when we find the will and the ability to take an action that, as small as it might be, reveals to us that we are stronger than we might have thought we were. These little actions give us courage. They show that we are making important and healthy changes. We often actually surprise ourselves.

Here is what a widower told me once:

One day I decided, “Hey, I’m sick and tired of eating in restaurants. I’m not willing to keep on running away from myself and from learning how to do things on my own. Tonight I’m going to fix round steak and cream gravy!”

So I stopped by Kroger’s and picked up a beautiful piece of round steak—a little expensive and far too much for one person. But I’d just eat the leftovers, I decided. “I’ll have parsley boiled potatoes that you can put the gravy over, a fresh loaf of bread, and a little salad—lettuce, tomato, some mayonnaise on it,” I said to myself.

I started preparing all of this as soon as I got home. I was really anxious. I cooked the steak, cut up the salad, got the potatoes to boiling. Then I thought, “Oh, my God, I don’t know how to make gravy.” I’d tried when Laura was alive, and it always came out in one lump instead of liquid. “Well,” I thought, “it’s time for you to learn. If you’re going to have gravy, that’s what you got to do. What you gonna do, otherwise—invite Mama down from Oklahoma to cook it for you?”

I began. “Settle down and think about it. If you do this first and this second, it’s probably going to turn out all right”…I ended up making the most beautiful pot of gravy you’ve ever seen. The only thing was that I made too much, but I saved it and put it on my toast the next morning.

You know, I found myself to some extent—I found this independence, this ability to live on my own—through cooking that cream gravy.
(Excerpt from Seven Choices by Elizabeth Harper Neeld)

A study of widows carried out at Harvard University uncovered an important finding. Those women whose grieving was moving toward a healthy (and even creative) outcome had “at a particular moment…asserted themselves in some way and had therefore found themselves on a path to recovery.”

The choice to take little actions—like the widower making his gravy, like my looking up the car tire pressure—is an internal commitment, a private decision. By doing these small things, we make sure that we don’t end up living—in the words of an old French saying—as a person whose clock has stopped.

One of the things taking these small, seemingly insignificant actions does is make a life-giving statement:

I know I have the ability to replan my life so that I am not helpless for the rest of my life at the same time that I acknowledge and honor the loss.

It is in the little things we do that we demonstrate this kind of courage and strength.

Related articles:
Comfort Quickies: Self Care While Grieving
Appropriate Expectations You Can Have for Yourself in Grief
You Know You're Getting Better When... 

Also by Elizabeth Harper Neeld:
What Helps When We're Experiencing The Unthinkable
Loss of Our Assumptive World
How Long is This Grieving Going to Last?
The Physical Stress of Grieving

Dr. Elizabeth Harper Neeld offers wisdom and practical insights born of personal experience to people rebuilding their lives after suffering grief and loss. As an internationally recognized and accomplished consultant, advisor, and author of more than twenty books - including Tough Transitions and Seven Choices: Finding Daylight After Loss Shatters Your World - she is committed to work that helps lift the human spirit.

(Author's photo by Joey Bieber)

Photo by green umbrella/Flickr Creative Commons


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Comment by sarita on January 13, 2010 at 11:25pm
what a powerful article. With the death of my husband i have had to remember to do the things that he always did. He would get the mail, there are days i forget to do that. He fed the dog her meds. I now remember to do that, she's happy about that! One of the biggest and funniest things (now!) is he use to take the lint out of the dryer. Four months after he died i wondered why the dryer wasn't drying the clothes anymore...WELL!!! had to call someone to come take the four months of lint out of the dryer!! i now have a sign over the dryer - Check dryer filter! and gosh - i feel good when i do it..and when i remember the mail. We do have to remember that we are still here and have viable lives to live.

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