Former British tennis player Annabel Croft has said that Strictly Come Dancing has proved to be a “nice distraction” following the death of her husband of 30 years, investment banker and professional yachtsman Mel Coleman in May 2023. But is the myth of ‘keeping busy’ healthy or not in dealing with grief?
Many people actively employ staying busy as a coping strategy in times of grief. They may dive into work, exercising, parenting, volunteering, gardening and other activities. Or take up a new hobby. Try to reconnect with friends and establish a more active social life.
The basic idea of all this seems to be to engage the attention and keep from dwelling on what has been lost. With less to do there is a fear that the mind will gravitate to thinking about the loss, disappearing down that “rabbit hole” where the level of sadness can become overwhelming.
“It’s been nice to do something joyful and use my body and try to rest my brain from thinking too many dark thoughts.”Annabel Croft, October 2023, Lorraine
Although it’s widely used and recommended by bereaved people, a few commentators warn against distraction as a grief coping strategy. It can work for some people but not everyone. It’s important to use it as part of self care and not for it to be part of denial. Understanding the difference between healthy distraction and avoidance is important.
We read this wonderful story on the Sue Ryder website, about David’s story.
David’s distraction both during this wife Sarah’s cancer illness and subsequently after her death, was wild swimming. Wild swimming is, to all intents and purposes, going swimming outside in a natural pool of water.
“When I stopped work, I lost my routine and all my regular contact with people. Sarah could not get out of bed particularly early when she was poorly so [wild swimming] gave me the chance to go out in the morning to meet some people and swim which has been good for me in lots of ways.”
“You have a real connection to nature. There are moments when you are swimming when you are so cold but it makes everything feel very real.”David
Activities such as wild swimming can be an important part of a self care strategy, as a healthy distraction. Healthy distractions focus on your well-being. They are fortifying and rejuvenating. They can help you cope more effectively with coping with a loss and finding the energy to go about the every day business of living.
The goal of healthy distraction is to reduce the intensity of unpleasant emotions so that we can better manage them. It should leave you feeling restored. Ideally it should also involve others. Choosing to engage with people that care about you can give you that extra boost of motivation and energy to keep going. Being with others can also help you find perspective and have a chance to think of someone other than yourself.
If we are too busy being busy, at any time not just during the grieving journey, then we can lose focus on self care. And this is vitally important at all times but particularly when we are under immense stress.
“Self-care is the practice of looking after and prioritising own mental and physical wellbeing“
Self care involves some or all of these things
- Facing feelings – grief elicits strong painful emotions. If these are suppressed or hidden it can prolong the grief process. Acknowledging your pain and taking responsibility for your feelings can help some of the complications that can result from unresolved grief such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and health problems
- Expressing feelings – tangible or creative expression of emotions such as journaling or art projects can be very effective
- Feeling whatever you feel – anger, screaming, crying, laughing, letting go – all of these are ok. Your grief is your own and no one can tell you when you should be “over it” or when to “move on”
- Looking after your health – try and get good sleep, make healthy food choices, be physically active but more importantly allow yourself to grieve as this is the best form of self-care