Thinking Out Loud: How to cope with bad days

John T. Catrett III
ONHL Hospice Chaplain

"Nurture your mind with great thoughts, for you will never go any higher than you think."  ~Benjamin Disraeli

Everyone has to deal with bad days whether mourning the death of a loved one or confronting any major change in life. They are to be expected, although many individuals are caught by surprise when the early pain has lessened a bit and then all of a sudden grief shows up as though it was just a few days old.

As I have told many mourners, tell yourself this terrible spectacle is a normal part of grief work. To repeat: normal, normal, normal. Keep saying it to yourself. It is nothing you have done wrong. Rather, it is a function of how your highly influential unconscious mind has been programmed early in life and the unconscious beliefs you now hold.

Sometimes these difficult experiences are part of special days when you used to shop with your loved one or take a weekly drive to a beautiful natural setting. They could also be birthdays, church days or anniversaries. Sometimes they are triggered by something you see on television or when out in public and see a couple walking hand in hand. You are totally unprepared for the wave of grief that sweeps over you, but you can learn to manage the torrent of feelings.

What can be done to cope with the pain that suddenly comes out of nowhere? Here are some approaches to consider and try.

It all begins with what you say to yourself. Your inner life holds the key to dealing with anything your new life has to offer. Be prepared for the possible bad day well in advance. It may mean you have to change an old belief like, "I don't deserve this.  There's something wrong with me" to "This has nothing to do with deserving, so let me move toward finding ways to deal with it." Are there any other beliefs that are adding to your unnecessary suffering? Like, "I shouldn't be feeling this way." Review, challenge and replace.

Depending on where you are, make contact with a best friend and share your present moment feelings. This presupposes you have support persons who are good listeners. And you may have to ask a couple of them in advance if it is okay to contact them when you are feeling low and need to talk. It takes humility to do this. Expressing those feelings and not storing them is a proven way to ease pain and is a first step in dealing with this part of the grief journey.

Remember, this is a part of the grief journey, not some attack by an unknown force or due to low self-esteem. Thus, if your friend is not available, find another way to let out what is building up inside. Write, talk to God and ask for help, or immediately focus on a special project you have set aside for just such an occasion, to take your mind off of what triggered the event. What you focus on ultimately determines the course of your journey and the direction of your energy.

When you know in advance that a particular day or hour is going to be difficult, plan several events or chores that will help you feel worthwhile. Often putting structure into your day helps reduce thoughts that fuel the pain of the day. Of course, everyone is different and you may need to place yourself in an environment where you feel safe and will not be bothered by others who may upset you by what they say, or even by their presence. It will also help to make a list of things to do when the unexpected occurs.  Call it your Plan B list.

If you want to change your bad day (and some people may not want to) constantly motivate yourself by recalling that: unless you change behavior and/or beliefs results remain the same. This may mean do all that you can to clear old negative memories that fuel your bad day. Stay alert to your physical feelings and what you are saying to yourself. There is an extremely close relationship between body and mind, what we think and how we feel. Change the programming of your more powerful unconscious mind by repeating good memories, affirmations, and using your creative imagination. See yourself doing good things and coping with specific changes you have to face.

Last but not least, consider the influence of movement. Many mourners are not aware that exercise has a great effect on the brain and can bring release from the pain of loss.  Believe it or not, walking 20 minutes at a steady pace will do wonders. If possible, arrange for someone to walk with you. Pick a route where nature is at its best and focus on the trees and wildlife you see. Emerge yourself in the surroundings and listen for the sounds. Become aware of all of your senses and what they can pick up. Equally important, reduce the amount of time that you spend sitting. Prolonged sitting promotes poor blood flow throughout the body. Get up and stretch frequently.

Bad days can also be learning days, if you will allow it. Spend some time contemplating what meaning and purpose these days serve. Don't miss an opportunity that grief provides to get you to analyze your views about life and your various connections with people, places, and things. What is your degree of acceptance at this point in your grieving? Remember Disraeli's quote above and nurture your mind with great thoughts as difficult as it may be.

John T. Catrett III is chaplain for ONHL Hospice. He can be reached at (918) 352-3080 or