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How to Fight Grief Induced Mental Exhaustion

Danielle Dahl, Lead Contributor

The month of May comes every year, marking the almost halfway point of another trip around the sun. The closer May gets, the more mental exhaustion I begin to feel.

I’m not just tired, like I went to bed too late, or could use a nap (although those things are factual), but grief robs me of the energy required to function. I feel restless and annoyed. Worry and Anxiety, my two oldest friends continuously want me to come out and play. Their games will consume every moment of the day if I let them. 

You see, May is the embodiment of all my grief. And not just mine, but my siblings as well. This May 18th was especially challenging, and it made me realize that I need to find a way to combat the mental exhaustion caused by immense grief.

My father passed away ten years ago, on May 18th. Five years later, on May 18th, my five-day-old niece succumbed to metabolic failure. The eighteenth day of May is an exhausting day for the Fusco siblings. If you ask my sister, she will tell you it is cursed. 

Why doesn’t grief go away 

“Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.” – Megan Devine

I have accepted the fact that I can not bring back the loved ones I have lost. My mom lost her life in a car accident when I was 18. My brother in law died tragically at the age of 21. I watched my grandpa battle Alzheimer’s.

I know that the problem can not be “fixed,” but I hadn’t realized I was going to carry around the pain forever. Some days it feels like I am carrying around a small stone in my pocket. I can sense the weight, but it isn’t cumbersome; most days, I find myself patting my pocket to check if the little stone is still there. Yet, on other days it feels like I am carrying boulders up a hill.

The rocks are too heavy, and my feet slide backward. I wonder if there is any purpose for getting the rock to the top. It is on these difficult days that I find myself wondering why this grief won’t go away. The loss of my mom happened nearly 20 years ago; does it need to feel like it was only yesterday?  

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Deborah Horton, a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, explains how grief is like an ocean. She describes the pain of loss as, “Sometimes peaceful and calm and other times angry and unsettled. Grief comes in waves.” And this is where I found myself on Monday, May 18th, trapped in the undertow of a wave I should have seen coming. 

What are the physical and emotional symptoms of grief

The physical and mental symptoms of grief can mimic other ailments’ signs, so they are hard to pinpoint. They are different for everyone but include:

  • Mental exhaustion
  • Trouble catching your breath
  • Chest pain and headaches
  • Upset stomach.
  • Oversensitivity to noise and light
  • Skin problems and sensitivity
  • Panic attacks

In the weeks or so leading up to this anniversary, I experienced nearly all of these. I blamed the breathlessness and panic attacks on going back to work in the middle of a pandemic.

Maybe I was having trouble breathing because of the mask? Who wouldn’t be having a noise and light problem trying to readjust to the giant florescent lights of a massive retailer?

Sure, my stomach hurt…I had started eating gluten again after nearly a year. After all, I read a post about people with Celiacs not finding food in the grocery store because everyone was buying the GF foods since the regular pasta vanished. I have anxiety, and while I usually manage it well, there was a lot of extra crap happening all around me. 

I didn’t find it odd that I was annoyed about things, or easily irritated. If I had to listen to one more entitled woman whine because the store asked her to wear a mask, I might snap. I had an extended family member pass away due to COVID-19. I attributed all the emotional signs of grief to the fact that nothing is the way it was. I mean those signs include things like:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of detachment 
  • Depression and loneliness
  • Troubled thoughts

I mean, come on, my kids were home from school, and I was trying to teach them. My husband was working from home. “Furloughed” was a word I started Googling. Troubled thoughts?!?! Welcome to 2020. Horton talks about “Grief of the Normal,” and it’s true. God, even my therapy was now happening on video, and I hated that.

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All of these waves just gradually crashing into the shore of my psyche, slowly eroding the walls of sand surrounding the carefully built castle. While I was busy trying to develop the mote and reroute the water, I couldn’t see the storm brewing. Those gradual and methodical waves of grief for the normal began to swell into a tsunami that I never saw approaching until it was too late.

What the weight of grief looks like

My niece’s birthday is May 13th. This year my sister took the week of her baby’s birth and death, off of work. I worried about her, as any big sister who knew that something terrible was coming would, but I didn’t worry about me.

Then on the evening of the 17th, I went to bed sobbing and saying that I needed a vacation. I wanted to get away, but lo and behold the tickets are cheap and everywhere is closed. Another way, the universe is unfair (I am usually a positive person, and this was weird behavior for me). 

My husband tried to console me, and I eventually just fell asleep. I woke up with tears in my eyes after a hellacious night’s sleep. The first thing I did, was to go on Facebook, where I encountered a long tribute post about my father, written by my brother.

My brother chose May 18th to release his latest album so that the day would have something positive associated with it. I cried some more. I spoke with my stepmom, who told me her heart was heavy. I cried even more still. I finally spoke to two of my sisters (one of which is the grieving mom), and we were all distraught. I couldn’t cry anymore, but some part of me thought I was going to make it into work still.

How to fight grief-induced mental exhaustion

I did not go to work that day. I took my sister’s advice and told work that I was not going to be able to make it in. My sister and I spent the day together, crying, laughing, and cooking. We all survived, but it got me thinking that there had to be a better way to handle grief-induced mental exhaustion. And it turns out that there is: practice self-care and set lower (more realistic) expectations of ourselves.

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Practice Self-care

It all starts with self-care. Had I made myself more of a priority in the weeks leading up to these events, I would have been more prepared to handle my emotions. It doesn’t mean that I would have been less sad, or that the grief would go away.

However, some extra meditation moments, coupled with activities that calm my anxiety, would have helped with the panic attacks and breathlessness. Telling work beforehand that I was not going to work on the 18th would have ameliorated the stress I experienced about calling in.

The anxiety I had about that only made the problem worse. I kept thinking that I should be able to go to work. I mean, it has been years since the loss occurred, and clearly, that implied I should be fine, right? Or maybe this is just an unfair expectation I placed on myself.

Set lower expectations of ourselves

I always have this expectation that I have to handle everything correctly. I can not be so grief-stricken that I need a day off. I have to keep it together for all my siblings because they need me. Unrealistic expectations of myself is a problem that I live with daily. Here are a few tips to help accomplish this:

  • Making lists based on priorities
  • Stop comparing yourself to others
  • Create goals 
  • Accept where you are in life at this moment
  • Question why you expect the things you do.

These things helped me make it through, and I hope they help you too. Know that you are not alone and that there are people who love you and will want to help you. Sometimes, just talking about it can help. If you feel like you are struggling and would like to seek professional help, please do so! Speaking with a counselor is a big help when it comes to taking care of ourselves. 

Feel free to share a story of your pain and things that helped you cope with mental exhaustion in the comment section below.

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