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Grief Is a Sneaky Bitch. These Practical Tips Offer Support for Moving Forward

Grief Is a Sneaky Bitch. These Practical Tips Offer Support for Moving Forward

By Lisa Keefauver
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“I can’t do this.”

“I don’t want to do this.”

“I don’t know how to do this.”

“I don’t even know where to begin.”

Just after my husband died, and in more moments than I can count since, I’ve screamed these words to the sky. I’ve said them to a friend while sobbing uncontrollably, and silently to myself in bed as tears streamed down my face. And to be honest, the words were filled with a lot more expletives.

I’m wondering if you’ve said or felt something similar.

I know how much this beginning place feels daunting, overwhelming, terrifying, and even impossible. Yet here you are. You’ve already started, even though you didn’t want to and likely would have done anything to not be in this beginning spot in the first place.

You’re reading this and that means you’ve already taken some steps into this new chapter, into this life in the “after.” After the loss. Whether it’s been weeks or months later or some time down the road, I hope in some small way the news that you’ve already begun feels like a bit of relief. Now you can tell yourself you already have experience with starting. And that’s something.

While you’re the only person who can walk in your shoes, I’ve been at the start too. A few times. I’ve also walked alongside countless people when they started. I’m here to walk alongside you as you begin and offer some guidance along the way.


We start in the dark. That’s what makes the early season of grief feel so daunting. We’re stumbling around in the dark, hands reaching for anything to guide us, feet tentatively stepping to avoid any obstacles that will bring us to our knees. That’s where we all start. It seems impossible but it’s from that dark place that we lean on hope.


“To begin” simply refers to the first part. The first step, the first action, the first intention. Not the perfect one, not the right one, not the one someone else took, just the first. So, each time you begin feeling overwhelmed with what to do next or how you should feel at any given moment in your grief, remember that you don’t have to have it all figured out.

Instead, I invite you to start close in. As poet and grief guide David Whyte reminds us, “Start close in, don’t take the second step or the third, start with the first thing close in, the step you don’t want to take.”

I’ve found that starting close in can be helpful because it:

Illuminates what you already know. You’ve lived on this earth for some time now, which means you’ve already learned some things about beginnings. You’ve tried, practiced, stumbled, adjusted, and discovered some things that help you when you’re in the beginning of something new. Starting close in helps you remember that you have experience and knowledge that can serve you. It gets you in touch with the wisdom and skills you’ve already developed. It helps you illuminate what you already know.

Some days feel so filled with your loved one’s absence that you find it hard to concentrate on anything else. On those days, remind yourself that your only job in that moment is to breathe. And sometimes, that’s all you will do. And that will be enough.

Shifts your gaze. This new terrain of early grief can tempt you to focus all your energy somewhere far down the road. I call that “horizon time”—a segment of time so far off that you can’t be present (tomorrow, next week, next year, your elder years). Our human need to have a fully fleshed-out story means we’re often trying to figure out how it will all turn out. The truth is we just can’t know that. (By the way, that’s true in life, not just in grief.) The invitation to start close in is a reminder to cast your gaze at the ground beneath you, now. That close-in gaze is crucial to identifying the next best step.

Identifies the next best step (not perfect or right). We’re living in an expert-obsessed culture, making us believe there’s a perfect or right way to do just about everything, including how to grieve. Think about it. There’s a Top 10 List for this and a 5 Ways to Do X for that. There’s a blog/TikTok/article on how to be or do everything the best way. This expert culture spills over into how we expect ourselves and others to know how to grieve “well,” pressuring us into believing that there’s a best possible way. 

Starting close in helps you recall what you already know, shift your gaze back to the present moment, and ask yourself, “What’s the next best thing I can do for myself?” Not the perfect thing. Not the right thing. (News flash: Neither of these things exist.) Just the next best thing. At the risk of repeating myself, the answer to that question may include steps that appear as inaction but can be equally beneficial. They might include:

1. Sleeping

2. Sitting still

3. Crying

4. Yelling

5. Canceling plans

6. Looking through a photo album or other cherished items

7. Breathing


It’s easy to connect with your inner knowing (the wise, Yoda-like voice in your mind) when the world around you is familiar. It’s simple to do when you’ve walked those roads before, been in those places, faced similar obstacles. Why? Because you’ve practiced. You’ve built up a sort of muscle memory, intuitively knowing when and how to enact the skills, resources, and responses needed under similar circumstances.

In grief, you’re walking roads you’ve never been on before, entering spaces you’ve never been in, and facing obstacles you never could have imagined (nor would have wanted to). This is true even if you’ve grieved before. Because you’ve never been this version of yourself before while grieving this loss.

And yet you might be expecting yourself to know how to do it. You might be frustrated with yourself when the breath work, meditation, exercise, journaling, body movement, therapy, sleep, medication, or whatever you use to serve you doesn’t seem to be working. Or you might not even have the energy or interest in trying those things right now. I get that too.

The truth is that the tools and actions that soothed you in the past might no longer work. Or they might not work right now. Or they might require practice in this new environment. Perhaps they might need a bit of tweaking.

The most important thing to remember is to start close in. You don’t have to have it all figured out. The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed with where to begin or what comes next, ask yourself: “Am I focusing on horizon time or the present?” If the answer is horizon time, ask yourself: “What is the next best thing I can do for myself right now?” The answer might not come right away. Just be still and listen. It will come to you, I promise.

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Excerpted from Grief Is a Sneaky Bitch: An Uncensored Guide to Navigating Loss by Lisa Keefauver. (University of Texas Press – June 4th, 2024 – Copyrighted Material), adapted exclusively for The Sunday Paper.

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