Setting boundaries is hard enough under normal circumstances, but when you’re going through something as difficult as grief, you’re not often in a headspace where something like that comes easily. But even though it’s not necessarily easy, it’s an extremely important part of self care as we navigate through one of the most difficult experiences that people will go through in their lives.
Boundaries will not always look the same in every situation and with every person in our lives. For example, the boundaries we set with our colleagues may look very different to what we expect from our closest family and even different to what we might want from our friends. Boundaries also don’t always have to be extreme or cause awkwardness. They are a way for us to protect ourselves and create an environment in which we can grieve in a healthy manner to hopefully come out the other end.
Before you start to have any conversations with the people around you, you will need to know what it is that actually helps you in your grieving process. This is not always an easy task, as it requires a lot of self awareness and time spent reflecting on feelings that will certainly be raw and hard to deal with.
This is a healthy thing to do even when we aren’t in a state of grief, even to be aware of what we want and expect from others and are able to give in return in our various relationships. But without truly understanding what we need before we ask for it, we risk making rash or harsh comments in the heat of the moment when someone oversteps a boundary we didn’t even know existed ourselves.
It’s also important to reflect on not just the boundaries we want to be respected, but how we want to enforce them and how flexible they may be. For example, you may be unable to take part in social events for a while, but this could change in the future. You may even be comfortable with one person at a time, but not multiple people at once. Of course, we don’t always know what we want in the moment when we are feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by negative emotions, but even having a vague idea of what you can and can’t cope with will make it easier not only on you but your loved ones as well. After all, no one wants to upset a grieving person on purpose, so boundaries are beneficial for everyone involved.
Stating your needs
Communication – possibly one of the hardest parts of this process, even though it’s also the most important. Communicating your needs to your loved ones is a fine line when it comes to boundaries. Even though you are entitled to tell people how you feel and what you expect, it’s never a guarantee that people won’t respond with offence or misunderstand your tone as rude.
One of the best ways to avoid tense situations is to stick to “I” statements and ensure that your loved ones know that your boundaries are about what you need, and not about their shortcomings. For example “I need to spend some time alone because I can’t handle social situations right now” sounds a lot better than “you make me feel overwhelmed so we can’t spend time together.”
That being said, being firm when it’s necessary to do so is also important. This is especially true for women, who are often responsible for the majority of the childcare and house maintenance in the family, even when they are going through hard times. It is not unreasonable for a partner to pick up some of the slack if you are unable to complete your usual routine. In these situations, being direct might work best. For example, stating “I really need you to wash the dishes tonight, I’m not up to it” is much clearer than “would you mind doing the dishes?”
Communication is always a delicate balance when you are feeling so vulnerable. But honesty is important, even if you aren’t able to formally have a conversation with the people in your life. Nudging them as soon as you have something to say lets them know where you stand and gives you greater peace of mind.
Avoiding feelings of guilt
Of course, just because you try your best to communicate your needs to others, it doesn’t always mean that they will be well received. Unfortunately, we can’t control how other people respond to boundaries being set, especially if it involves them behaving differently. It’s important to remember that standing up for what you need is not selfish, but essential for your mental health.
It’s to be expected that everyone will have an opinion on how you should grieve, whether you are too happy or too sad, whether you are too social or not social enough. It can be hard enough to shut out all of the noise created by other people regarding how you should be coping or what is considered acceptable. Preparing yourself for the fact that people may try to put you in situations that you aren’t ready for or even make you feel bad for not being up to your usual standards is, unfortunately, unavoidable in most situations.
However, this is why a period of self reflection is so beneficial when times like these inevitably happen. Understanding your needs and why they are important, and being able to feel at peace with yourself, will make it easier not to be guilted into anything by those around you. When you are at your most vulnerable it’s easy to be tricked into thinking that you’re in the wrong for needing space, or needing extra support. But this is something that everyone deserves from their loved ones when going through something so hard.
Don’t make excuses
Even though it’s important to avoid feeling unnecessary guilt while grieving, we must also remember that, not even grief, is an excuse for bad behaviour. Anger is unfortunately one of the things we need to accept as a natural part of the grieving process, and it’s even more likely to happen if people have overstepped or made you feel uncomfortable in any way.
If someone has upset you or made you feel bad for experiencing grief prior to you explaining your boundaries, then this is actually a good opportunity to do it in a way that feels natural. It is important to remember, however, that even when people do something triggering or that makes us uncomfortable, it’s never usually coming from a place of malice, but rather of care. For example, friends encouraging you to leave the house if you haven’t for a few days may be overstepping, but snapping or reacting negatively is not fair on them if they are only trying to help. Rather, it’s a good idea to take this chance to explain your boundaries to them and why they are important to your mental health.
It is also important to remember that while we are entitled to space and to healthy boundaries when grieving, we can’t completely cut ourselves off from the world and experience other people’s happiness as a direct insult to us. Remember that when we are grieving, our emotions are often not as rational as usual, so it’s a lot harder for us to have calm and mature conversations as opposed to lashing out based on our gut reactions. Looking after our mental health is important, but not to the detriment of our loved ones’ mental health either. For example, it’s reasonable to want to remove yourself from social situations in a time of grief, but not to expect those around you to stop being happy in front of you in order to not upset you.
Boundaries are what keep us safe during difficult times and they are one of the most powerful tools at our disposal for maintaining a healthy mental state. In many ways, setting boundaries is like a journey of self discovery all on its own. It allows us to reflect on what’s important to us and what we want to expect from our various relationships. Setting boundaries also establishes a greater resilience and makes it much harder for people to take advantage of us in a vulnerable state.
But most importantly, boundaries are a way in which we allow for mutual respect between us and the people we care about. Because the people who care about us the most want to be able to support us in the ways that are best for us. And that means healthy communication and honesty right from the start.
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