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How to Take a Break from Grief

How to Take a Break from Grief | After the Heartbreak
How to Take a Break from Grief

Grief…along with anxiety, stress and depression….is just plain exhausting. It consumes every single aspect of every single day with no reprieve in sight. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to take even a short break? A mini-holiday? I was about 6 weeks into my grief journey when I discovered that I could do just that, so I thought I’d share my experience. It began one day when I went outside to put something into the bin….

OK, it was an empty wine bottle but I’m not going to explain that right now. Suffice it to say that it wasn’t lonely in the bottom of the bin. 😄 Anyway, I’m getting off track.

I used to enjoy gardening but after my husband died suddenly, I stopped thinking about the garden and barely went outside. Actually that’s a massive understatement…I stopped thinking about life in general!


I felt like I was at the bottom of a deep well, with un-climbable dark walls rising forbiddingly around me. I was utterly trapped in that nightmare, with no way of waking up, or even having a short breather from it.

At this stage you might be thinking that I’m going to tell you that gardening is the answer. LOL Oh, I wish it were that simple! I know I ramble a lot but I promise I’ll eventually get to the point. 😄

Anyway, on that particular day, I dropped the empty wine bottle into the bin and was about to go back inside to start on another box of tissues when I noticed that one of the beautiful plants I used to love so much had brown leaves and was clearly dying.

Me with dying plant

Something twigged in my brain and I went to get a watering can, filled it with water and watered that poor plant. I was thinking that I couldn’t do anything about Norbert’s death but I could save this plant so that it would flower and become beautiful again. It didn’t need to die as well.

While I was tending to that plant, I noticed that the one next to it was struggling too as it was surrounded by weeds, so I carefully pulled them out. Then I noticed the dead leaves which had built up along the garden wall so I went to get my rake.

I pottered around the garden doing small jobs as I saw them. No plans…just seeing the devastation caused by my neglect and working to fix it and make it lovely again. I walked back and forth to the bin, taking dead plants and prunings (instead of wine bottles for a change [guilty look]). 😏

clock showing 6pm

All of a sudden I realised that the light was dim, and I looked up to see if dark clouds had come over while I had been busy. No dark clouds, but a single star twinkled on the pink-tinged horizon! Good heavens….what time was it!!! I went inside to check the clock and received a shock when I saw that it was 6pm! I had gone outside at 3pm and assumed I had been out there for about an hour at the most…but it was 3 HOURS!!!

I had been in a ‘space’ called FLOW.

[Flow is] “…the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed….flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.”


Importantly (for me), I hadn’t shed any tears during this 3 hours because I had been so focussed on what I was doing that my exhausted brain had been having a much-needed break from the horror of what had happened. Apparently ‘flow’ is a well-known psychological phenomenon and in fact most of us are aware of it when we say we are ‘in the zone’.

For the weeks following I would often go out into the garden to look for that break again. Sometimes it never came and gardening just felt like hard work but occasionally I did find it, and the hours slipped by while I took an emotional break by focusing on what I was doing and therefore living in the present.

I had also discovered that meditation helped me, but this was giving me a break for minutes, rather than hours.

Me in garden

The research I’ve waded through seems to suggest that attaining a Flow State is about doing something you love…or at least, used to love.

I found an article called Psychologist’s Guide to Emotional Well Being which has a list of activities that commonly cause the state of flow:

  • Physical activities such as sports, yoga, dance, and martial arts
  • Outdoor challenges such as hiking
  • Music–writing, playing, mixing
  • Art–painting, sculpture, mixed media, pottery
  • Photography
  • Woodworking
  • Do-It-Yourself projects, such as home improvement
  • Working with animals
  • Gardening
  • Cooking and baking
  • Software development/coding
  • Scrap-booking
  • Writing
  • Needlework–sewing, knitting, cross stitch
  • Horseback riding
  • What you do for work (hopefully!)

You might be forgiven for thinking that this is just a list of leisure activities, but leisure is not the same thing at all. You can sit in front of a TV for hours, or go to visit a friend. Both may be leisurely but that unique state of flow won’t be there for you. Why?

Hmmm….off to do more research. [grin] OK, it’s because ….

  1. The activity must be useful and just challenging enough to engage your brain, but not to the point where it makes you feel stressed.
  2. There is a goal involved, and what you are doing provides you with feedback so you know how you are progressing.

So….when I realised this, I could see how my time in the garden does just that.

That was back in October 2017, but since that time, I have also discovered that my newly found interest in watercolour painting can give that same sense of flow, although it certainly didn’t at the beginning because it was too challenging for me, and lead to anxiety and a feeling of failure.

Me painting

Read: The Answer to my Artistic Failure

I persevered though, and as long as I don’t take on anything too challenging I can now spend a Sunday afternoon completely focussed on my latest creative task.

I got to thinking that this is not just for people who are struggling with grief, but may also be helpful for anyone going through a particularly hard time for whatever reason…giving yourself a break from the mental anguish as the hours slip by more quickly and enjoyably than usual.

Anyway, I just thought I’d share this with you. If there is anything that puts you ‘in the zone’, please pop a comment into the box below as I’d love to hear about it.

Marlene is an Australian widow who has written about all the good, bad and ugly stuff that happened after her husband Norbert died tragically. Marlene responds to all comments.

  • Lucy says:

    Interesting article, Marlene, and very well explained too! It’s good for your health, to achieve flow

    • Marlene says:

      Yes Lucy, the research seems to indicate that it is good for your brain to be in that flow state. Thanks for reading my post and commenting. 🙂

  • Sue Sheriff says:

    A thought provoking article Marlene. I used to enjoy several things on that list – hiking ( cant do that at present as I have a knee needing replacement), pilates (stopped because of knee), cooking, photography, sewing but have found it difficult to settle to them this year. I need to give this some more thought and find a way through. Perhaps I need to find something new? Will let you know.

    • Marlene says:

      Go easy on yourself Sue…the whole ‘flow’ thing was pretty rare in my first year of widowhood. I can vouch for the fact that something new can work though as I started to really enjoy sailing, and that was only because I didn’t let myself back out when a friend invited me along. Almost….but I forced myself to go along. When we were out on the water I found it was definitely something that put me into a flow state! 🙂 Keep me posted as to whether you discover something new, as I’d love to hear about it.

  • Linda says:

    my focus is reading and trying to work with watercolor, I find both relaxing and time just flows by.

    • Marlene says:

      You are lucky Linda because it’s all a bit ‘hit and miss’ for me. Sometimes I enjoy painting and sometimes it’s stressful. Based on my research though this could be that at the time, it’s a little too challenging or something. Who knows. I need to give up trying to analyse myself. LOL

  • Jacquene says:

    I have just lost my husband. That is exactly how I feel, at the bottom of a deep well. That’s exactly how I visualised it, before I even read your article. It is very hard now to think about doing other things. My husband was (I hate that word, it should be “is”, not “was”) physically disabled, and was beginning to develop dementia, so he didn’t want to go anywhere due to his pain and so we didn’t get out.
    Now suddenly I have all this time, and it feels wrong to do something without him. We were (“are”) together for 28 years…

    • Marlene says:

      Oh, Jacquene, let me [virtually] wrap my arms around you because you must be feeling sooooo sad right now, and could use a hug. 💔 Your husband still ‘is’….it’s just that he is not physically with you anymore. The grieving journey takes time, so be super-kind to yourself while you get through the days. Regarding your feelings of guilt when you get out and do something, my question to you is…what would your husband be saying to you? What would he want? I’m guessing he would NOT be saying “I want you to stay home and be sad all the time”? 🥰 If I’ve guessed right, then please go ahead and make him happy. It will also help you to heal.

  • Jacquene says:

    I know you are right. I have been forcing myself to clean the house, and going outside to do things eg shopping.. I am going back to work for the first time tomorrow: my director is very understanding and has said if I need to leave early during the day then I can. I don’t think I’ll need to, routine and busyness should probably keep my mind off of things. One day at a time eh?

  • Michelle says:

    Hi Marlene-
    I have a hard time calling myself “widow” sometimes.
    My husband died in an accident in the home. He fell. We were separated at the time. He had had a mental breakdown, as well. He committed atrocities against me before that. He was no longer the person I knew 20 years ago and married.
    I miss him and I can’t believe he treated me like that–all at the same time.
    I appreciate your writing about your story. I think it’s so important to share our stories.

    • Marlene says:

      Thanks for reading my story Michelle, but clearly your own story is markedly different and does not have the fond memories. I hope you find peace now that you can just be yourself. It’s so important that we take care of ourselves, and start each day with a smile (however small). Perhaps the best times of your life are still to come. 🥰

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