As an unwilling expert on coping with loss, I’ve spent a lot of time both doing just that and also thinking and rethinking about how I do just that. My “recovery” experience has been different with each loss (which would be true of anyone and any loss), but one thing that has been pretty consistent is that each time, I’ve eventually had to figure out how (and when) to put down the Oreos and get off the couch. Getting back on the healthy living bandwagon has been a huge help to me as I’ve learned to live with my grief, so I thought I would share some of what has worked for me, in the hopes that if you ever find yourself dealing with a crippling loss, you might find it an encouragement.

One note — self-care encompasses far more than just good nutrition and exercise; a large part of it is also the nurture of yourself in other ways — a manicure or massage, a glass of wine, a cheesy romantic comedy with a giant bowl of popcorn and a few glasses of Prosecco, but what do I know about that. But today I want to focus more on the nutrition and exercise piece, because I find it can be more challenging than knowing how to pamper yourself — and I think the dividends it pays are more long-lasting.

It can be hard to see the importance of healthy living when you’re trying and failing not to hyperventilate, but despite what it feels like at the time, you don’t hyperventilate forever. (Really — you don’t. You at least start hyperventilating less.) This is about what you can do after you stop hyperventilating to help you start to feel more like yourself. While my experience dealing with each loss this year has been different, I have found these four steps in particular (and in this order) to be instrumental in helping me get back on my feet.

Start small. I don’t eat well during a crisis; my anxiety tends to manifest through appetite loss and a general malaise. I have trouble sleeping and feel sick at the thought of food. So when the immediate crisis is over, how to get back to taking good care of myself? I start with small steps — making sure to include a veggie with dinner if I’ve been living on cereal; taking a short walk to get some endorphins going. If you’re a schedule person, having a loose — and VERY attainable — “goal” for each day or week can work. I’m still doing this with my basic goals of getting up on time, knitting every day, and practicing yoga regularly. (It’s going really well, by the way.) But DON’T start too soon — it can be tricky to know when to get back out there, but I remember returning to the gym shortly after my second miscarriage and instead of feeling encouraged and empowered, I just felt horrible. Give it time — there’s no rush. Start small (but do start).

Simple solutions. After my second miscarriage, and during those awful two weeks before my mom passed away, I really struggled to find things to eat. Once I came back to work, the easiest way for me to get some nutrition was in the form of smoothies. Seriously — especially last winter, smoothies were a lifesaver. AND they are a great way to get veggies in — just add a few handfuls of spinach. (Really!) They came to work with me in a mason jar almost every day — banana, yogurt, soymilk, fruit, protein powder or nut butter, and a few handfuls of spinach. Another thing I did was employ the time-honored trick of parking far away (I used to park on the third floor of the parking garage) and taking the long way around so I could work some more steps into my day. These weren’t things I had to put a lot of thought or effort into, but they set me up for the right mindset.

I promise you can’t taste the spinach. And an added bonus is that you don’t have to worry about anyone stealing your smoothie out of the office fridge!

Strive for 80/20. I don’t know about you, but I would usually emerge from survival mode with my health-to-indulgence ratio more like 20/80, where maybe 20% of what I was doing was healthy and 80% whatever it took to get through the day. That is fine. After all, your primary, overall objective is just to make it through as best you can. But survival mode isn’t a good place to stay long-term, so once you start making one healthy change at a time, a good place to aim for is 80% healthy and 20% indulgent. This way, you can still have your Oreos and giant bowls of popcorn, but they don’t have to make up the majority of your diet anymore. Same with sleep and rest vs. moving your body. Keeping to a ratio of health-to-indulgence that’s skewed much more toward the health side is much easier to maintain than insisting that you don’t ever need to indulge — when you’re dealing with a loss, you do.

Set a goal. The entire healthy living initiative, which spurred me on throughout much of 2011, started because of my first miscarriage. I didn’t just need a distraction; I also wanted to achieve something and feel good about myself. As I said back then, I had gotten really out of shape and I missed my muscle mass. Training for my first 10k, and then for my first ten miler, was a really great experience and one that really helped me learn how to live with the grief I was experiencing. Once you feel settled into a basic routine of a little exercise and a little food that isn’t Oreos, setting a goal can cement these small changes and help them transition into something more. This can take a little while or a long while — I set my 10k goal a month after my first miscarriage and my ten-miler goal three months after my second (once I found out my thyroid wasn’t cooperating and I had a few more months to kill before we could address my fertility again). Right now I think I’m too big and pregnant to really be achieving any fitness goals, but if I weren’t, at this point in my current “rebuilding process” I would probably be identifying a distance, speed, or yoga landmark to work toward. (I am still in training, of course, but I’d be working toward this goal no matter what. Heh.)

It can be tough to not only know when to start coming up for air again, but how. Keep checking in with yourself and you will know when it’s time to start not just surviving, but healing too. Be honest with yourself and don’t push yourself into something you’re not ready for, but by taking small steps every day, soon enough you will be in a place that’s more hopeful than despairing. Until then, take it one day at a time.