Don’t Leave Your 2021 Goals to Your Future Self
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This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand
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Publisher: Sounds True
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Have you lost a loved one to sudden death or suicide? Or do you have a friend going through a period of grief? Even if you have not been touched by grief yet, it will happen eventually. Grief, like birth and death, is a natural part of life. But sadly, we often feel helpless in the face of inexplicable, random, and unfair loss, whether that is losing a wife to a malicious form of cancer or losing a friend in a car accident. So how do you deal with loss, and how can you help your friends or family survive such a period of grief? Get ready to learn how to deal with loss in a healthy way.
Megan Devine believed she knew something about grief. In her work as a psychotherapist, she had worked with hundreds of people going through the most horrible times in their lives. She was working at the cutting edge of emotional literacy and intelligence, but then, one summer day in 2009, she watched her husband Matt drown. He was healthy and fit, and his death was arbitrary. It tore Devine’s world apart.
Suddenly, Devine felt like she wanted to call up all her previous clients and apologize to them for having been ignorant. Going through the depth of pain and grief herself, she suddenly understood that nothing she had learned about dealing with grief could help her now.
You may have experienced a similar loss yourself. And you probably know the feeling that in that moment, no one and nothing can help you. Often it is those closest to you who want to help but instead, they end up hurting you. Your friends and family likely feel helpless in the face of what you are going through, and you probably feel shamed, misunderstood, and angry at their words.
We have been taught the wrong way to deal with pain. Devine writes, “Our culture sees grief as a kind of malady: a terrifying, messy emotion that needs to be cleaned up and put behind us as soon as possible.” These outdated beliefs do more harm than good. They add an additional layer of suffering to the grief you are already going through.
It is time to rehumanize grief: there is a crucial difference between solving pain and tending to pain. Instead of trying to talk someone out of their grief, you’ll need to learn how to help them live with their grief.
If you have recently lost a loved one, nothing makes sense. This is a pain that you cannot be cheered out of. Devine writes, “What has happened cannot be made right. What is lost cannot be restored. There is no beauty here, inside this central fact.” The only way through this is to acknowledge the pain. Do not shy away from it, do not gloss over it. Simply accept that it is there, and that it is now a part of your life.
You may be replaying what happened in your mind over and over again. You may not be able to sleep or eat, or maybe you are constantly eating and sleeping. You may be looking at everyday artifacts in your life, and everything becomes a symbol of your loss. While for you the entire world has collapsed, you may still be faced with people telling you that your lost loved one would not want you to be sad, or that your experience will only make you stronger, that everything happens for a reason.
These kinds of platitudes probably do not help you. They only make you feel like no one understands you. So why do words of comfort feel so bad? After all, the people around you love you and are doing their best to help. But offering these words ultimately reflects their faulty belief that grief is an aberration, and that we need to get through it as quickly as possible. In fact, the only way forward is by telling the truth of grief. Grief is an extension of love. Whatever grief you are carrying, acknowledge how bad it is. And then you can start living inside your loss.
To adequately deal with grief, we need to change our grief culture. Our culture has led us to believe that when something is uncomfortable, it is wrong. Therefore, the default reaction to grief is to try and solve it. We see grief as a problem. When you’re inside of grief, however, you realize that it is not a problem that can be solved. That is why words of condolence from others do not help and might even seem offensive to you: they are aimed to solve your grief, even though that is impossible.
For people who are grieving, this attitude toward grief can make them feel like they have gone crazy, or that maybe they have suddenly become too sensitive. They might even be made to feel that everything they are doing is wrong, especially in the early stages of grief when the pain is still raw and fresh. Clearly, it is time for a new model of grief.
According to Devine, “We’ve got this idea that there are only two options in grief: you’re either going to be stuck in your pain, doomed to spend the rest of your life rocking in a corner in your basement wearing sackcloth, or you’re going to triumph over grief, be transformed, and come back even better than you were before.” She suggests a middle way instead: that of bearing witness.
Accept grief as a part of life and let it be. Seeing pain and acknowledging it can create a new world based on sovereignty and kinship. It allows for compassion, both for us and for others. You will be most kind to yourself when you can somehow find a way to keep your heart open, even in the midst of the nightmare your life has become.
If you are trying to help a friend going through grief, pause before you offer words of condolence. Make sure your friend knows that you can see their pain and acknowledge that it sucks. Be like an elephant: Elephants gather together to support one another whenever one member of their herd is hurt.
The only thing you can do in the midst of unfathomable pain is to find tools to help you bear it. Be kind to yourself. When you have gone through something horrible, such as losing a baby a few days before her birth, or having a friend commit suicide, you may sometimes wake up feeling disappointed that you are still alive. Wishing that you were not alive does not mean you are suicidal. It is a normal part of grief, because sometimes not being alive will feel like the easier alternative to having to live with the pain.
Not wanting to be alive is not the same as wanting to be dead. But if you are seriously thinking of harming or killing yourself, you should seek help. And even when you just feel like you do not care whether you live or die, you should talk about it. These thoughts will understandably scare your loved ones, but it is important that you have at least one person you can talk to about these feelings.
For you, being caught up in the midst of terrible loss, it will probably not help to focus on some faraway imagined goodness in the future. You need a concrete plan of action. For Devine, the thoughts of not caring anymore often came when driving on the highway after her husband’s sudden death.
She did not give in to them because she did not want to cause anyone else the pain that she was going through. She also had a pact with a fellow widow, that they would talk to each other whenever they had these thoughts. They knew the other one relied on them, and that thought kept each of them going. So, please, stay alive – if you can’t do it for yourself at first, do it for others.
Devine also found the Buddhist teaching of upekkha helpful, which is “the practice of staying emotionally open and bearing witness to the pain while dwelling in equanimity around one’s limited ability to effect change.” It can be a relief to just let the pain be. There is nothing else you need to do.
Grief has an effect on both the body and the mind. Your cognitive capacity may be reduced, and you may experience spikes of anxiety. Anxiety is a natural part of grief. Devine was experiencing anxiety even before her husband’s sudden death. She kept imagining horrible scenarios that could happen. But then she told herself: “Worrying about what has not happened is not useful. If something bad does happen, you will deal with it then. It is highly unlikely that anything awful will happen. If it does, you will deal.”
A week later, her husband died. And on the morning of his death, Devine had no inkling whatsoever that anything horrible was about to happen. Clearly, anxiety is not useful as a warning system, so why do we experience anxiety at all? Basically, it is the brain’s survival instinct run amok.
Our brains are wired to think about possible dangers in the safety of our minds, in order to prevent them from happening. After a traumatic event, the feeling that something awful is about to happen can multiply and turn into anxiety. Once you have gone through the experience of something unpredictable, you are more aware of the fragility of life around you. Devine’s anxiety went through the roof after the death of her husband.
So how do you deal with anxiety? You might think that anxiety and the constant vigilance it stimulates are helpful to you. Instead, you might be losing sleep because you worry so much, and your lack of sleep will in turn fuel your anxiety. To break through this vicious cycle, you can try some breathing exercises: simply making your exhale longer than your inhale can significantly reduce feelings of anxiety, as doing so soothes your nervous system.
In the long-term, it can also be helpful to be aware of what triggers your anxiety: Sometimes, movement, sleep, or eating will help in overcoming states of anxiety. If you keep worrying about all the things that could go wrong, reaffirm your trust in yourself – both in dealing with challenges and in getting help in case you cannot deal.
When you are grieving, simple words of condolence won’t be of help to you. You won’t be able to focus on a brighter future. In order to truly do justice to your loss, acknowledge your pain. Learn to live within it.
Take it slowly and be kind to yourself. Find friends or family you can speak to openly and truthfully. And if you are the friend or family member, show your love to your grieving friend by showing understanding. Do not try and solve the grief, but simply let it be.
When someone is grieving, don’t compare their experience with a grief you have experienced. Instead, ask questions about their experience.
Megan Devine is an American psychotherapist, speaker, and writer. She focuses on grief support and emotional intelligence and tries to change the way we comm... (Read more)
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