I know the subject line sounds kind of serious, and, well...it is. But I’m going through some grief right now, so it occurs to me to share some of my thoughts on grieving, in case they’ll help you, too. After all, grief is negative because it hurts. And I'm all about disrupting negative things.
There are aspects to grief where we can grow or find comfort. A sense of gratitude, strengthened community connections, and reinforced positive neural associations through memory are also possible during the grieving process. I’ll get into that in a bit, but I wanted to preface with something, first.
At times in my life, I’ve been referred to as a bit of a “Pollyanna.” If you’re not familiar with the story of Pollyanna, it centers around a girl who, no matter what difficulty befalls her, finds the silver lining and is positive. According to Merriam-Webster, the term “Pollyanna” refers to “a person characterized by irrepressible optimism and a tendency to find good in everything.”
While the story of Pollyanna was definitely a factor in the formation of my resilience as a young child, it’s not the whole story of who I am and how I get through things. For one thing, I wouldn’t call my optimism “irrepressible.” It's usually in play, but I don’t sugarcoat life. I’ve learned to say, “Yeah, this stinks” when something stinks. I am realistic about what the issues are and work hard to find my way through them.
Even in my gratitude journal, I don’t sugarcoat. I don’t focus only on positives. Sometimes, I write about negatives, because I can find the meaning within them and am grateful for the lessons or the growth that happened because of them.
Grief is one of those scenarios. It really hurts. To add insult to injury, I am not one of those “pretty” criers. You know, the movie stars whose eyes perfectly release that one tear to stream down their faces while they look utterly beautiful in soft movie lighting?
Yeah. Not me at all. I’m a three-hanky, grotty, blotchy, red-faced crier. It’s ugly, guys.
See? That’s one truth of grief, for me. Not going to throw some positive language at you guys and say "See? All better!"
That's not how any of this works.
So with that in mind, what do I think can disrupt the negativity of losing someone you care about? What does grief really offer other than pain, sadness, and tears?
I have in mind Rumi’s quote:
Instead of letting it simply wound me, I let grief be the vehicle by which the Light may enter me.
For one thing, I take time for gratitude. You can be grateful for knowing that person. No matter how big or how small a role they had in your life, this person shared their energy, friendship, thoughts, dreams, what have you...with YOU. Take note of what you found special about them and their role in your life. On the flip side, people are flawed, and maybe the person you’re grieving wasn’t always warm or nice or comforting to be around. But maybe the role they played in your life helped you to grow in some way? Take note of that, if that’s the case.
You will always have memories of them, too. Sometimes the people who die were complicated, and maybe the memories are complicated, too, but if you can focus on the good memories: the moments of laughter, or a photo they’re in where they pulled a silly face, or memories from a nice family trip; all of these can help as you go through the grieving process.
I know I’ve mentioned the book Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom before. In it, they discuss strengthening positive brain states through association with positive memories. I look at my current cycle of grief as an opportunity to do that. I am focusing on the good memories, and it does help with the pain.
You can find ways to honor each person’s memory in a meaningful way, too, by incorporating memories of them into your actions. While people traditionally go to funerals or memorials, those aren’t the only way to honor someone’s life. For me, I like to take a specific action that is really tailored to that person and my memory of them. I’ll demonstrate this a bit later, at the end of this piece.
A third thing that happens when someone dies is connection and sense of community. As people come together to celebrate someone’s life, speaking about their own stories and memories of the person who died, there is comfort to be had in that. Social media brings more visibility to the grieving process, with people's walls becoming living memorials. So read what is written: even if the person sharing is a total stranger to you, I bet you can relate to what they say. You can smile and laugh at their memories as they share them. You can see the similarities between you. Go to the Facebook wall of any deceased person and read the impact they had on other people’s lives. Know that you are a part of a community of people who loved and liked that person. With the advent of the virtual world, sometimes our only way to participate in a sense of community after the death of an online friend is to congregate and share online.
For the more traditional method of grieving, funerals, wakes, and memorials are similar in the aspect of people talking about what the deceased meant to them. These services offer a time to get together with others to say goodbye to the deceased and are usually followed by a shared meal or get-together. Breaking bread with others is an incredibly healing tradition. Listen to the stories people tell around the table or room. Take comfort in sharing a bond with them through your loved one who passed.
No matter what your thoughts on grief and your ways of getting through it, know this: be okay with feeling the feelings. There is no shame in crying or any of the other side effects that can happen with grief, such as sleeplessness, depression, anger, aches and pains, etc. These are normal responses. Don’t try to “be strong” and not cry or whatever it is we tend to do.
As an example of this: when I was a kid, my great-grandmother died, and I thought I was “being strong” for my family by trying not to cry too much. All I did was give myself a headache and feel sick to my stomach, and I ended up having a huge blowout at a family function afterwards when my grief became too much to bear and I couldn’t hold the tears in any longer. I was like a pressure cooker that went off, crying uncontrollably as I let it all out.
I was only 10 years old, and I have no idea where I got the notion I had to be strong at that young of an age.
Once I realized that “being strong” isn’t necessarily the answer (or rather, that strength looks different than I thought it did), I dedicated myself to not bottling it up, but feeling it and being kind to myself when I did. One of the things I had to get used to, feelings-wise, is how feelings can change during the stages of grieving. For instance, I could be crying about the person one minute and then smiling at a memory of them the next, and then be fine for a few hours or days, then have grief sneak back up on me at some unexpected time, sometimes months or years later.
That’s all okay, guys. It’s all normal, as long as you aren’t immersing yourself in it 24/7. So if you see yourself in anything I’m talking about, know that it’s okay.
Finally, if you’re grieving and having trouble with it or just want to talk, please reach out to someone: family, friends, or a grief counselor/therapist. You do not have to suffer alone, and there are ways a professional can help. While there is no “normal” timeline for how long it takes to recover from the death of a loved one, if you’re totally submerged in grief 24/7 and can’t find your way out, please do seek help. The Grief Resource Network is one such resource available to you.
I am not ashamed to admit that during a period of much loss in my life many years ago, I reached out to many people for support, including a counselor for a period of several months. The counselor was great at helping me process the parts that had happened before I started seeing him, plus he gave me tools that helped me cope when the rest of it happened, and my friends and family were also there for me.
I hope this piece helps you if you are grieving something in your life. You are not alone, and it will get better, eventually.
Now, I hope you’ll help me honor the memory of my friends who passed recently by reading their stories:
Dawn was a knitter and spinner that I’d met online on Ravelry, the popular site for fiber folks. We eventually became Facebook friends, and have known each other online for several years, though we never had the opportunity to meet in person. We had a lot of mutual friends, and had a great time online joking around about all kinds of things. She was a tough, take-no-bull-from-anyone type of gal, but also so, SO funny! She was a single mom, and her daughter, family and friends are going to miss her a ton.
My method of honoring Dawn’s memory was to go through a bunch of her old posts and click the “laugh” emoji button on all of them again. This seems really appropriate for me, since our relationship was totally online and mostly on Facebook, and it made me feel better for doing it. After only a few posts, I was laughing hysterically instead of crying. Anytime I’m sad about Dawn’s passing, I will just go read her timeline and smile.
Angeline was a former co-worker at a job that was really, really difficult for me. I was terribly bullied at that job and often disrespected by my coworkers. It was a real “mean girls” club; they even made fun of me for being Catholic, and yet management would do nothing about it. But I did have a few friends there, and one of them was Angeline. I eventually left that job, and so did she, but we stayed in touch.
My best memories of Angeline involve how we’d talk for hours and laugh, commiserate, and share stories over a cup of masala tea. We liked to talk about old TV shows and books. Her family was from the southern part of India, and she went to the store and bought me masala tea powder and taught me how to use it. We’d also go out to dinner together, often to Indian restaurants in the area, and she would teach me about the dishes. I loved getting to know her, and will really miss her.
I am honoring Angeline’s memory by making a nice cup of tea with masala tea powder in it, just as soon as it comes in. (I had to order it online, as I’d run out of the bottle she’d given me a long time ago.) I might also look up some vintage TV shows and watch them for her. Whenever I miss Angie, I will raise a cup of masala tea to her memory and smile.
✨Dawn & Angie brought light to my life, and I will honor that.✨
Need more resources? Here are some books that may help: