Grief is a Superpower
One of the themes that came up recently in conversations is to focus less on grief and more on reinvention, transformation, transmutation, or even alchemy to move from surviving to thriving after major loss. I’ve talked about seeing grief as a superpower.
In an interview, I told the interviewer that I object to the use of the term “resilience” after grief, because it implies that people can “bounce back” to who and how they were before major loss, and that’s not accurate—they can’t. They’re forced to be or to become a different person in a lot of ways.
I used the example of Spiderman. He wasn’t born with his superpowers, and he didn’t ask for them. Once he had them, it was weird and confusing and there was definitely a transition period of adjustment. At some point, he figured out how to use them and to help others by doing so.
Grief can be like that. You didn’t ask for it, you certainly didn’t want it, and it can fundamentally change who you are and how you move about interacting with the world. It can also afford insights, knowledge, and perhaps empathy and awareness of others going through grief experiences as well. It’s like acquiring a new language that only grievers and *maybe* the naturally empathetically gifted can understand.
Grief can be used as a force for good or as a self-destructive and other-destructive force...like the superhero or supervillian routes. We’ve surely seen too many examples of people who use their pain to inflict more pain on themselves or others by lashing out in infinite ways. It’s noted in Bowlby’s Grief and Attachment works that there’s a theory that Hitler took his hatred out on an epic scale after his mother died of cancer under the care of a Jewish physician. Whether or not that theory is true, it highlights the magnitude of grief.
On the positive side, we also see people do things such as make donations, build charities or parks or monuments to honor their deceased loved ones. There are examples like Teddy Roosevelt starting the National Park system as a project and monument to his grief of losing several key members of his family. There are also countless works of art, writing, monuments, and others works as expressions of creating meaning from grief. The Taj Mahal is a literal monument to grief. MADD was started by a mother whose son was struck and killed by a drunk driver.
The meaning created from grief is a personal one, and we have a measure of say in how we create it. Batman is a pretty stark example of a superhero who was forged by grief after his parents were murdered. His story seems to revolve around themes of justice and revenge, but also of solitude. These also are familiar themes to some people in grief, particularly in the case of sudden death, when grief anger often comes to the fore. Another great, visceral example is James O’Barr’s graphic novel, The Crow, (later, movies) which he wrote after the death of his fiancé in a car accident.
Looking at grief as a superpower may itself be empowering when the emotions, totality, and magnitude of grief can feel overwhelming, exhausting, and utterly disempowering. It’s the most intense cocktail of emotions perhaps that human beings can experience. And people tend to spend most of our lives trying to avoid feeling “negative” emotions. However, your ability to feel emotions is one of the things that makes you human, and able to better understand and connect with other humans.
Whenever you feel like heeding the sign “abandon all hope!” Remember that hope is an inside job. Remember Viktor Frankl’s work and book “Man’s Search For Meaning.” It's a potent reminder that if he could find hope and create meaning in a concentration camp, it’s fair to say it can be done just about anywhere.
With so much bad news clogging headlines and vying for our daily (hourly) attention, it can feel like despair is the only option. Ask yourself, “what part of this is in my zone of control?” Focus there. You can create hope by searching for silver linings and for things you can actually impact and do.
Perhaps it’s as simple as smiling at someone, or meditating on your own breath to slow it down. Maybe it’s bigger, like organizing a charity event or crowdfund or doing volunteer work. Maybe it’s just showing up, getting out of bed in the morning when you’d rather not. You could focus on positive news stories or inspirational articles, videos or people. You could sit in stillness and simply BE.
Cultivate present moment awareness. Maybe you’re a creative type and can create hope from artistic expression, music, a blank page, a blank canvas, photography, or other forms of creative expression. Be a beacon of light in the darkness and chaos. Protect your peace. Screen out the noise as much as possible, and unplug at times—scheduled or unscheduled. Double down on good self-care. Stay hydrated. Eat healthy meals. Move your body. Do, delete, or delegate tasks. Know that you’ll never complete everything, so do what you can and celebrate those wins big and small.
If you’re feeling despair, express it, let it out, and let it pass. Then begin creating peace and hope within again. It’s a practice, and the goal isn’t perfection, but progress. Centering yourself again and again and again. Make tweaks and adjustments as needed—in your mindset and whenever possible in your environment. Be aware of your energy, you’re in charge of it.
their lives aren't better than yours
Humans are social creatures, whether we like it or not. This seems to come more naturally for some than for others. We see photos of seemingly happy people with friends, family, significant others, pets, children—you know, “loved ones.” On social media, on tv, on the internet, in pictures. It seems as though everyone has better lives and relationships than you do. And yet, especially as a therapist, I know that isn’t the whole truth, it’s often a façade.
There are significant differences between people and their social connections, depending on a host of factors, including where they fall on the introversion/extroversion spectrum, their attachment experiences in early childhood and throughout life, and environmental factors and supports—or lack thereof. Trauma history, particularly in childhood, also plays a role. So too does adoption, divorce, stepfamilies, foster care, deaths, relocations and other losses.
Aging also plays a role. We tend to lose connections during the course of our lives over time. Studies have found that, on average, the most number of friends you’ll ever have peaks in the early 20’s, with steep drop-offs over the ensuing decades. And it’s harder for most people to make—and keep—friendships as an adult.
Some families are much more closely bonded than others, or “enmeshed.” Others are more loosely connected. There are stark differences between securely attached people and families and insecurely attached ones. They say that happy families are all the same, but unhappy ones are each unique in their dysfunction.
We all have to learn to survive. Love is real. Attachment and bonding are real. But it’s not always pretty and polished. It’s messy and sometimes fraught. We all need connection and to support ourselves and each other.
One morning, I woke up with a phrase in mind: “inconvenient art.” I didn’t know what that meant, only that I was to explore it as a concept.
My earliest impression was that it meant art that conveyed an uncomfortable or unsettling message. I Googled it, and the results that came up were from architect Katerina Kamprani who designs deliberately uncomfortable objects, like a double-fluted champagne glass, a fork and knife that were chained closely together, a chair that would be nearly impossible to sit upon, a sideways broom, and so on. Useless by design. Reminded me of the “useless machine” in online videos whose sole purpose is to turn itself off when the switch was turned on. Good conversation pieces.
Perhaps inconvenient art is similar, in that its purpose is to get people talking to spread a message. And the message may be upsetting to some, so it’s subversive in some way. Perhaps any kind of native or folk art could be described as inconvenient art to the so-called dominant groups.
I thought of Canadian artist Sarah Anne Johnson’s exhibit I saw years ago that included a doll house of horrors based on her grandmother’s experience with mental illness and the traumatic methods of treatment for women in those times. A legacy of trauma. Inconvenient art.
Maybe spoken word or poetry. Or any of the change agents throughout history, the people tried for heresy in the past, or pointed to as witches. The artists with political messages, for sure. Activist artists. Their work might be considered by some to be Inconvenient Art.
Artwork from someone who is deceased, or an ex, or is for some other reason no longer in your life, also could be Inconvenient Art. Inconvenient in that it tends to have a mixed past, and feelings associated with it.
What might you consider to be "inconvenient art?"
Focus on the Pause
People usually believe that external events cause their feelings, i.e., this happened or that person did something and made me feel______. But actually, in between the event and the reaction, there’s a thought—usually a habitual automatic belief—that precedes the feeling. There’s a space, a pause, in between the event and the feeling.
When we become aware of the thought pattern, we can question it and change it to something more constructive. We can choose to pause. When we pause, we’re stepping out of our reactionary mode, which comes from a more primitive part of the brain, and stepping into a place of choice, which engages the prefrontal cortex, the conscious mind AKA the “thinking brain.”
In the pause, you can be an observer of your own thoughts and feelings and can choose your actions. Triggers occur because we feel somehow threatened by an external event, or even our own spiraling thoughts. Some are instinctual—loud noises and falling are inborn fears—but most are learned and habitual.
It’s far more difficult to recognize the pause and to access the thinking brain when we’re tired, stressed, anxious, hungry, dehydrated or otherwise depleted energetically. That’s when practices slip, when good self-care is ignored. And of course, that’s when we most need it.
To focus on the pause, begin by stopping, slowing down. Breathe. Physically pause. Use the “STOP method:” 1) Stop what you’re doing; 2) Take a breath; 3) Observe what’s going on in your mind and environment to assess if an actual threat is present or a reaction to a thought is occurring, then 4) Proceed with the best course of action based on your conscious assessment.
You can also make it a practice to create more pauses at regular intervals throughout the day as a way of taking care of yourself. Take breaks, rest and restore.
For a long weekend getaway, I went to Luray Caverns in Shenendoah National Park in Virginia. It’s been a tourist attraction since it was discovered in 1898(ish). Not the largest cavern, but easily accessible for most people. I read that it took about 300 years for the mineral deposits to form one cubic inch. And these were massive structures, the largest of which was over 120 feet tall, 40 feet in diameter. Consider how long that took.
A human lifespan is but a blip to the Earth. Time means little to the planet. Or at least it moves much more slowly. Time is, after all, a human construct, a unit of measurement that suits our purposes. We feel its pressures, its speeding up or slowing down, and have pondered its nature for millennia, in terms of our finite existence.
Because our lives are relatively short, it can make time and tasks seem more urgent. “What do you want to do with your one precious life?” I saw a framed phrase in a bathroom that read “Choose joy.” Indeed, it is a choice. It comes down to where to focus.
The pandemic has had a profound effect on our perception of time and its passage. Researchers have found that about half of people feel like time has sped up, and half feel it has slowed down, with a few feeling as though nothing has changed. (I wonder about those last few especially!). The people for whom time appeared to speed up tended to be the busy ones. The people for whom it seems to slow down tended to be the bored ones. In a real sense, many feel as though the weeks, months, and past few years have simply evaporated, disappeared.
I realized that things that I felt like happened about two years ago in fact happened about four years ago—it's just that the pandemic happened in between. And we’re still in it as I write this.
The flow of life and the cues have shifted dramatically. It’s a real mind screw, collectively. Except everyone is experiencing it differently and relating to each other differently.
Seeing things in nature that physically show the passage of an unfathomable amount of time seems therapeutic—a reality check that none of it really matters, except to us in our short lives. We get to choose what matters to us; we give things meaning that otherwise lack any. It is as it is.
Having and cultivating a sense of wonder and awe is important. It comes naturally to children, for whom everything is new and exciting. Vacations are important, I think, for this reason: to give space and distance from the everyday, to give perspective. Hopefully, to learn new things, to refresh, to reinvigorate, to recharge, to reconnect. And to create memories (take pictures!) This is the stuff of life.
How do you explain grief to someone who hasn’t experienced significant grief and loss? This is probably one of the most difficult and frustrating aspects of life after loss for grieving people.
No one seems to really understand them. So the result is usually anger, frustration, pulling away or self-isolation, or just shutting it down and “keeping calm and carrying on.”
As David Kessler says “grief needs to be witnessed.” If someone doesn’t “get it,” perhaps they haven’t experienced significant loss personally—lucky for them! Or perhaps they did, but believe that grief should be suppressed, and you should “go about your business” and are now imposing that expectation onto you.
If it’s that they’ve not experienced big loss—a death of someone close to them—ask them what’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to them in their life so far. Then ask, “imagine if you had to relive that worst thing every day for the foreseeable future, multiplied x100 or more, Groundhog’s Day movie-style, with no end in sight.” How would they feel and react? Now, ask them to imagine that everything in their life has shifted. A key person, their most beloved and important person, was no longer there, meaning everything that happened because of that person also ceased to happen. The routines, the conversations, the physical presence, their voice, perhaps the income, household chores or management, and everything that person did—now is gone.
Are they getting the idea? Maybe, if they’re still talking to you at this point. It’s similar to explaining what suicidal depression looks and feels like to someone who has never experienced depression at that level before. Or perhaps drug addiction, or parenthood.
Honestly, if someone figures it out, please let me know! People don’t understand because they can’t, at least not fully, but also because there’s a real incentive NOT to in Western culture. We sanitize death and dying by outsourcing it to hospitals and funeral homes to handle. We give a few days or maybe a week of bereavement leave at workplaces—if at all. It’s an inconvenience at best for employers with its messy tendency to interrupt efficiency, productivity and workflow. People will try to talk you out of your grief.
Writers, poets, philosophers, musicians, artists and everyday people have attempted to express grief and loss throughout human history. It’s a highly individual experience, and a creative one too.
A theme that came up in a meeting recently was the idea that both good and bad things are happening all the time. This was a topic because the facilitator had wished everyone a terrific day, and someone commented that it’s actually a terrible day, hadn’t he heard the news??
The thing is, things have always been terrible. And they’ve never been better. Huh? How could that be?? There are dualities in life. Things are never all good or all bad all of the time. In fact, it’s only our own judgements and meaning-giving that makes them seem so at all. Nature doesn’t care. It doesn’t have a political party, favorite cause, or even favorite life form. It simply is.
That doesn’t mean we should give up or not try to do something about the things that matter to us. We get to decide what matters to us. It DOES mean we don’t get to judge others for what they do or don’t care about and what meanings they give to things and events. We’ll all differ in that, because we’re all unique. Some people may agree with us, some won’t. As a fellow meeting participant said “the same things someone sees as terrible may be great news for someone else, or vice versa.”
It’s all relative. “Good” or “bad,” “positive” or “negative,” etc. are things that are agreed upon or not, but they’re not fact. They’re judgement calls. And there are ”good” and “bad” events happening all over the world at any given time. What you pay attention to can direct the course of your life and how you feel at any given moment.
You can have a multitude of feelings in grief and loss. You may even have happy moments. We’re capable of holding more than one emotion at a time. In fact, that’s the default. Creativity is about navigating ambiguity, holding opposing things or ideas at once, in one space. Grief work is also about holding conflicting emotions and realities together. Past and present. Sad and happy. Guilt and relief. And so on. There’s no one right way to do it.
Feeling good during a pandemic can feel like an act of defiance in some ways. But it’s necessary to show that feeling positive (or even neutral) isn’t an affront to others feelings negative. Your misery doesn’t help, it just adds more misery. If permission to feel good feels like it’s needed, it isn’t...but you can give it to yourself.
Go where you're wanted
Go where you’re wanted. Stop trying to fit as a square peg in a round hole, feeling like an outsider in the process. Feeling rejected by friends, employers, colleagues or romantic partners. Chasing people who clearly don’t have any interest.
You can have an entire relationship—all in your head—based on text. It’s not real. Don’t put any stock into text-based relationships. That road leads to nowhere good. It’s about face time in real life.
Regarding friendships, the pandemic has made clear that people tend to fit into two main categories: those who contacted you or responded when you contacted them, and those who didn’t. Regarding the latter, yes, we know there’s been a tremendous and unprecedented number of truly terrible things going on during this pandemic, however--with very few exceptions--no one is busy for over two years straight with no breaks to at least shoot off a text message. If someone doesn’t respond at all to your outreach attempts in over TWO YEARS and during a major global crisis, then they’ve flagged themselves as someone to wish well and let go of gracefully. If they choose to return in the future, that’s up to them, and you can reevaluate from there.
Then there’s job situations. Chasing after jobs with employers who express lukewarm interest in you at best. Stop it. Release them and move toward those who enthusiastically want to work with you, whenever possible. Gracefully let the others go.
Find a supportive community or several. Go where you’re wanted, not where you’re tolerated. You don’t have to prove yourself, prove you’re worthy, to anyone. Especially not to those who are uninterested. Attract what and who you want, repel what and who you don’t, and above all do not chase. Take action, then release it, let it go from there.
Grief isn’t pathological. Our society’s response to and handling of it is.
The #1 question I get from people in grief is “how long will this last?” No one wants to hear the truth: there is no predetermined end date and it's untrue that time heals all wounds (on its own).
Yet, as described in a recent New York Times article How Long Should it take to Grieve? Psychiatry Now Has Come Up with an Answer (Ellen Barry, March 18, 2022), psychiatry is attempting to give a numerical answer. “Designed to apply to a narrow slice of the population who are incapacitated, pining, and ruminating a year after loss and unable to return to previous activities.” In the article, “prolonged grief” (defined as over a year for adults, 6 months for children and adolescents) only affects about 4% of people. That’s misleading. They wouldn’t bother if it were that low.
The DSM (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is not the "professional Bible of mental health" as it's sometimes described. It's for categorization for billing and insurance reimbursement purposes. Therein lies the problem. The chances of over diagnosing and overmedicating are high. Particularly when you consider that grief affects nearly everyone eventually.
We’re medicalizing something that isn’t medical. Whether we want to admit it or not, there's still a great deal of stigma around mental health. There are efforts to change this, and progress is being made, though we've got a long, long way to go. Taking something like grief and labelling it "abnormal" exacerbates rather than alleviates things. Grieving people already often feel like they’re “going crazy” --and the people around them often reinforce this--because they’re comparing themselves to who and how they were before the loss(es), and they cannot be that same person anymore.
We don’t go back to being our “normal selves” after major loss, because we literally can’t, we’re forever changed by it. But that’s exactly what is so often expected of people to somehow do. Those who haven’t experienced significant loss cannot relate to that, nor can it really be told to them or truly understood.
Grief seems to be a language spoken and understood only by those who have directly experienced it. That’s a big reason why grieving people may withdraw. They’re often horribly misunderstood because it's like they start speaking in a foreign language no one around them except sometimes other grievers understand. Complicated by the fact that grief itself is so unique to each person. So even those around them who lost the same person may respond in their own grief and to each other very differently.
“Give them what they want, not what they need.”
We want a quick fix in this society, and unfortunately, that's not how mental wellness--or life--works. Only bad things happen quickly. Everything else takes time, effort, and often more of it than we'd like.
Grief is a part of life. It’s a biological, neurological response and process to the loss of someone or something important to the individual. We’ve evolved that way. Is there such a thing as complicated grief? Certainly. The course of natural grief can get tangled up with a host of other issues. With deaths come other losses. We don’t need to diagnose grief itself.
There’s been a massive amount of loss and grief (and not just from deaths) in this pandemic. Essentially, they’re creating a market. The creation of a diagnosis opens it up to pharmaceutical companies to create or repurpose medication, the “magic bullet”.” I foresee that as potentially catastrophic in the sense that it’s not solving a problem but creating a dependency.
Pills for grief—which isn’t one emotion but a response to loss—would be akin to creating a pill for anger. You may suppress it, but the underlying issues aren't being addressed, so it’s still going to be there. Even if a true addiction isn’t the result, you’d still have to keep taking the pill to keep emotions suppressed or “numbed out.”
A pill will likely be viewed as more cost effective by insurance companies than counseling. The result will be an increased medication-only addressing of grief, not a combination of medication and counseling. Even if the argument is that the prescription would be for “short term,” consider what would happen when the person is taken off the medication when the underlying issues haven’t been addressed.
Grief often has nowhere to go. If a grieving person is fortunate, they have a strong support system that rallies around them with support and acceptance for the long haul. Many people are not so fortunate. After a while, support fades, if it were there to begin with. Many people discover they’ve lost friends or other connections. Too many people avoid grievers for a multitude of reasons.
The problem isn’t that grievers “can’t handle it,” but that people around them—even professionals—can't—which makes grievers feel instead like it’s their problem. It’s a case of blaming the victims, really.
It’s almost like grief is treated as though it’s contagious. This is actually one of the fundamental problems. Grief is already treated like a pathology or disease. Officially labelling it as one isn’t solving the problem, it’s solidifying the stigma that’s already there.
When someone close to us dies, we don’t just lose the person. We lose so much beyond that. These are “secondary losses” and they can be as profound as the primary loss of the person themselves.
Secondary losses occur with any type of death of someone close to us. Is it fair, for example, to expect a parent to recover from the death of a child in a year? People say things like “they never got over it.” Of course not.
People who have experienced the death of someone close may not have lost one person: they may have lost nearly everything.
Sudden, traumatic losses, such as suicide, homicide, accident, natural disaster or heart attack typically result in even more pronounced secondary losses as well as sometimes trauma. Too many to name. The worldview of the survivors has been violently shattered.
Most of the research so far around prolonged grief disorder has been with elderly widows whose husbands have died. That’s statistically a likely scenario, though it doesn’t account for the many other variables and types of losses. Let's start there as an example.
When people marry, they may say things like they’ve found their “other half” and are surrounded by messages of “two becoming one” and sharing of a life together. Is it any surprise that when someone loses a spouse that they describe it as feeling like they lost a part of themselves? Because isn’t that what they’ve been told at the beginning? Is it somehow less true at death?
When someone loses a spouse, they can lose so much more. They lose their partner, their routine, some friends, their identity as a wife/husband, sometimes financial means, loss of home or having to relocate, just to name a few.
People often expect the bereaved to bounce back within an arbitrary time frame. “Socially accepted” as a timeframe is inherently unfair as a guideline. Because social expectations are entirely out of sync with the realities of grief.
Consider that most employers give a few days to a week of bereavement time, if they provide it at all. Everyone grieves in their own timeline. The problem is that it can make other people uncomfortable and seek to hurry grievers along. The implied message is that it’s unacceptable outside of some prescribed timeline. People around grievers generally go back to their own regular lives within weeks or months after a death, and seem to expect grievers to follow suit.
Grief lasts for as long as the person remains dead. It’s our relationship to our grief, ourselves, other people, and our environment that can change. If there's a silver lining in all of this, perhaps it's that at least grief is being recognized and talked about more since the pandemic, instead of relegated to the hushed shadows.