Learning to grow from grief
We all suffer setbacks, although ‘setbacks’ seems too clinical a word for experiences that often reach into our guts and rip the calm right out of us, leaving a gaping hole of grief.
Whether it’s the death of a loved one, the loss of an important relationship or job, an illness, an accident or any number of circumstance that change the course of our lives, it can be challenging to function let alone recover and thrive.
Much advice on the subject is reduced to generalised cliches that do little to help the person in pain.
‘Everything happens for a reason’; ‘it wasn’t meant to be’; ‘you’ll get over it’; ‘just let it go’; ‘move on’; etcetera, etcetera.
The practical reality of healing, often a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other process, is far removed from the cliches which tend to leap over the experience of pain.
I was recently asked by a person who is suffering how I extracted myself from a similar situation.
I had no idea what to say; it all felt trite.
Through grief, everyone gets the (not especially welcome) chance to experiment with what helps them grow out of pain, but here are five self-tested, science-based approaches.
Understand ‘why’ not ‘what’
“Research shows that understanding why you were feeling as you did will hone your emotional intelligence, permit you to label your feelings more precisely, and allow you to manage your emotions more effectively,” says Dr Craig Malkin, clinical psychologist and former teacher for Harvard Medical School’s Cambridge Hospital, in new blog in Psychology Today.
“Try recalling as if you were seeing the events from a distance or as if they happened to someone else. All of these distancing techniques – and making sure that you are asking why – will help you stop reliving the moments and prevent you from emotional flooding. Asking what promotes hot processing and it keeps you on the rollercoaster. It takes some time and a bit of finesse to learn this, by the way.”
Be with it
Chatting with a girlfriend recently, she said that letting it ‘be’ instead of letting it ‘go’ had helped her to find peace with heartache. I understood; ‘letting go’ can seem like a denial of how you currently feel. Letting ‘be’ or ‘being’ with, on the other hand, allows space for feelings to exist, no matter how uncomfortable they may be, and removes the internal struggle against a negative feeling.
“Be alert to the arrival of pain when it shows up, whatever its form,” advises Jon Kabat-Zinn, executive director of the Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine at the University of Massachusetts, in his book Coming to Our Senses.
This alertness gives rise to awareness, which is where wisdom resides.
“This is not to suggest that awareness is a cold and unfeeling strategy for turning away from the depths of our pain in moments of anguish and loss or in their lingering aftermath,” Kabat-Zinn explains.
“Loss and anguish, bereavement and grief, anxiety and despair, as well as all the joy available to us, lie at the very core of our humanity…
“It is precisely a turning toward and an embracing, rather than a turning away or a denying or suppressing of feeling that is most called for and that awareness embodies. Awareness may not diminish the enormity of our pain in all circumstances. It does provide a greater basket for tenderly holding and intimately knowing our suffering in any and all circumstances, and that, it turns out, is transformative.”
Treat yourself like you are recovering from an illness
When we’re physically ill, we tend to take better care of ourselves and find ways to nourish ourselves back to health. The soul also needs nourishment when it has been sick.
Malkin shared the letter of one woman:
“You must take care of yourself like you are recovering from a really bad illness,” she wrote to him of her own experience. “Surround yourself with positive things. Try very hard to not let your anger, resentment, hurt destroy you. It will eat away at your insides and turn you into one big ball of rage. I made a conscious choice to get through it by sheer will power. I decided I was going to rise above the ashes and come out on the other end, stronger, and with my dignity. ”
For me, I realised I couldn’t fix the sick or broken part of myself, I could only learn to nourish and grow the healthy seeds that remained.
I surrounded myself with good people, sought joy and regularly stretched outside my comfort zone to challenge my own perception of what was possible and to create a new framework for existence based on growth not grief.
It’s important to distinguish between self-indulgence and self-compassion.
There are times when the only answer is to eat ice cream, drink a bottle of wine and sit on the floor of your shower and wail (not at the same time as eating the ice cream and drinking the wine, of course).
But this sort of indulgence is more for short-term gain, explains Dr Kristen Neff, associate professor in Human
Development and Culture from the University of Texas.
“Indulging is actually not helping yourself,” she explains. “Self-compassion wants long-term health not short-term pleasure.”
How does self-compassion work in practice?
“It is treating ourselves with care and understanding rather than harsh self-judgement,” Neff says. “Treating yourself as you would treat a good friend you care about, actively soothing and comforting yourself… and framing your own experience and imperfection in light of the shared human experience.”
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