Grief: Why can’t we talk about grief?

A fundamental component of healthy grieving is to experience the pain and sorrow associated with loss. Equally important is giving yourself permission to take breaks away from your grief. But we seem to avoid it all together, never having that conversation.

So why can’t we have honest conversations about grief?

This week we had two wonderful authors contributing so we have an extra-long special episode!

Thanks to the following guests for participating:

Giles Paley-Phillips is the award-winning author whose work includes There’s a Lion in my Bathroom, and Things You Never Knew About Dinosaurs. One Hundred and Fifty-Two Days is his first book for adults:

Writer and poet Maya Kalaria maps her journey into the mysterious underworld of grief and the extraordinary lessons she learned in the darkness in Half Woman Half Grief:

Raju Mazumder, a data analyst working for a tech company

Publicity consultant, media trainer, and author of Breaking into the Media, Sandra Coffey

Writer, artist, event specialist, Love Viva podcast host, and entrepreneur of Love Viva Cakes and Crafts Viva Andrada O’Flynn

Here are some of the resources from the show:

This video is a clip from the documentary SPEAKING GRIEF, now available to watch at https://speakinggrief.org. Here is author and therapist Megan Devine on her views:

Books looked at this week:

Giles Paley-Phillips: One Hundred and Fifty-Two Days

Maya Kalaria: Half Woman Half Grief

Megan Devine: It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand

PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.

Transcription

Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.

Intro music

Welcome to episode 39 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky skills by taking this learning journey with you.

Max Porter says in Grief is the Thing with Feathers that “Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush.” So why do we avoid grief even though it’s important?

Here is Raju Mazumder – a data analyst working for a tech company on his thoughts.

RAJU MAZUMDER

Giles Paley-Phillips is the award-winning author whose work includes There’s a Lion in my Bathroom, and Things You Never Knew About Dinosaurs. One Hundred and Fifty-Two Days is his first book for adults.

While in her debut collection of poetry, writer Maya Kalaria maps her journey into the mysterious underworld of grief and the extraordinary lessons she learned in the darkness in Half Woman Half Grief. Find both interviews on www.howtobe247.com or on the YouTube channel but here’s what they had to say.

GILES PALEY-PHILLIPS
MAYA KALARIA

Psychotherapist and author Megan Devine says in It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand most of what passes for grief support these days is less than useful. Here she is.

MEGAN DEVINE

Devine believes we don’t talk about loss, most people—and many professionals—think of grief and loss as aberrations, detours from a normal, happy life and that we can stop feeling pain as quickly as possible.

It’s that faulty belief that leaves so many grieving people feeling alone, abandoned, like there is something wrong with them on top of their grief. There’s so much correction and judgment inside grief; many feel it’s just easier to not talk about what hurts. Grief is a natural, healthy, sane extension of love and response to loss. Hence, we need to start talking about it in real terms, not as pathology and fixing, and not with some false hope of everything working out alright in the end.

Studies in neurobiology show that losing
someone close to us changes our biochemistry. Respiration, heart rate, and nervous system responses are all partially regulated by close contact with familiar people and animals; these brain functions are all deeply affected when you’ve lost someone close. Grief affects appetite, digestion, blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, muscle fatigue, and sleep—basically everything. If it’s in the body, grief affects it. In addition to physical effects, cognitive changes, memory loss, confusion, and shortened attention spans are all common in early grief. Some effects even last for years—and that’s perfectly normal. It’s true on so many levels: losing someone changes you. Here’s what Devine says:
– with sleep you may sleep too much or too little which is expected, but talk to a professional if it become chronic
– nightmares are sometimes part of processing
– it is known that stress can be felt in the body
– there’s no normal appetite in grief, you may just need encouragement to eat well
– Remember caring for your physical body is an act of kindness
– Grief can change the wiring of your brain including cognitive functions, brain fog, memory, even loss of time
– don’t judge yourself for being mentally exhausted
– ask yourself what physical symptoms have you noticed in grief and how has it changed the way your mind works?

Your survival in this life post-loss won’t follow steps or stages, or align with anyone else’s vision of what life might be for you such as Elisabeth Kubler Ross well-known stages of grief. In order to survive, we have to start with telling the truth. This really is as bad as you think. When we start there, we can begin to talk about living with grief.

When people hear about loss, they will try to empathize by telling you their own grief stories. This ranges from the comparison of “My husband died, too,” to “My goldfish died when I was eight, so I know just how you feel.”

We share stories of loss to communicate that we understand where you are. Shared loss stories are an attempt to make you feel less alone inside your grief. They don’t usually land that way, though. One experience of loss does not translate into another. Grief is as individual as love. That someone has experienced a loss—even one similar to yours—does not mean they understand you.

Of course we all want to talk about our pain. But right now, when you are in pain, that is not the time for a two-way, give-and-take discussion about the losses we all sustain. Grief comparison and shared grief stories do not bring you comfort. It can feel like your own loss has been eclipsed by the speaker’s need to tell their own story—no matter how long ago it happened, or how irrelevant it is to your loss.
It seems nefarious, but it’s just one of the subtle ways our faulty grief culture impacts your actual grieving process.

Even without comparison, words of comfort from other people can still feel horribly wrong. Stepping over some of the more egregious and ridiculously hurtful things people have said (for now), here’s a short list of some of the things grieving people have heard from people intending to offer comfort and support:

At least you had them for as long as you did.
You can always have another child/find another partner.
They’re in a better place now.
At least now you get to know what’s really important in life.
This will make you a better person in the end.
You won’t always feel this bad.
You’re stronger than you think.
This is all part of the plan.
Everything happens for a reason.
Saying something like “He wouldn’t want you to be sad” or “At least you had her for as long as you did” might seem like a comfort. The problem is, there’s an implied second half of the sentence in all those familiar lines. That second half of the sentence unintentionally dismisses or diminishes your pain; it erases what is true now in favor of some alternate experience. That ghost-sentence tells you it’s not OK to feel how you feel.

For each of these familiar comforting statements, add the phrase “so stop feeling so bad.”

– At least you had her for as long as you did
– He died doing something he loved
– You can always have another child

If you cringe or feel angry when friends and family try to comfort you, it’s because you hear the second half of that sentence, even when they don’t say it out loud. Friends and family want you to feel better. They want to take away your pain. What they don’t understand is that in trying to take your pain away, they’re actually dismissing and minimizing the extent of your grief. They aren’t seeing your reality for what it is.

Hence you don’t need to be polite in your responses to these and you certainly don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to. This means we may lose a lot of friends, but as Bessel Van Der Kolk says in The Body Keeps The Score: “The role of those relationships is to provide physical and emotional safety” not to be admonished or judged.

Devine says words of comfort that try to erase pain are not a comfort. When you try to take someone’s pain away from them, you don’t make it better. You just tell them it’s not OK to talk about their pain.

To feel truly comforted by someone, you need to feel heard in your pain. You need the reality of your loss reflected back to you—not diminished, not diluted. It seems counterintuitive, but true comfort in grief is in acknowledging the pain, not in trying to make it go away. Things like “Everything happens for a reason” and “You’ll become a stronger/kinder/more compassionate person because of this” bring out rage in grieving people. Sometimes you need to create boundaries by clearly and calmly addressing their concern, clarify your limits, and redirect the conversation.

It’s not just erasing your current pain that makes words of comfort land so badly. There’s a hidden subcontext in those statements about becoming better, kinder, and more compassionate because of your loss, that often-used phrase about knowing what’s “truly important in life” now that you’ve learned how quickly life can change.

The unspoken second half of the sentence in this case says you needed this somehow. It says that you weren’t aware of what was important in life before this happened. It says that you weren’t kind, compassionate, or aware enough in your life before this happened. That you needed this experience in order to develop or grow, that you needed this lesson in order to step into your “true path” in life.

You didn’t need this. You don’t have to grow from it, and you don’t have to put it behind you. Both responses are too narrow and shaming to be of use. Life-changing events do not just slip quietly away, nor are they atonements for past wrongs. They are part of our foundation as we live forward. What you build atop this loss might be growth. But that is due to your choices, your own alignment with who you are and who you want to be. Not because grief is your one-way ticket to becoming a better person.

Grief no more needs a solution than love needs a solution. We cannot “triumph” over death, or loss, or grief. They are immovable elements of being alive. If we continue to come at them as though they are problems to be solved, we’ll never get solace or comfort in our deepest pain.

The problem with mastery orientation is that it makes us look at everything as a problem to be solved, or a challenge to be vanquished. Things like birth and death, grief and love, don’t fit well inside that narrative of mastery.

It’s that intention of fixing, of curing, of going back to “normal” that messes with everything. It stops conversation, it stops growth, it stops connection, it stops intimacy. Honestly, if we just changed our orientation to grief as a problem to be solved and instead see it as a mystery to be honored, a lot of our language of support could stay the same.

Devine says we need to let what is true be true. We need to find ways to share in the shattering experience of loss—in our own lives and in the larger world. Shoving through what hurts will never get any of us what we most want—to feel heard, companioned, and seen for who we are, where we are.

Coming to your own broken heart with a sense of respect and reverence honors your reality. It gives you space to be exactly as you are, without needing to clean it up or rush through it. Something in you can relax. The unbearable becomes just that much easier to survive.

It seems too intangible to be of use, but finding the middle ground of grief happens only when we turn our gaze to face it directly. When we allow the reality of grief to exist, we can focus on helping ourselves—and one another—survive inside pain.

Because there’s so much unsolicited advice and opinion floating around the grief world, it’s easy to lose track of what you actually want for yourself. Many people wondering when is the “right time” to remove their wedding rings, or convert their child’s bedroom into a guest room, or stop referring to their brother in the present tense.

The answer is simple: there is no right time.

You can’t wait for the time to feel right, because it likely never will. None of this is something you would ever choose. When you’re trying to make a decision, you can’t wait until it feels good

If taking off your wedding rings makes you feel sick, it’s not the right time to take them off. If you start to panic at the thought of moving anything in your child’s room, then don’t move anything. Use the vomit metric for any decisions you have to make and for the ones you feel like you’re supposed to make.

You don’t have to change anything until you’re ready. There are weird family politics to contend with at times for sure, but for the most part, what you do with things in your home or on your body is up to you.

Along these same lines, it’s perfectly normal to leave things exactly as your person left them. Evidence that they were here, that they lived, that they were part of you is important. When your life has evaporated, those touchstones become the whole world.

When it comes ro rage, the reality of anger never gets any positive airtime in our culture. You’re not supposed to be angry. No matter what’s happened, showing anger is . . . unseemly. Much like grief, anger is met with deep discomfort: it’s fine in short doses, but it needs to be moved through quickly, without much noise. However, Devine says this boycott on anger is ridiculous.

All emotion is a response to something. Anger is a response to a sense of injustice. Of course you’re angry: whatever has happened to you is unjust. It doesn’t matter whether “fairness” is logical, or whether there’s a reason something happened.

Contrary to pop-psychology and the medical model, anger is healthy, normal, and necessary. As with most things, if it isn’t given recognition and support, it gets turned inward, where it can become poisonous. What we don’t listen to (or refuse to listen to) doesn’t go away—it just finds other ways to speak. Shushed anger joins a backlog of disallowed emotion, popping up in health issues, interpersonal challenges, and mental torment. Those negative images we have of rage actually come from anger that isn’t allowed to exist: repression creates pressure, which creates toxic behaviors set atop what used to be a healthy response to injustice.

All of this is to say that your anger surrounding your loss is welcome. It’s healthy. It’s not something to rush through so you can be more “evolved” or acceptable to the people around you. Find ways to give your sense of injustice and anger a voice.

Touching your anger can be scary. If it feels too big, lean on a trusted friend or therapist. This is one place having an ally is really useful. It’s OK to ask people how they feel about hearing your anger—it lets them be prepared to really listen, and allows you to know whether they can hear what’s true without trying to rush you through your anger before it’s had its say.

Your grief is not a test of love. You can’t fail. You haven’t failed. But thinking of grief as an experiment can be helpful in seeing the signs, like shifts in how you feel, and your triggers. The first concrete practice, then, is to start a log of what you notice. Gathering this data helps you figure out your own personal distinction between pain and suffering.

Even though every grief is unique, there are several broad indicators to see when you’re floundering in suffering. Evidence of suffering: poor sleep, no appetite, excessive appetite, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, anxiety, self-judgment, emotional reactivity (reactivity is different from grief or pain), short temper, sense of guilt disproportionate to actual responsibility, inability to breathe etc.

Hence Devine recommends on one side of the page, make a list of signs you’re really suffering. On the other side, a list of signs that you’re caring for yourself well. In terms of wellness vs worseness, she suggests creating a side-by-side list of what makes you feel saner and what makes you feel crazy. The point of these exercises is to distinguish between pain and suffering. It won’t fix the problem, but it will help you to map it.

Finding out what you need in order to feel, not “OK” with all this, but somehow companioned and supported inside the wreckage, is the heavy work of surviving grief. Hence answering the following questions if possible:
– What would you need in order to feel more supported inside your pain? How can we make an impossible situation more kind, gentler, and easier on your heart?
– You might address your pain as a separate being: “In order to feel safe enough to face you, I would need . . .”
— You might begin a free write with the line: “If you want me to breathe in this wreckage . . .”

When you’re dealing with death, injury, or chronic illness, however, turning attention to the physical body can make things much worse. So keep this in mind when doing breathing exercises and dealing with sensations. The idea is to think about how to be kind to yourself, so ask yourself What would kindness to yourself look like today?

Feelings of anxiety are normal for those who have survived an intense loss or trauma. Inside your grief, the whole world can feel like an unsafe place, one that requires constant vigilance: searching for early warning signs of trouble, guarding against more loss. But our brains are doing what they are supposed to with a flight and fright response, our nervous system gets flooded to prepare itself for any threats. The only thing is that it doesn’t really help you find safety. So you would need to:
– soothe the system through exhaling longer than your inhale
– Recognising anxiety is a symptom rather than predicator
– Learn to trust yourself
– find ways to lessen the risks of disaster scenarios in your head
– Use your amazing imagination for thinking of better futures
– find your neutral centre, and alert calmness
– Try logging your anxiety triggers
– Think about how can you be kind to yourself?

In terms of creativity, creating something good out of loss is not a trade, and it’s not a cure. But pain like love needs expression, it’s just the way the human mind works. When we separate the creative process from a need to solve or fix things, it becomes an ally, and a way to continue and connect to our stories of love and find companionship with grief. Recent studies show that engaging in as little as ten to fifteen minutes of creative writing can help reduce overall levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone.” You can even personify grief while writing creatively, make a collage or a graphic novel, write poetry, photograph, sculpt, and paint – it’s not about perfection, it’s just your work in progress.

Devine says we also need to be careful about the language that we use to talk about grief. Recovery, as defined in the dictionary, means to restore oneself to a normal state, to regain what was lost, or to be compensated for what was taken, except this doesn’t really work for death or illness because some things will never be the same or “normal”. Similar to resilience, which assumes returning to an original state, but we are changed in our new realities and we build on top of scars. Hence she recommends crafting an image of your own recovery by asking yourself given that things can’t be restored, what would healing look like and what kind of person do I want to be?

But if you want to get your support system to help you,
– get them to understand that grief isn’t a problem to be solved,
– no pep talks or suggestions just acceptance, bear witness to someone’s intense pain,
– it’s okay to be clunky and just listen and give a safe space,
– it’s okay to say I have no idea what to say and I can’t make this right and deal with the discomfort ,
– don’t compare griefs instead ask questions about their experience
– don’t correct or fact check
– don’t minimise or even compliment
– don’t be a cheerleader, you can mirror their reality back to them
– don’t talk about later and stay in the moment
– don’t charge ahead with solutions, get consent first
– Don’t take it personally

Companionship, reflection, kindness, and connection are vital parts of surviving grief. Attachment is survival. Even though you are alone in your grief, your stories can be shared. And finding companionship with those who have experienced those depths of pain can help with survival, Devine describes this as the Tribe of After.

So to sum up:

Devine says in “it’s ok that you’re not ok” that you’re part of the change happening, both in your own heart, and in the hearts and minds of others. By showing up, by staying present, by choosing to show yourself love and kindness inside what hurts. Acknowledgment is everything, so it’s OK that you’re not OK. Some things cannot be fixed. They can only be carried. We grieve because we love.

So remember grief belongs to the griever, stay in the present and not the future, do not try to fix the unfixable, be willing to witness unbearable pain, this is not about you, anticipate what they will need by offering services, do some recurring chores, tackle difficult tasks together, be the desigated point person for everyone, educate and advocate others, and above all show love and be there.

Grief is an old acquaintance of mine, I imagine it as a crow sitting on my shoulder – neither angelic or malicious, just living as part of me. How is it for you?

To end this episode here is publicity consultant and media trainer Sandra Coffey and writer, artist, event specialist, Love Viva podcast host, and entrepreneur of Love Viva Cakes and Crafts Viva Andrada O’Flynn in their views on grief. And if you enjoyed this please hit subscribe!

SANDRA COFFEY
VIVA ANDRADA O’FLYNN

Published by suswatibasu

Suswati Basu is a writer, journalist, producer and feminist activist residing in London. She has written for the Guardian, Huffington Post and the F-Word blogs, and has worked for various media outlets such as the BBC, Channel 4 and for ITV News/ITN. She currently works as a senior intelligence expert.

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