"Grieving is not just an emotional process; it is a physical one, too."
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Episode 79 -- January 14, 2021New Year, Next Happy: Grieving Losses Large and Small
Life is full of losses, large and small. The reality is that no matter how positive our outlook or how tenacious our approach, our dreams simply do not always come true—and there is nothing we can do to change this fact.
In this excerpt from her book, The Next Happy: Let Go of the Life You Planned and Find a New Way Forward, author Tracey Cleantis offers practical help for the journey of grieving the losses in our lives. With wisdom from her own hard experience, Cleantis shows how to face the reality of letting go of dreams that can no longer be, accept sadness, anger, and shame, and ask the questions that will let you find a new way forward.
With down-to-earth wisdom and humor, this enlightening counterpoint to the popular self-help notion to "follow your dream, no matter what it takes" provides the guidance and support to help you move through your grief and discover the next happy.
It has been edited for brevity.
How Grief Works
When I finally called the time of death on my dream, I didn't know how to grieve it. No one told me, "This is how you grieve a loss." I just did it; grief just happened; it took me over and had its way with me. It will probably do the same for you, so I am not here to tell you how to grieve. I am here to give you some guidelines on grief so that you can at least be clear about what is going on while you are going through it. Not all of what follows may apply to your situation, but take what works and leave the rest.
Remember That You Are Not Crazy
I am here to tell you that whatever you are feeling or doing is normal and that you will be okay. So many people who love us want us to feel better fast, and this makes a certain amount of sense. They love us, and they want us to be happy. They will give us platitudes and tell us we need to look at the bright side and that we should focus on all the good in our lives, and while there may be truth in what they say, this is not the time for doing any of that. You will get there, but until you do, all the talk of silver linings will only make you cry more, make you feel angrier, and even make you want to further isolate. I want to be the voice that tells you that it is okay not to look at the bright side right now. The bright side will be there when you're ready. Grief is a natural reaction to loss, and you have lost something major—you have lost the hope of this dream coming true. It is natural that you are feeling what you do, so go ahead and feel it.
Please Remember That Feelings and Facts Are Not the Same Thing
You may feel that your feelings about the death of your dreams are too much to bear. You may feel that you will always feel this way. You may feel sure that if you start to cry that you will never stop. You may feel that for the rest of your life this pain will be the first thing you think about when you wake up and the last thing you think about before you go to bed. You may feel absolutely certain that your life cannot be happy without this dream. I get it. I do. But this book is filled with stories of people who felt that way and no longer do. Such a person wrote this very sentence. Have the courage to feel it all. You will get through this, you will move on and through it, and you will get to the other side—you will.
Watch for Pointy Fingers
When things don't work out as we hoped, we want to make sense of it. We look for a reason. We want to figure out the rules so we can emerge from confusion. We want to point a finger. We want to assign blame. Sometimes in my storytelling about my grief, I told the story of what the doctors did wrong and how this one was mean to me and that one didn't handle this right and the next one was on the edge of unethical. Blaming helped for a while, and then it didn't. Soon I saw that the blaming shifted. I started to make the failure of my dream my fault.
Was that going to get me through the grief more quickly? No. And actually the blaming sent a message to my psyche: "You don't deserve to be sad. This is your fault." Not helpful. Now is not the time for a cold, clinical analysis of what you did wrong. There may be a time and a place for that, and there may not be. However, that time is not now. You did everything in your power to make this dream a reality. And now you are letting it go. So, dear one, please don't beat yourself up.
Buy Good Kleenex; Don't Cheap Out
This is not a time to skimp. Get the good stuff. And have lots of it. Maybe a case from Costco. Keep a box in each room. Very often, patients apologize to me for crying so much and needing so much tissue. Do not apologize for your tears. Tears are healing. According to the research conducted by Dr. William Frey at the former St. Paul-Ramsey Medical Center in Minnesota (who describes himself as a student of "psychogenic lacrimation," or emotionally induced tears), emotionally driven crying contains protein and stress hormones, while tears that we cry because of an irritation (like dust particles or when cutting an onion) are mostly water. Other research showed that crying activates endorphins, which is our body's natural painkiller. In other words, we feel better for having cried. So don't stop yourself from crying, and don't let anyone tell you not to cry. That said, if your grief is not activating tears, that is okay, too. If you don't cry, don't feel guilty. It doesn't mean you aren't hurting. Tear production is not a measure of how bad you feel. Some of our most painful moments are met by a horrible, f?at, and icy emotionlessness that is more painful than any sob.
Eating Is Good
Grieving is not just an emotional process; it is a physical one, too. I remember crying so hard that I felt like I had just done a Spinning class. When I was done, I needed a towel, a shower, and a bottle of Gatorade to recover from the emotional workout. We therapists call grief that we are conscious of "active grief." Why? Because you aren't numbing it out, you are doing something, and it is something that takes a whole lot of energy to do. And because it takes energy, you need fuel—the best fuel you can give yourself. (Which is not, alas, Twinkies.) When you are grieving, it is common to either eat too much or not enough. Give yourself the best nurturing you can; it's hard enough to feel like crap because of grief, but you will only feel worse if you aren't sleeping, drinking water, taking your vitamins, getting a bit of sunlight, and exercising. It is rare that I have a grieving patient come in and report that she is doing all of the above. Most often I hear, "I just can't eat." Then how about a smoothie or some juice or a chocolate shake with maybe a scoop of protein powder and a Fred Flintstone multivitamin? I know you know it is important to take care of yourself, but in grief, we can use a reminder to do these basic things. Treat yourself like you would a treasured friend, because you are.
Have Realistic Expectations with Yourself
You, like all human beings, have a finite amount of emotional, mental, and physical energy you can spend in a single day before you collapse into a blathering, nonfunctioning heap. Your energy will be impacted by the grief and the adjustment to not having the dream. And it is also likely you won't have the energy for other things the way you did before. Big feelings are tiring. I hear this all the time in session with patients. After doing a good bit of psychological work in which they confront their feelings, patients report being exhausted. Feelings felt fully (both the happy and sad kind) are energy expenditures. No, you won't find a calorie chart that gives you the energy expenditure for feeling anger, but every day I see the impact of feeling feelings fully. That said, I am equally sure it takes more energy to hold down feelings than it does to feel them. Once feelings are felt and you let them go, you will have energy for doing stuff again, I promise.
Use Self-Soothing Mantras
When I felt like I was being swallowed by grief, a memory of a conversation with a friend would flash into my mind. She is a gifted therapist, and one day, she tried to teach me to drive a stick shift. I was terrified. I was almost hyperventilating as she instructed me on the feel of the clutch. I panicked. I breathlessly told her, "I cannot do this! You've got to hear me. I cannot do this." My friend looked at me with sympathetic eyes and said to me calmly, "Your mother never taught you that bad things pass and that scary feelings don't last forever." She didn't pose it as a question; she saw it in my behavior—and she was right. My mother did not teach me that. I learned that anxiety was something to avoid and that if I felt something now, I would always feel it. In that moment, my friend gave me a huge gift, even though she didn't manage to teach me to drive a stick. I learned from her that I had missed an important life lesson: feelings pass. I knew it, but I didn't know it. At the end of our lesson, she gave me the prayer from the fourteenth-century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well," which in hindsight was a better lesson than learning to drive a stick shift.
This prayer may not be a comfort to everyone, but it definitely was for me. There was something in its vagueness that comforted me, a promise that I would be okay without a whole lot of specifics.
One Thing Leads to Another
When we are grieving something, other grief is likely to get activated. Other losses from the past—other dreams, deaths, and disappointments—are going to come up, which can compound our grief, especially if we didn't fully allow ourselves to grieve the past. My grief was compounded by my looking at other losses and concluding that I was especially unlucky. I may have uttered the word cursed a time or two when I evaluated all the losses from my past. I would not advise this. It is not true and doesn't help. But when you are grieving, you can expect that all the other losses you haven't dealt with are going to rear their ugly heads. For me, all the grief around my emotionally absent dad and my lonely childhood came up, and they came up as anger and outrage and an endless chorus of "Life's not fair."
Watch for Addictive Behaviors
Oftentimes, the relentless pursuit of a dream takes on a kind of manic quality. There may have been an almost addictive relationship to action, where you conditioned yourself to believe that as long as you were actively trying to make the dream a reality, you were keeping depression at bay. However, now that the dream is dead, there is nothing you can do anymore. Your addiction to action may tell you that if you just take action—doing anything—you will feel better. In order to cope, you might turn to sex, exercise, shopping, video games, food, drugs, or alcohol, and you might do so to a dangerous degree. Addictive behaviors, like numbing, ultimately don't make the pain go away because we need to keep going back to that behavior again and again. Addiction and compulsive behaviors have zero power to heal grief and, in fact, only prolong the pain and exacerbate it. If you see you are filling the grief space with addictive behaviors, it is important to seek help.
About the Author:
Tracey Cleantis is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Southern California and the author of the critically acclaimed book The Next Happy: Let Go of the Life You Planned and Find a New Way Forward. Whether she's writing, speaking at conferences and retreats, engaging with clients, or contributing to Huffington Post, she's a happiness warrior.
© 2015 by Tracey Cleantis
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