Making Meaning

I have a New Year’s tradition of making a vision board for the coming year.  I’ve done this for the past five years or so, often with my daughters.  The idea of a vision board, if you’re new to stuff like creative visualization, is that you put together a visual representation of what you want to manifest in your life.  And then you display it somewhere to help keep your vision fresh in your mind.  That’s the idea anyway.  Depending on who you ask, some will say that you don’t even need to see your vision board for stuff on it to be summoned into your reality.  Like, if done with the right intention, you can just cut out a picture of a mountain, glue it to a piece of paper, stuff it in a drawer and forget about it, and then some time in the future, you’ll realize you’ve started mountain climbing.  (For example.)  And I’ll admit, I’ve had some pretty random and unlikely elements of my vision boards happen to occur later in the year, even when I had forgotten they were on there.  Really!

If all this sounds ridiculous to you, I can’t say I disagree.  But I’m not yet in a position in my life where I can afford to ignore any possible options for getting what I want, however ridiculous they may sound.  And anyway, I like cut and paste.  And most of my favorite things in this world are pretty ridiculous.  So this all suits me fine.

So a vision board.  I do collage for mine, because I wouldn’t want to look at anything I attempted to paint or draw for a full year.  I gather magazines, usually from my garage on New Year’s Eve.  And I don’t really subscribe to magazines, so the selection is spotty at best.  In the past I’ve used everything from Psychology Today to Maxim to Lands End catalogs.  So I take my random hodge podge of magazines and cut out anything that stands out to me without over-thinking it.  (I read that tip somewhere… overthinking might disrupt the magic!)  And mind you, being that this is on New Year’s Eve, I’m often a couple of hours past my usual bedtime, and a couple of glasses of champagne, into the night.  And the last two years, as a busy mom of four, I didn’t even finish the vision boards completely that first night but instead spent a few minutes here and there on them for the next couple days or weeks, until I had something I could call done and stick in a frame.  (Not sure how that should affect the magic, but you do what you can do, right?)

So between my lame selection of magazines, my refusal to over-think the things I cut out, the sleep deprivation and the champagne, you might imagine (correctly) that at no point in the process am I particularly focused  on what the hell is going on my vision board.  This thing that I, with all my sage-burning, divine-channeling, intention-setting dedication, have handed over my very future to, is never really given my full attention at all.  So there are probably elements of these boards that I never knew were on there.  Again, what can you do?

This brings me to my story about making meaning.  So my vision board for this year has been sitting on a dresser in my room, in a large, glass frame, collecting dust for the past eight months.  And though I probably glance at it at least once a day, my eye sight isn’t great, so I’m not really sure what’s on there.  It’s mostly a blur, except for the really big stuff.  There are a few words or pictures on there that, because of their large size, do get noticed by me fairly often.

vision board

But even some of the big stuff doesn’t get seen, because I have a few things placed on the dresser that block the bottom part of the board, including a beautiful touch-drawing card made for me by a friend when I was pregnant with my youngest daughter.  That card leans up against the vision board, right under the largest word on the whole board.  The word is “Making.”  But because of the touch-drawing card, I can’t see what comes after that.  So, I’ve often found myself sitting across the room on my bed, gazing at my vision board, without the foggiest recollection of what I cut out of those magazines in January, and wondering to myself, “Making what?”

Now, I say that I “wondered”.  But really, I always thought I actually did remember what it said below that, where the touch-drawing card was blocking my view.  It said, “Making meaning.”  I was pretty sure I remembered that.  And that made sense as something I would have chosen to cut out, because a cherished tenet in my life is the idea that meaning is something we make.  Which isn’t to say that meaning isn’t real.  On the contrary, meaning is the only thing that’s real, to us anyway, and what gives life purpose.  It’s everything.  But it’s also created by us, and nothing without our input.  So though I couldn’t be certain, and though I did occasionally pose to my empty room, out loud, “Making what?”, I was pretty confident that the answer to that question was, “meaning.”  My vision board for this year was about making meaning.

Anyway, the other day I was walking past that dresser and got curious.  I reached down to grab the touch-drawing card and moved it out of the way, so I could read, once and for all, what I was supposed to be “Making.”  But it didn’t say anything under that.  No more words.  “Making” was the whole thing.

Making meaning, indeed.

Also, when I moved the touch-drawing card to reveal that blank space, basically shattering my whole understanding of my vision board or my year or my reality, I noticed that something else had shattered.  That damn frame.  The glass was cracked in several directions.

I have no idea how that happened!  And I’m not sure what I’m supposed to make of it.  What is the universe trying to tell you when you pour all your intentions for the coming year into a glass frame, and then you find that the frame has mysteriously shattered.  I’m not sure.  But if I learned anything from this vision board, it’s that it’s probably best if I don’t try and guess.

cracked

The Answer

“Am I going to die?”

That was the question my 4-year-old asked me today.

It shouldn’t have surprised me, because our family cat just died a couple weeks ago.  And maybe surprise isn’t the right word for how I felt when she asked.  But I definitely felt thrown by it.  And unprepared, even though everyone who knows me would tell you that this kind of question is right up my alley.  I think about death a lot.  I talk about death a lot, to many different kinds of people, including many children.  If anyone would know how to answer that question, it would be me.

But knowing how to answer it wasn’t the hard part.  It was giving the answer, while every part of my being was begging me to give a different one that was the challenge.  “Just  change the subject!” a voice in my head shouted.  “Tell her why it’s okay!” suggested another.  “Just lie!” they all said.

And it was the fact that I couldn’t do anything about the answer that was a challenge.  And the fact that the answer is absolutely guaranteed to be so, no matter how badly I want it not to be.  And no matter how badly she wants it not to be.   This kid, this sweet, innocent child who I would do anything in my power to protect, will die.  And that’s not subject to debate.

Nor is it frivolous information.  It’s not like it’s something she’s just as well off not knowing.  That’s the kicker.  Even if I was morally okay with lying to her, there’s also the fact that she is a mortal, sentient, conscious being.  And that means that she has only her lifetime to come to terms with her own death.  And she cannot come to terms with something that is hidden from her.  When she asks that question, she deserves an answer.  The answer.  And she critically needs that answer, painful though it may be – for both of us – now.

So what I did what I had to do, and with my whole heart aching and my best attempt at gentleness, I gave her the only answer that belonged at the end of that question.

“Yes.”

mama and baby

How to Love Yourself

I realized I’ve been misunderstanding a phrase I’ve heard all my life.  Does that ever happen to you?  Like you realize that all this time, people have been saying “scapegoat,” while you’ve been hearing something about an escape goat?  This happens.

The phrase I’ve been misunderstanding all these years is this one:

“You have to love yourself.”

love

And the difference between what I thought it meant and what it actually means (or should mean) makes the difference between it being a useless, annoying cliche and it having the power to change lives.

See, the part I was mixed up about was the word “love.”  “Love,” as a verb, can mean two very different things.  One meaning is to feel very fond of something or someone.  That’s the kind of love that I’m going to call “affective love,” because it’s a feeling.  It’s something that happens to you.  You might say you “love pizza”, meaning you really enjoy pizza.  You might love jazz or puppies.  Might you love a person?  Sure!  You can feel very fond of a person, and you can enjoy being around them very much.  You can affectively love them.  You think they’re just wonderful.  And yes, you can affectively love yourself.  You can feel smart and beautiful and proud, and you can think you’re just awesome.  That is loving yourself in the affective sense.

But that’s not what the wise advice, “You have to love yourself,” is saying.  It’s talking about a different kind of love.  It’s what I’ll call “active love.”  This love isn’t something you feel.  It’s something you do.  It’s a choice you make.  It’s a commitment.  It’s the way in which parents love their children.  The way in which an artist loves their craft.  Or a firefighter loves their community.  Often, it’s work.  It’s not passive enjoyment of something.  It’s effort put into something.  It’s deciding that something is worth your love and acting upon that decision in every way you can.

mama and baby

When we actively love someone, we honor them and respect them.  We treat them with care and compassion.  We forgive them.  We hold them in the light, seeing them as worthy of our attention.  We actively love them even during the times when we don’t particularly feel like we affectively love them at all.  Even when they’re at their worst, because we don’t need them to be any certain way to love them actively.  Active love is not dependent on our enjoyment of the one we love.  It’s dependent only on our own commitment to loving them.

So when you hear that you should love yourself, and you’re thinking of it in terms of the affective kind of love, it’s likely you won’t find that very helpful.  Maybe you don’t particularly even like yourself at the moment.  Maybe you made a bad choice.  Or you’re having a bad day.  Or someone you care about it mad at you.  Maybe you’re struggling with depression.  There are a million reasons we might not, at any given moment, love ourselves in the affective sense of the word.  And even when we do, even when we feel like we’re the bees’ knees, the best that will get us is a temporary chance to give ourselves a high five for being awesome.

girl in mirror

But actively loving yourself is different.  It’s something you can do regardless of how you’re feeling about yourself.  It’s a way of relating to yourself as someone who deserves to be cared for and defended and protected and respected.  Not because you like yourself a whole lot or feel smart or funny or beautiful.  But because you are you.  Just like a mother loves her child even when they’re naked and muddy and picking their nose and calling her stupid, you can love yourself simply because you are yours.  And because if there’s one person who’s ever done anything for you, it’s you.  And because there’s no one else who will – or even can – love you as deeply as you (can) love yourself.

 

Here are some rules you can follow to better love yourself:

  1.  Do not stand for meanness.  Not from other people, but also (and especially) not from yourself.  If the words you choose to describe yourself are words you wouldn’t use to describe a friend, don’t use them.  “I’m so stupid.”  “I’m hideous.”  “I hate myself.”  None of that is acceptable, even in the privacy of your own mind.
  2.  Forgive yourself.  When you make a mistake, take extra care to say nice things to yourself.  Don’t deny the mistake, or you’ll never learn anything.  But don’t judge yourself for it.  Acknowledge it, plan what you’ll do different next time, and tell yourself it’s okay.  You know your friends are more than their bad choices.  Remind yourself that you are too.
  3.  Nurture yourself.  Pay attention to what you need and insist that you are worthy of getting your needs met.  Hungry?  Eat.  Tired?  Rest.  Is your life structured such that those things aren’t always possible?  Maybe you need to make some changes.  Or at the very least, prioritize your needs such that you will make those changes as soon as reasonably possible.  Yes, life it busy.  Yes, there’s not enough time in the day.  But if you can make time for anything at all, let it be self-care.
  4. Be authentic.  Let yourself be you.  If you act like someone you’re not, the message you send yourself is that the real you is not good enough.  If you lie about yourself and/or to yourself, you’re reinforcing your inadequate image.  Convincing yourself that you really are brilliant and talented and beautiful might be hard but luckily that’s not what you need to do.  What you need to do is get real with yourself, seeing yourself as who you really are – nothing more, nothing less.  You might be surprised at how much better it can feel to be flawed and real than perfect and fake.  And the key message that sends , to yourself and to the world, is that yes, you are just fine, just the way you are.
  5.  In all of these, use the Best Friend Test.  Or if you don’t have a best friend who you think the world of, think of someone you love dearly – a child, a spouse, etc. – and substitute them in where it says “best friend.”  This is the Best Friend Test:  If you wouldn’t say something to or about your best friend, don’t say it to or about yourself.  If you wouldn’t judge your best friend harshly for doing a particular thing, don’t judge yourself any more harshly.  And if you wouldn’t want your best friend to go without nourishment, don’t withhold it from yourself if you can help it.*

*If you have a hard time comparing yourself to your best friend, you need to spend some time recognizing all that you’ve done for you over the course of your life and have a little appreciation.  Then repeat the above suggestions until you see it.

nest

The best part about actively loving yourself is that over time, doing so will lead to more experiences of affectively loving yourself.  The better you treat yourself (when done authentically), the better you’ll feel about yourself.  So not only will you be lovingly cared for by the person with the most access to you (you!), you’ll also find you enjoy yourself more than you ever have.  Win, win!

If this all sounds crazy or impossible to you, I challenge you to try it for awhile and see what a difference it can make.  It’s free, and it might change your life.

 

 

How Death Helps, Part 1

It’s not that I’m obsessed with death.  Okay, maybe it started that way.  I’ve been thinking an awful lot about death ever since I first learned that it’s a thing.  At times, my interest wasn’t exactly healthy.  I spent most of my childhood fantasizing about death, because I was hurting and the thought of an end to that pain comforted me.  That’s not good, but it’s where I was.  I guess, yes, obsessed.

I wouldn’t wish that early part of my journey on anyone, but I also wouldn’t trade it.  Those dark years I spent fixated on death, though painful, were what positioned me on a path toward eventual unimaginable happiness.  It was death that put me on that path.  It’s been death that’s led me down that path.  And it’s death I will follow to its end.  If my level of happiness (by which I mean a sense of excitement, inspiration, reverence, purpose and peace) continues to increase at the same rate it has been on this first part of my life, I believe I will meet my end by vibrating from pure joy progressively until the cells of my body dissipate into a cloud of giggles and glitter.  I mean, a person can only be so happy, right?

rainbows

I wasn’t always happy.  Far from it, I remember the first time I ever felt anything I’d describe as happiness, and I was 15 years old at the time.  But now, I truly feel like I’ve found the secret to life, and wouldn’t you know, it was death all long.

It’s true that my interest in death started because I knew it could end me.  And sadly, I felt like someone who need to end.  But by luck and happenstance, I did not end then.  I went on.  And as I found other, healthier ways to deal with my pain, death lost its appeal.  But it did not lose its familiarity.  It was something I was already accustomed to thinking about.  A lot.  And something I had always thought of as something that could help me.  That was my gift.  Because while I was wrong about the way in which death would help me, I was absolutely right that it would.

How does death help me?  In so, so many ways.  Every day, all the time.  It’s rare that a day goes by now that I don’t notice a way in which death is helping me, in totally healthy, joyful ways.  This might sound weird.  Most people don’t usually think of death as a happy thing to think about.  And I realize that my relationship with death is a bit of a luxury, one that I paid for as a child.  It’s only after spending decades giving heavy thought to death that I now enjoy these rich benefits.  And I’m not sure it’s possible for someone to experience them without having put in the time, without having sat with death and with the necessary pain that accompanies death, for quite some time.

But maybe the benefits can be learned.  Maybe one can befriend death without spending years in pain first.  Maybe if someone knew what to look for, they could skip right to the good stuff!  Maybe that someone is reading this.

I guess before you can determine whether you can experience these benefits from thinking about death, I should tell you what they are.  There are really more ways death helps me than I can list, but I’ll start with a few.

For one thing, death makes food taste better.

PerfectStrawberry

This was the first clear benefit of thinking about death that I remember consciously noticing – the way in which attention to death could bring out rich flavors in my food.  Now I use it kind of like seasoning.  Whenever I think of it, while I’m eating, I take a moment before a bite to think about death.  Not just any death, but MY death.  My real and certain and final death.  I imagine it as if it were about to happen right now.  Then I breathe and take a bite.

I don’t know why this works, but wow, you’ve never tasted anything so amazing as a bite of food flavored by death.  It almost doesn’t even matter what food it is.  I first noticed it with a strawberry but have since tried it on everything from plain bread to salad to cake.  And I actually don’t notice the ecstatic effect any more with cake than I do with salad.  Whatever I’m eating, when I call my death into the front of my mind, will be the best thing I’ve ever tasted.

Want another one?   Death helps improve body image.  There’s nothing that will make you love your body quite like acknowledging that it’s not for keeps.  Holding death close in mind, I’m reminded of all that my body has done, and continues to do, for me.  And how extraordinary it is that it’s mine, that I can move it and feel it and inhabit it like this.  Looking at myself in the mirror, right in my eyes, and seeing myself as someone who will die, I see a light in my eyes and a warm softness in my face, and I feel beautiful.  I even appear visibly more beautiful to myself when I look in this way.

girl in mirror

And not only does it make me feel better about my body, it also motivates me to take better care of my body.  Often those two things – feeling happy with how you look and feeling motivated to get in shape – don’t go together.  We either feel good about how we look now or we feel compelled to get in better shape.  But reflecting on my mortality, I actually feel both.  Recognizing that I am temporary, I see myself as precious, and therefore I both love myself as I am and want to take care of myself.  This is good for my body image now and a good sign for my body image in the future.

A third way death helps me is with gratitude.  If you haven’t heard of the many benefits (link) enjoyed by people who regularly practice gratitude, you should look into it.  There are too many to list here.  But it seems there is almost nothing that can’t be helped by a healthy dose of gratitude.  It makes you happier, healthier, more successful and effective, more likable.

stones

But life is often hard and annoying and mundane and stressful.  So gratitude isn’t always the most obvious reaction to what life’s offering.  Even when I can remember to try and feel grateful, sometimes the feeling just doesn’t come.  No, I’m not grateful.  I’m tired, and the house is messy, and my kids are whining at me, and I have a headache.  I can’t force it!

Enter death.  In almost any situation, no matter how stressful or annoying or uncomfortable, a quick pause to reflect on death gives me the perspective I need to count my blessings.  Because none of this is a given.  Not my messy house nor my whining children nor my head that sometimes hurts.  These are all gifts.  The very moment in which I am experiencing those things is a gift.  That I can and will die means these moments are limited and therefore precious.  But I have them.  I am rich in reality, and in life.  Gratitude.

Those are three examples of ways death helps me on a regular basis, and I’m not exaggerating when I say there are at least dozens more.  Stay tuned.  I’ll be back to share some of them.  Until then, may your life feel as rich and vibrant and miraculous to you as mine does to me when I’m thinking about death.

doorlight

 

 

 

Zoom In

snail

Sometimes, I think the key to happiness is zooming in.

Like if you look out around you and see that you are in the center of a wall-to-wall sea of toys and books and clothes (some clean, some dirty) with a baby crying on the floor a few feet away and a disheveled toddler in the corner announcing that she “has pee!” … try zooming in.

Bring your attention inward, follow the breath. Zoom in.

‘Cause then you might see that you are wearing pajamas at 1pm on a Wednesday, while playing your ukulele, perched safely above the mess atop a trampoline. See?

Just zoom in.

Dance Forever

I’m not really one to lament the passing of my childhood.  I value the clarity I’ve gained in adulthood, my focused priorities and the awareness of my limits.  I wouldn’t want to be a kid again.

But I do know kids have a special kind of wisdom that is dependent on the prematurity of those same qualities.  Like this morning, my 3-year-old heard music and said:

“Quick, Mama – dance!”

with an urgency I usually reserve for water near my laptop.  And then later, while we were dancing, she said:

“Let’s keep doing this forever.”

She has yet to learn any reasons why those statements wouldn’t make sense.  And while I wouldn’t want to go back, I cherish these glimpses into that world.

Yes, child.  Let’s dance.  Forever.

dance

What To Say When Someone Dies

Imagine you run into someone you know (a friend, a coworker, a neighbor, anyone) and in chatting, you learn that someone close to them has just died.  Maybe it was their spouse, their child, their parent, their friend, anyone.  What do you say?

If imagining this scenario makes you uncomfortable, you’re not alone.  Death and grief are taboo subjects in our culture, and like the rest of us, you’ve probably been conditioned most of your life to avoid them whenever possible.  Because we don’t talk about death, we don’t know how to talk about death.

listening

Over the past year, I’ve had the honor of participating in a number of group discussions about death, dying and grief.  And a subtopic that has been coming up a lot recently is what is (and is NOT) helpful to hear from someone when you’re grieving.  While personal tastes do vary, there is actually a great deal of consensus as to which comments are nice to hear and which are, well, not so helpful.  Many comments made with the best of intentions (including several I might have previously made myself) can actually be annoying at best, and sometimes downright offensive or hurtful.

Since I found these conversations to be so very informative, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned here.  The following is a list of problematic comments one might make to a grieving person, each with a brief explanation and/or suggested alternative.

Note:  Nothing on this list is universal.  The problematic comments I included are here because they’ve been mentioned repeatedly, over time, and in different discussions, by numerous people who have been personally bothered by them.  Any one comment on here might, in a certain context, be totally appropriate.  But if you’re unsure, these are good general rules to follow.  Do know that often, there’s nothing you can say (or not say) that will make a grieving person feel better, and that’s totally fine.  What they need is usually not to feel better anyway, but just to be allowed to feel what they’re feeling.

grief

What To Say When Someone Dies

Don’t say:  “How did they die?”

Why?  Because that isn’t really a question for them.  That is a question for you, because you are curious.  If they want to tell you how the person died, they will.  But there are many reasons they might not want to tell you, or might not want to at that moment.  Chances are, they’ve already had to tell that part of their story more times than they’d care to.   And it may be hard for them to talk about, or it may not be the most important part of the story for them.  So asking that of them to satisfy your own curiosity is a way of taking from them.  You can choose instead to give to them with your questions, when you ask in a way that makes space for them to tell their own story.

Instead, try:  “Do you want to tell me about it?”

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Don’t say:  “I know just how you feel,”  or  “Oh yeah, my brother died last year, and what happened was…”

Why?  Because this isn’t about you.  And it isn’t about anyone else who has died or who will die.  (Otherwise known as “everyone.”)  This is about the one and only death of one totally unique individual, and it’s about the earthly severing of a relationship between two people that was also totally unique.  You do NOT know just how they feel.  And even if you did, telling them so is not helpful.

Instead, try:  “What does it feel like right now?”  or  “What’s the hardest part?”

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Don’t say:  “She’s in a better place now,” or “He’s with God now,” or “She’s in Heaven.”

Why?  The person may not share your beliefs, in which case those comments can be quite offensive.  But even if they do happen to believe what you’re saying, it’s very unlikely to make them feel any better.  Their pain is not about where their loved one may or may not be now.  It’s about them not being here.  Saying where you think they’ve gone just highlights their earthly absence.

Instead, try sharing memories you have of that person, and use that person’s name.  Describe the person.  Say what you loved best about them and what you’ll remember most about them.  Share some way they impacted you or something they taught you.  These are the ways in which the dead stay with us.  You can’t bring back that person, but you can join the grieving in honoring and remembering them.

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Don’t say:  “It’s for the best,” or “His suffering is over now,” or “Everything happens for a reason.”

Why?  If even true, that is neither here nor there.  It does not address the experience of the grieving person you are talking to.  It is unlikely to make them feel better, and it is dismissive.

Instead, try:  “I’m so sorry.”

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Don’t say:  (anything starting with “At least…”)

Why?  Because that’s not helpful.  For a great illustration, watch this short video…

 

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Don’t say:  “Is there anything I can do?”  or  “Let me know if you need anything.”

Why?  While there are plenty of things you could probably do for that person, asking in this way puts the ball immediately back in their court.  It then requires them to think of something for you to do for them and to ask you to do it.  Both of those take energy and can feel uncomfortable.  Neither a surplus of energy, nor an eagerness to tackle uncomfortable conversations, are common traits of a person in deep grief.  Do find a way to help them.  But do so in a way that adds nothing to their plate.

Instead, try:  “I would love to bring you dinner.  What would be a good time to drop it off?”  or  “I’m stopping at the store on the way to your house.  What can I bring you?”  or  “Can I take the kids to the park for awhile?”  If they seem reluctant to accept this kind of help, let them know that it would make you feel good to do something for them.

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Don’t:  disappear

Why?  Death and grief are topics that are widely frowned upon in our culture.  We’ve been well-trained to avoid these things.  (Unfortunate, since they are an inherent part of life.)  As a result, it is common for people dealing with death and/or grief to find that the people in their lives become scarce for a while.  People don’t want to be uncomfortable or don’t know what to say, so they avoid the grieving person altogether.  But what a grieving person needs is not for you to say any magical thing.  What they’re most likely to need is someone to simply listen.  To bear witness to their pain, without judging or dismissing or trying to fix it.  Just to be there.  So don’t go silent or disappear.

Instead, try:  “Wow, I don’t even know what to say.  But I’m here.”

here

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Don’t say:  “Be strong.

Instead, you be strong for them.  Grieving the loss of a loved one isn’t a weakness.  Experiencing intense emotions is not a weakness.  If you’re uncomfortable with their feelings, maybe you’re the one who needs to toughen up.

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Don’t say:  “Don’t cry.  It will be okay.”

Instead, try:  “You can cry around me,” or “Go ahead and cry.”  And then be there with them for that.  You might even add, “Let’s just sit here with this now.”  Be present, and accept their feelings.

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Don’t say:  “Maybe you should talk to a counselor about this.”  or  “Have you looked into a grief support group?”

Why:  Grief is not a disease or a disorder.  Grief is not unhealthy, unnatural or inappropriate.  What is unhealthy and unnatural and inappropriate is expecting people to hide those feelings, keep them to themselves or process them in isolation without the loving support of friends and family.  Treating this essentially human experience as something that needs to be treated or cured is more harmful than any feelings a grieving person naturally has in response to their loss.

Note:  Counselors and grief support groups each have an important place.  But chances are, it is not your place to suggest them.

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Don’t say:  “How are you doing?”

Why?  That question is at once unanswerable and has such an obvious answer it’s not worth asking.  A day in the life of any person, especially a grieving person, typically covers a wide range of emotions and is not easily summed up in one breath.  And at the same time, when you ask that of a person experiencing deep grief, their response (at least on the inside), is likely to be, “How the hell do you think I’m doing?!”  What they’ll probably actually say to you out loud is, “Okay,” “Fine,” or “I’ve been better.”  And it’s likely to feel to them like the millionth time this week they’ve had to answer that same question that same way.

Instead, try:  “How did it go with the lawyer this morning?” or “How has talking to the kids been going?”  or “What’s the hardest part of the day?”  Asking this kind of specific question gives that person a realistic chance at answering authentically and also shows them you’re thinking about them.

Though not specifically about grief, here is a great piece on asking good questions.  Very relevant here.

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Don’t say:  “Wow, you’re so strong/brave.  I don’t know how you do it.”

Why?  This kind of statement can actually feel alienating to someone who is likely to need connection far more than they need compliments.  It can suggest a sort of distancing and separating between the two of you, making it harder for that person to open up and talk about things they may really need to talk about.  Also, they may not feel particularly brave or strong, and they shouldn’t have to.

Instead, try:  “That sounds so hard.”

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Don’t say:  “You know, this is hard for me too.”

Why?  If you’re the one trying to think about what you should say to someone who’s grieving, chances are, you’re not as affected by that particular death as they are.  And if that’s true, it is insensitive, inappropriate and hurtful to put your hard feelings on them.

If you have your own grief to process surrounding that same death, by all means, do so.  But unload your feelings onto someone who is less affected by that death than you are, not more so.  A great way of thinking about this is the “comfort in, dump out” approach described in this article.

 About “I’m sorry for your loss.”

From what I’ve gathered, the jury is still out on this popular response.  On one hand, I’ve heard people say they appreciate this sentence when they’re grieving.  It doesn’t deflect or dismiss, it’s straight and to the point, and it addresses what is usually at the heart of grief, that sense of loss.  On the other hand, it can sound cliche and sort of automatic.  And when someone has recently lost a loved one, you can bet they’ve heard “I’m sorry for your loss,” from just about every other person they’ve encountered.  So use your judgment on this one.  If you feel comfortable saying something more personal or creative, that could be a wonderful gift to someone grieving.  But if you don’t know what else to say, using “I’m sorry for your loss,” is probably not a bad idea.

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And lastly, don’t expect a person in grief to feel any particular thing.  Maybe her dad died last week, and today she’s laughing at a joke she heard.  Maybe his daughter died 18 years ago, and today he starts crying about it in the grocery store.   Maybe a grieving person is full of energy or can’t get out of bed or wants to go to a party or doesn’t want to talk to anyone.  Let them feel how they feel.  It can be hard when everyone’s expecting you to be sad all the time.  Similarly, it can be hard when people are wondering why you haven’t “moved on” yet.  Grief doesn’t follow any map or timeline, and the grieving shouldn’t be expected to either.

The above list is not meant to be comprehensive.  If you have a problematic comment you’d like to add, I’d love to hear it!  Feel free to share in a comment.

Here’s to living, loving, grieving and dying well.  Thanks for reading.

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