If you’ve internalized values like personal growth, productivity, and self-improvement as your measures of self-worth, that doesn’t suddenly disappear after a loss. Though your world has been shattered, that little voice in the back of your head may still be sending the same messages you’ve told yourself for years. Suddenly the suffering, layered on existing values of constant personal development and unrelenting forward motion, leaves some people seeing grief as an obstacle and “overcoming it” as a self-improvement project. It sends you on a conscious (or unconscious) quest to grow from grief.
It can show up in your brain rushing to thoughts like, ‘I just need to stay positive and make something from this”. Or “I’ll use this experience to help others”. These thoughts are often the extension of the subtle (and not so subtle) messages that are everywhere around us.
Don’t believe me? While in the middle of writing this article, I received a box in the mail from our new email provider. They’d sent us a free thank you gift for signing up with them. What was included?:
That’s right . . . free gifts reminding me to “create every day” and “teach everything I know”. From our email provider. It’s no wonder our automatic thoughts leave us feeling like we need to transform our experience in order for it to be ‘valuable’ or meaningful.
Don’t get me wrong, those thoughts don’t always feel like pressure in a bad way. In fact, they are so common that sometimes they just feel like a given. And sometimes those thoughts feel good – really good. They can feel like a way to gain control when control has been lost. Seeking to grow from grief can keep you distracted by keeping you in motion.
So what’s the problem?
What can be missed is recognizing grief as a handbrake for the motion of life. It is an important and natural evolutionary force telling you to let yourself be, to sit, to grieve, to mourn. This leap to meaning can be an attempt to bypass the reality of loss.
Social media often doesn’t help – quickly you’re noticing all those coaches promising to help you “transform” your grief. You see people who’ve created scholarship funds and annual fundraisers and golf tournaments in memory of their loved ones. Though you appreciate what they’re doing, it leaves you feeling like a failure that you haven’t done the same. Your pride for managing to work, raise kids, and take care of a house all while grieving suddenly seems small when measured against others who are in motion, creating accounts and podcasts and memoirs. This comparison reinforces those internalized ideas that grief is something meant to be overcome as it propels you forward to grow or create.
The other side of sadness
But there are real benefits to the natural process of grieving slowly and gently. We know from research that being sad improves the accuracy of our memory and recall. There is some thought that the yearning after a death, when we’re present with it, helps with the process of “relocating“ our loved into our lasting memory.
Losing someone is an acute stress event for our bodies and can take a toll on the immune system. Slowing down while grieving may help the brain and body rest and heal. It also reduces judgment biases and makes people better able to read other people (weird, I know). In studies, they have found that people who are sad are also more attentive and generous towards other people.
This isn’t to say that finding meaning can’t be an important part of grief. It can. This isn’t to dismiss seeking gratitude (we’re big believers in the value of gratitude in grief). This absolutely doesn’t diminish the value of post-traumatic growth when it happens. We’re constantly in awe of the growth that can come from such devastating loss (we’ve written lots about growth here).
This is simply a reminder that maybe (just maybe) your job was never to grow from grief or to rush to “overcome” it.
Some people will find meaning and growth eventually (often much, much later than they expect). And some people won’t grow. They will discover their own resilience, which is no small feat. It looks like going through devastation, being present with pain, and still finding the strength to move forward. This happens one day at a time – paying bills, making dinner, appreciating sunsets, and hugging those who are still here.
Neither is the right or wrong way to grieve. If there is any time in life that it is okay to give yourself permission to ease off the gas, now is the time. It isn’t your job to create every day or teach everything you know or to force meaning if that isn’t where you are. Because sometimes that which doesn’t kill isn’t meant to make you stronger. Sometimes it’s simply meant to make you closer to your past, more connected in the present, and kind and gentle with yourself in your future.