Grief Is More Than Sadness

Emotion / Emotion : Litsa Williams

There are a lot of things we love about writing a grief blog—but if I had to pick one of my favorite things about the work we do, it’s meeting new grief friends. What do grief friends do? We talk about grief, of course!

Allison Gilbert
Allison Gilbert

Allison Gilbert, a new grief friend, checked in with us a couple weeks ago to toss around some recent reflections that were bouncing around her head about loss and remembrance. We know Allison because she is the author of a grief book we love: Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive. There aren’t a lot of grief books we really love, so when she mentioned that her grief-wheels had been turning, we were quick to welcome her to share some of those thoughts here at WYG.  It wouldn’t be fair if we hoarded our grief-friends all to ourselves, right?  So today we welcome Allison to talk a bit about loss, grief, and the ways we remember those we love.

How long does it take to upend all previous notions of what an inspiring commencement address sounds like? It took Sheryl Sandberg four minutes. 240 seconds into her 2016 Commencement Address at the University of California at Berkeley, the Facebook COO launched into lessons learned following the sudden death of her husband, Dave Goldberg. Sandberg told the 4,700 graduates and their parents that, if you dig deep enough, it’s possible to reframe any setback as an opportunity to build resilience and foster personal growth:

“You can choose joy and meaning.”

Sheryl Sandberg

But following the death of any loved one—whether a spouse, parent, or sibling—there’s another lesson to be learned: Grief can be a springboard to happiness.

The key? Keeping your loved one’s memory alive.

Shortly after I graduated college, both of my parents died of cancer. Their deaths were bad enough, but then came an avalanche of other losses: my aunt, uncle, and grandmother. In every case, in those first awful days and months, I benefitted from being a passive recipient of support. My family and friends came to their funerals and attended the shiva calls. 

But later, there was an unexpected and cavernous void. I never stopped thinking about my parents and other family members—yet, for the most part, a year later, a decade, now twenty years since my mother died, the outreach that once provided so much comfort was mostly gone. For a time, this vacuum of support made me resentful and sad until I realized what should have been obvious all along: When it comes to keeping their memory alive, that work is up to me.

Recognizing and accepting this responsibility helped turn my grief around. I was able to tame my sorrow by celebrating what my loved ones still mean to me. By being proactive, I took ownership of my life after loss, and this new sense of power brought me enormous joy.

Noted grief expert J. William Worden says:

“Death makes you feel out of control. Taking steps to remember leads to empowerment, and feeling empowered is absolutely necessary for living a full, happy, and loving life.”

The mourner “needs to take action.”

Worden is far from the only bereavement expert to conclude that grief—and efforts to stay connected to those we’ve lost—can lead to happiness.  Therese A. Rando, Clinical Director of The Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss, lists four processes individuals must traverse to be considered fully resolved in their mourning.

“Keeping your loved one ‘alive’” is one of them.

But how?  Knowing what to do is far more complicated because, frustratingly, so little has been written about it. In the nearly twenty years I’ve been researching and writing about loss, every source I’ve come across doesn’t provide any specific guidelines for remembering or doesn’t offer enough. Even Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief— the landmark book that toppled previous theories about grief, revealing the psychological benefits of staying connected to loved ones—fails to fully address concrete strategies for remembering.

But there’s so much we can do. While I worked and chased two toddlers, I carved out time to gather my father’s neckties and work with a shop to turn them into a quilt. Years later, with the help of a potter, I designed a serving plate on which the artist printed my grandmother’s coffee cake recipe. And when my husband and I order in Chinese food, I still make a point to tell them how Grandma Lynn loved dumplings and moo shu pork, too. Since my mother died of ovarian cancer before they were born, these silly observances seemed to click, making their grandmother just a little more real. Creating opportunities to remember my parents took effort, but I noticed it was working; I felt closer to my mother and father, and my children were developing a connection to their grandparents—even without having known them. I was also happier.

Ms. Sandberg’s children knew and presumably loved their father, and she will no doubt want to teach them the same lessons she passed along to the graduates at Berkeley—that there’s awesome power in kicking against the bottom and breaking the surface, as she so eloquently described in her address. What comes next for her and her family is an important shift, and it will come in the form of making yet another critical choice. For Ms. Sandberg to continue moving forward from her loss with “joy and meaning,” she must be proactive about keeping Mr. Goldberg’s memory alive. Doing so will not only enable her and her children to keep him close… It will be the most essential key to transforming their grief into a tool capable of bringing them a lifetime of happiness.

Missed Sheryl Sandberg’s commencement speech? No worries, you can catch it below. 

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