If you regularly read WYG you might have noticed that Eleanor and I can be a wee bit pessimistic from time to time. Okay, maybe a little more than a ‘wee bit’. Actually, get me and Eleanor in a room together and you will find us holding half-empty glasses of cynicism, playing a drinking game called – what do you hate the worst? Just kidding – that game doesn’t exist…but maybe it should.
When we first met, our grief-friendship partly grew out of a mutual frustration with existing grief support. Despite meeting in a professional capacity, we shared personal grief experiences and the fruitless desire for grief support that wasn’t filled with broad generalizations, vague advice and, what felt like the most alienating of all, the “transformation” narrative. You might know what I mean — books and websites covered in images of butterflies and rainbows and filled big promises of growth and change.
Although we’d never deny the potential for posttraumatic growth (in fact we just wrote a post about it), you won’t often find themes and images of metamorphosis here on WYG. Why? Because we know that when you’re grieving it can be somewhat demoralizing to be hit over the head with the concept of growth. We are cautious about how we discuss the possibility of a better day, knowing that in the depths of grief this is impossible to imagine and even a little terrifying to consider.
Here’s the deal: the butterfly and the rainbow, we know they can happen; we love that they can happen; we know from research and experience that it is important to be open to the idea they can happen. But we also know that in the dark days of grief it’s totally normal to believe things like strength and hope aren’t possible, and sometimes it seems like the rhetoric around the transformation-narritive really isn’t helping.
People hear a sound-bite or read an inspiring headline and they are left with an over-simplified and excessively optimistic idea about what’s supposed to happen when people grieve. Not to mention, even though many people are well-intentioned, there are many who peddle their ‘7 Steps to Transformation’ or other such BS in hopes of making a dime.
Many of us are so sensitive and vulnerable in our grief that encountering the wrong growth-related sentiment at the wrong time can make us want to shut ourselves off from such ideas forever. We know how this happens. It happened to us and it’s probably happened to many of you. We know how unrealistic and ridiculous the idea of strength and hope can seem, and we know you’re not going to believe in these things just because someone says they are true. Why? Well, let’s go through reasons we personally struggled with it:
Reason #1: The suggestion of growth implies that the person you are after the loss is somehow better than the person you were before the loss. No surprise that leaves you wanting to yell, “guess what, I was pretty darn good before my loss, I was pretty darn happy. I don’t want to be a different person or a ‘better’ person, I want my loved one back. Period.”
Frustration #2: The idea of transformation or growth after grief gives the impression that there is some final moment or end point that one should strive for. Even though this is not an accurate depiction of growth in grief, the misconception can leave those of us who continue to feel wretched in our grief feeling bitter and defective for never going through a metamorphosis.
Annoyance #3: Oversimplification and misunderstanding of growth after loss are most likely responsible for many of the annoying (albeit often well-intentioned) statements people make when you’re grieving. You know, the ones that make you want to scream like, “this will make you a better person”, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, and on and on. It’s not that these things aren’t maybe someday going to be true, it’s just that they’re not helpful. At all. Seriously, don’t say them.
Infuriation #4: If you don’t become the butterfly or find the rainbow, you feel like you failed, grieved wrong, or it is your fault. This one is tricky, because there are many grievers who have the experience of making a choice to think differently, in a way that they later realize was crucial to moving out of the darkest place. You hear their stories and can be left wondering, “If that happened to them, why isn’t it happening for me?”.
Aggravation #5: The butterfly and the rainbow sound sooooo perfect. In an over-simplified version of this narrative the butterfly and the rainbow sound like a place where the pain of grief is resolved. Even when your days start getting just the tiniest bit brighter, you don’t think it counts as ‘growth’ or ‘transformation’ because you’re still living with so much pain.
Irritation #6: These ideas are often presented at a time-lapse, as though growth after grief is equivalent to the rainbow appears right after the storm. Most caterpillars stay in their cocoon for less than 30 days before they emerge a butterfly, but people aren’t bugs. Years later we still may be struggling. Meanwhile those around us are like, why aren’t you a butterfly yet?!?!
So there it is, our list of beefs. And there are probably more that we’re forgetting. Interestingly, our own list of agitations (that we suspect some of you may share) are based on oversimplifications and misunderstandings. These misunderstandings, in the darkest moments of our grief, can often exacerbate our own fears of the future. As grievers we assume if we aren’t rainbow/butterfly/transformation people, the only alternative is permanent exile to the darkest depths of griefy despair. Luckily grief and growth isn’t nearly as black and white as the oversimplified transformation narative would have us believe. A little clarification of facts opens up the possibility that most of us grieve and grow in shades of gray.
Fact #1: Grief doesn’t always lead to growth or transformation. It always makes you a different person, but it doesn’t always make you a ‘better’ person. Sadly, sometimes it can make us angry, hardened and jaded. If you are someone who feels they have not experienced growth after grief – you are not alone and there is nothing wrong with you.
Fact #2: The grand transformation narrative just happens to be more visible than other grief and growth experiences. This doesn’t mean it more common or more valid. Maybe people want a happy movie ending, or maybe a transformational experience is more likely to inspire a memoir than an “everyday” experience. But whatever the reason we often hear these inspirational grief stories told in 2 hours or 200 pages, and they become an unrealistic ideal.
Fact #3: The ‘growth’ and ‘transformation’ that people report experiencing after a loss is often small and subtle. There’s hardly ever a revolutionary, ground shaking moment; rather growth is a gradual change that occurs over time. Many times it is so slow you don’t even realize it is actually happening.
Fact #4: The pain of grief doesn’t end. Even when you grow, even when today is a little better than yesterday, grief still remains. Growth doesn’t mean you eliminated the grief and the pain. Those things stick around, in some way, forever.
Fact #5: You can’t will yourself to experience growth. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could? But you can be aware that your perspective does have a huge impact. If you shut yourself off from the possibility of experiencing growth or feeling better someday, it is far less likely you will ever get there. You don’t have to think about it or talk about it….just don’t actively rule it out.
Fact #6: You can feel free to embrace or reject the rainbow and the butterfly imagery. It is imagery that resonates for many people, it is imagery that doesn’t work at all for other people. I wish I had a better image to offer you, one that captures this nuance we are trying to describe, but I can’t come up with one at this moment. That said, this feels like a challenge!! You know we love thinking about grief, photography and images that express emotion. If the butterfly and rainbow imagery hasn’t resonated with you, find an image that better represents your experience. It can be a photograph, a drawing, painting, art journal page, whatever! Share it with us on facebook, instagram or twitter by posting it to our page, tagging us, or using the hashtag #WhatsYourGriefLookLike. And if it is a photograph, you can submit it to photogrief.
Alright, that about does it for today. Leave a comment to tell us what you think about butterflies and rainbows and growth and grief. Or subscribe. Or check out our podcast. Or check out photogrief. Or do all of the above!