The Grief Lens and its Impact on Outlook

One thing that keeps me up at night is the subjectivity of life.  Yes, I do have better things to worry about.  Trust me, I also lay awake plenty of nights wondering who will win this season of The Bachelor.

William Shakespeare once wrote…“…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Although most reasonable people are willing to classify some things as universally bad (death, poverty, suffering) or good (peace, love, funny YouTube videos), the rest of life is kind of up for interpretation. Each person views life through a lens that is as unique to them as their own fingerprint, and their individual understanding of people and events will depend on a number of different factors.

Now, I don’t know how you feel about it, but the idea that our incredible yet fallible minds control much of our “reality” is equal parts frightening and empowering.  On the one hand it’s scary to know that my biases and bad moods could cause me to make irrational decisions and unfair judgements; on the other hand it’s encouraging to know that during times of stress and struggle there may be things I can do to shift my thinking.  (Please note my use of the word ‘may’. There are times when things like mental illness, substance use, and acute stress completely hijack a person’s thinking.)

What does this all have to do with grief? Excellent question!

Experiencing the death of a loved one can cause you to feel all sorts of new things towards life.  Sometimes these things are positive (think new lease on life), but that’s not what I want to talk about today.  Today, I want to talk about how grief can make people feel cheated, angry, self-focused, bitter, lonely, isolated, resentful, guilty, sad, anxious, worried, or depressed.  Let’s just generally call this the grief lens.

It is totally reasonable and expected for you to see life through the grief lens after the death of a loved one.  You’ve been through it; you deserve to be miserable for a while! The trouble is, these negative feelings can cause the people feeling them to reach conclusions and hold onto beliefs that are excessively pessimistic and untrue.

Many people fail to recognize how, over time, negativity can impact their overall worldview.  People with a negative affect may be more likely to find depressing, cynical, and suspicious explanations for events.  They may feel as though their lives are globally awful, people are globally awful, they themselves are globally awful, and believe that these realities will never change.

Instead of heading out into the world to find evidence to the contrary, someone with a negative (or positive) affect might only pay attention to things that prove them right.  There is a term in psychology and cognitive science called confirmation bias.  Confirmation bias is the tendency to ignore evidence that negates a belief and selectively pay attention to, gather, and remember evidence that bolsters the belief.  Allow me to illustrate.

Confirmation Bias and the Grief Lens

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So, even if your negative beliefs are patently flawed, in a way they become a self-fulfilling prophecy – you believe them, you feel them, you find evidence to support them, and you go out and live them.

You are entitled to all the anger, sadness, and bitterness you want.  Just remember that even though these feelings are justified, they still come with consequences so when you’re ready it’s wise to try and work through them. For now, I simply ask you to pay attention to the ways in which these things deceive and whether or not they magnify your unhappiness.

Awareness, in my opinion, is the most important step because it allows you to understand that your gut interpretations can’t always be trusted.  Also, understanding that some aspects of your reality are created by interpretation theoretically gives you the power to change said realities by shifting your thinking.  I realize not everyone will be ready or able to take this step, but it’s always good to know that no matter how helpless grief makes you feel, you aren’t completely powerless. 

In 2003, Michael McCullough and Robert Emmons conducted a study where participants were asked to keep a weekly journal for nine weeks.  The participants were randomly placed into three different diary groups; in the first  group participants were asked to record up to five things they were grateful or thankful for, in the second group participants were asked to think back on the day and record at least five hassles that occurred in their lives, finally the third group was asked to just record the days events. Despite journaling only once a week, participants in the grateful group reported increased well-being, better health, they exercised more, felt life was better, and had increased optimism.

I know big problems often seem like they need big solutions, but sometimes grief healing occurs because small changes and acts of coping help to slowly push the gauge towards peace, balance, and life satisfaction.  If something as simple as writing down five gratitudes a night could help you feel a little better, then why not try?

So, for the next 14 days I challenge you to set aside 5 minutes a night to write down 5 things you are grateful for.  These can be big things like a roof over your head, or small things like comfortable pajamas. Litsa and I are going to participate in this gratitude challenge right along with you.  We will share a gratitude each a day on social media either on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram and we would love it if you would share a daily gratitude as well.  If you do, please hashtag it to #whatsyourgratitude, tweet it at us, or tag us in the post to make sure we see it.  Then maybe we’ll all be walking around the world like…

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March 28, 2017

7 responses on "The Grief Lens and its Impact on Outlook"

  1. I had a tragedy occur in my life. It was so horrific that for the first 18 months after it happened I felt like I was walking through life with literal clouds of numbness surrounding me, almost encapsulating me, and there was nothing I could do to get rid of the feeling. It wasn’t until I thought I was about to lose a second member of my family, when my brother went to the war, that the numbness was replaced by intense emotions like I’ve never felt before or since then.
    My daughter’s dad (my former husband) died in the World Trade Center. We watched while it was occurring and there’s a tape of his last moments. His very last sentence was a plea for help that not only never came, they had to abort the plan to rescue him after the South Tower collapsed and killed hundreds of firefighters. The incident commander, who also died when the North Tower collapsed, recalled the guys who were in that tower in order to save their lives – and the people above the fire weren’t going to make it anyway – but I still feel angry that his last sentence was to ask for help and not receive it. Besides that he was below the fire but too high up for help to have simple access to him.
    It was easy for me to find a gratitude right after it happened. I was glad I was alive. I didn’t feel like that was disrespectful to him bc I knew he’d want the same for me. I was totally perplexed when someone said they couldn’t find a gratitude right after it occurred. I wanted to say ‘You’re sitting here with the blessing of life saying you couldn’t find anything to be thankful for? Can’t you be glad you’re alive?’
    Good thing I said nothing.
    My other gratitude was my daughter, who was so much like him it was uncanny. That actually helped me; I don’t know why people asked how I could look at her without remembering him with grief. I would look at her and feel really happy. It was like that one event is all they could know of him while I remembered the time we drove around looking at Christmas lights with her, the day we went to the zoo, the first time she saw a Christmas tree and told her dad about it. I remembered him as more than that one terrible event. But I probably never would have if I hadn’t done the journal I entitled ‘I Remember, I Remember.’ Whenever I had a recollection I’d record it in the journal. It started as all positive memories, bc that’s what the person who ran the support group wanted, but I’ve added events that caused negative emotions since then bc at Grief Recovery Method they called it unrealistic to remember someone as all good or all bad. Their term for it was Academy Award grieving. I like recalling the whole person better so I added some unpleasant memories.
    I also wrote about the finding of Osama bin Laden, but I have no memory of writing it the way I did: It says “May 2, 2011: Osama bin Laden officially takes a dirt nap.”
    I was surprised when I re-read that bc I don’t remember putting it there, but it’s my handwriting. I usually dislike hackneyed phrases, but it’s my handwriting.
    I felt relieved when they found him but not gleeful or happy. Prior to that day I was unaware you could feel relief without experiencing any happiness whatsoever.
    I hope I didn’t go off on a tangent. I find it difficult to stay focused when I’m discussing this issue. The gratitude of being alive came easily; in fact it distresses me to see so many people complain about so many things and forget to be grateful for their continued blessing of life. That probably sounds corny but it’s how I’ve felt about ever since that day. I don’t always show it but I almost always feel that way.

  2. I’ve been unable to get back to my gratitude app since my tragedy. Your observations are quotable. Thought provoking. Thank you

  3. Eleanor, Request permission to republish this insightful post on the Alliance of Hope for Suicide Survivors blog in August. Please email me with picture, tagline. Thanks.

  4. How I can relate, I have seen this come true in my life . I was very negative for a long time after my daughter passed away 22 years ago. I’m blessed so many ways. It has been a long journey.Great post love the cartoon.

  5. Grateful for my dog, sister who texted me this morning just thinking of me, friend/neighbor who cares for my dog whenever I need it, and the realization that I needed to cut back my work schedule and the support I got when doing that !

  6. Great post! And yeah, it doesn’t always work. But often it does!

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