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
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…