4 Truths About Dealing With Grief All Writers Should Know
Writers, as those of you reading this know well, are artists. We have the ability to put into words what others feel but cannot convey—whether it is love, anger, envy, or, as it so happens, the heavy weight of grief and despair. According to existential theorists like Irvin Yalom, death is one of the “givens of existence” for human beings, and how we approach this “given” has a profound impact on the way we find meaning and lead our lives.
As writers, we have a powerful responsibility in the words we serve readers about life, death, and grieving. Our words, and the thought we put into them, have the ability to educate, heal, and perhaps even change perspectives for the hungry eyes that scan them in desperate search of hope. As a grief expert of five plus years, I have come across four fundamental truths about grief that I strive to teach those who have a writing platform and can help others.
As you continue to share your words with the world, I hope you will keep these fundamentals close by, to better assist your audience in grappling with the universal truths we all bear: We will all grieve, we will all experience loss, and we will all die.
Truth #1: Grief is not linear and “closure” is a myth.
“Time heals all wounds.” The phrase has become so common in our society I am surprised they’ve yet to print bumper stickers to plaster on the back of our cars. Although I understand the general notion behind the statement—that we as a human race have the incredible ability to persevere and withstand vast pain—I also acknowledge the recklessness behind the statement.
You see, the idea that time heals all wounds leaves us with the lasting impression that grief is linear and eventually comes to an end. The statement puts a clean period at the end of a sentence, as if to say, “Okay, that’s it. I am officially over this great loss.” But let me burst this bubble: There is no endpoint to grief, and it is not something we “recover” from. Our goal is not to move on from grief, but rather, to move forward with grief.
As with any significant event, we weave loss into the fabric of our life experience and adjust accordingly, integrating what has happened and continuing to live. This is not to say the intensity of our distress won’t lessen, or that the ratio of bad days to good days won’t decrease over time; however, semantics matter when it comes to expectations of grief. Conveying to our audiences that they should expect an end date to their pain leaves them unprepared for the reality of the grieving experience.
Words like “closure” feed into this linear narrative. “Closure” perpetuates the myth that we need a resolution or conclusion to an emotional or traumatic experience. A myth that sets in motion a spinning of wheels, ravishingly trying to find information we may never get, or worse, clinging to the lie that more information is required for us to ever achieve peace. Allow me to tell you, more information does not equate to peace. In fact, “information” does not create any emotion. Information is just data.
Rather, it’s how we interpret the information through the way we think that creates our experience of peace or “closure.” Instead of searching for concrete answers about how to end emotions, I propose a more challenging approach. I challenge you to allow the emotions to come, and to feel them, regardless of whether your loss was yesterday or 20 years ago. And if we choose to believe we have closure, so be it. But it’s a choice grievers are empowered to make regardless of the data they have access to.
Truth #2: Feelings are not problems to be solved; they are experiences to be allowed.
As I just covered, feelings and emotions are not problems to be solved. There is no specific formula one must follow when grieving, yet our society has a difficult time grasping such a concept. Because we live in a culture fixated on happiness, we tend to believe negative emotions are signs of a problem.
We shove the negative feelings—the anger, sadness, despair—down in an effort to make others (including ourselves) feel more comfortable. But all feelings are a part of life, not just those we classify as positive. In fact, we create suffering for ourselves when we judge ourselves or others based on feelings. Perhaps even more prevalent than our fear of death is our fear of being labeled the “sad person” or the “angry, bitter person.”
Give your readers permission to feel their feelings, without demanding they fix or conceal them. Let’s rewrite the permeating societal stance that grief is an experience to “fix” or to hide away. Continuing to spread such a narrative only sets us up to live less open-hearted lives—a particularly sad thought to consider as we navigate the challenges of a pandemic.
Truth #3: The physical impact of grief is real.
To this day we are still discovering the physical impacts of a broken heart. And no, one’s heart does not physically break in half after an extreme loss. But the reality is, the physical impacts of grief are much more pronounced than we may be prepared for. For instance, that ache in the heart that we refer to after extreme sorrow or loss?
That’s called Broken Heart Syndrome and it is an actual physical chest pain brought on by intensely stressful situations. According to the Mayo Clinic, Broken Heart Syndrome affects a part of the heart, temporarily disrupting the heart’s usual pumping function. Broken Heart Syndrome is treatable and patients usually recover in a matter of days or weeks, but the syndrome points to the physiological reactions our body can have to a traumatic loss of a loved one.
More common physiological reactions include hormonal imbalances such as heightened cortisol levels; sleep deficiencies (e.g., difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, intense dreams or nightmares); or “grief fog,” which is essentially prolonged brain fog due to sustained grief. In an interview with the American Brain Foundation, Neurologist Lisa M. Shulman, MD, FAAN, explained this “fog,” describing how chronic, intense stress causes a reduction of nerve growth/memory and an increase in fear to help the individual focus its attention on survival. The more we experience this stress response, the more it becomes hardwired in our brain, resulting in negative effects.
In Dr. Shulman’s words, “When a circuit fires repeatedly it’s reinforced and becomes a default setting.” Long-term sustained stress such as this disrupts a broad array of cognitive domains including memory, decision making, visuospatial function, attention, word fluency, and speed of information processing (source).
Truth #4: Post-traumatic growth is available to all of us.
Finally, let it be known that post-traumatic growth is available to all of us, not just those who have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. It is perhaps my biggest pet peeve to hear widows resign themselves to a “new normal” that is less than what they want in life, simply because they have bought into the myth, as I once did, that their “best days are behind them.”
This way of thinking will only lead to more suffering. I believe that if we choose, grief can be the means to an even richer, more meaningful and intentional life. No matter what happens to us in life and how intensely we grieve a loss, we are still able to choose who we want to be and create a life we love in the future.
My hope is that your future words instill this hopeful message to anyone who is in the thick of the darkness. Grief is a natural part of being human. When we choose to embrace grief and everything that comes with it, believe it or not, grief can be a valuable experience for our growth.
If you love to write and have a story you want to tell, the only thing that can stand between you and the success you’re seeking isn’t craft, or a good agent, or enough Facebook friends and Twitter followers, but fear. Fear that you aren’t good enough, or fear the market is too crowded, or fear no one wants to hear from you. Fortunately, you can’t write while being in the flow and be afraid simultaneously. The question is whether you will write fearlessly.