Welcoming Grief

Grief is the emotion we feel when there is a loss, a negative Δ

A while back a friend expressed her sadness to me, and I replied by telling her something I read in a book: “Look at people who have much less than you, and are happy.”

My friend was not thrilled. She said something to the effect of, “Stop with that toxic positivity.”

Yesterday, I met someone who had been a competitive runner, placing highly in state-wide races. Then he suffered a heart attack. Thanks to modern medical care, he not only survived, but was able to get back to running. There was just one problem: he was no longer competitive. His running decreased from 30+ miles a week to a third of that. Runs that would normally be no sweat were a struggle now.

“People — my wife, my cardiologist — tell me to quit complaining. That I’m lucky to have survived. But running was something I did for so long. It was part of who I was,” he said.

I am reading a book called Call Me American, a memoir of growing up in Somalia during a bloody civil war. This passage is striking:

…At that point, I was not unhappy with my life. Life in Somalia was harsh, but it was all I knew.

Abdi Nor Iftin

Saying that life in Somalia was harsh is an understatement. Death was a daily threat from rebel soldiers. Beatings came regularly at Iftin’s school: one day, he was hung from his arms while his teacher beat him on the back, for eight hours. There was also severe malnutrition. At one point, Iftin’s feet swelled up from the lack of protein, and they needed to be pricked to drain the fluid.

How is it that Iftin was not unhappy in these circumstances, whereas the well-to-do man who lost some of his weekly running mileage was suffering. What gives?

Our brains have a circuit that detects a negative change, a downward delta. When this happens, we feel the pain of grief. It matters not that there are others who have it worse off, or that there are still so many things in our lives that are awesome.

We need to feel this pain of grief, and let this emotion complete its cycle. Ironically, by avoiding the pain of grief, we can’t move forward emotionally. As Eva Eger says, you need to FEEL to HEAL.

The coping strategy I offered my friend was not helpful because it was a form of avoidance. Essentially, I held a view that “bad feelings are a problem, and I must make them go away.” Now, my view is more nuanced. I sometimes wonder, if in certain cases, tools like stoicism can be used maladaptively. For example, it would not be appropriate for me to advise the man who lost his running abilities to meditate on losing his arm or his wife. Yes, that might make him temporarily feel better, but he needs to actually feel his grief so that it doesn’t get stuck in his system.

Here’s to welcoming grief, a painful but much-needed visitor, into the house of our feelings!

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