LIVE BY DESIGN | ‘I wanted to be an active participant in my grief’

What can Dr Lucy Hone possibly mean by this concept of “active participant in my grief”?

I’m used to people talking about grief as something that happens to you. We as humans have the capacity to love and the price we pay when we lose someone is grief. Quid pro quo.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche commented, “Grief is a cruel kind of education. You learn how ungentle mourning can be, how full of anger. You learn how glib condolences can feel. You learn how much grief is about language, the failure of language and the grasping for language.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love wrote, “Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted. Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to.”

Ed Sheeran, Grammy winner, having buried his close friend, described his grief as like being “in a kinda chaotic storm where you’re just trying to stay level. Like, I hadn’t really grown up until I felt grief. Loss – it just took over my life”.

I remember the advice of grief counsellors, “Stay with the emotion – don’t resist it. Be kind to yourself.” Then the aphorisms, “Time heals.”  “This too shall pass.”

Have you ever cried so much that the skin on your face hurts when there’s a fresh flow of salty tears? In that state, it is hard to fathom what it means to be an “active participant” in grief.”

An area of my work includes resilience, especially “prosilience” which is future focused –  our becoming better equipped to deal with the blows life may send your way in the future.

That is Lucy Hone’s starting point: “adversity does not discriminate”. She begins her Ted Talk by engaging her live audience,

I’d like to start, if I may, by asking you some questions.

If you’ve ever lost someone you truly love, ever had your heart broken, ever struggled through an acrimonious divorce, or been the victim of infidelity, please stand up. If standing up isn’t accessible to you, you can put your hand up. Please stay standing, and keep you hand up there.

If you’ve ever been bullied or been made redundant, stand on up.

If you’ve ever had a miscarriage, it you’ve ever had an abortion, or struggled through infertility, please stand up.

Finally, if you, or anyone you love, has had to cope with mental illness, dementia, some form of physical impairment or cope with suicide, please stand up.

Hone then invites the audience to look around. She has put loss on the table in its many forms. Many people in her audience are standing, acknowledging their experience.

Resilience was the focus of her PhD research at the University of Pennsylvania in 2010. She studied American Drill Sergeants who had returned from Afghanistan. When the Christchurch earthquakes hit, she returned to support her home community. Then she suffered a personal tragedy, the death of her daughter in a car accident. Suddenly, she found herself trying to apply all her academic learning to her own situation. She felt more than she could bear. What had she learnt that could be of use to help herself? Her book, “Resilient Grieving,” includes the topic of her Ted Talk, the three strategies of resilient people.

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Strategy Number One. Acceptance.

Just as “adversity doesn’t discriminate” Hone is frank and inelegant when she asserts that part of living is that “S**T HAPPENS”. She advocates that a philosophical stance of acceptance is more supportive than the “why me” “it’s not fair” stance of resentment

Strategy Number Two. Tune into the good.

Resilient people Hone says do not diminish the negative, but they have worked out a way of focusing on what is still good in their lives. Hone herself had two teenage boys who needed her. She advocates, “You have to survive. Choose life not death. Don’t lose what you have to what you have lost.” Research done by positive psychologists Marty Seligman and colleagues showed that when people, over a six month period, committed to writing down three good things that happened every day, that this groups had higher levels of happiness and less depression than the control groups.

Strategy Number Three. “Is what I am doing helping or harming me?”

This is the question resilient people ask themselves repeatedly. When Lucy Hone found herself yet again poring over the box of photographs of her daughter late at night and sinking into sadness, she would notice and tell herself, “Put away the photos, go to bed for the night, be kind to yourself.”

Three simple strategies – accessible to all of us.

It might be that some people seem to be more resilient than others. Perhaps they got a better start in life, a solid sense of being loved and wanted. There is no homogeneity to our foundations. Nevertheless, that said, resilience is not fixed; it is something that we have agency to work with, to build our resilience, to be more at the ready when life sends a curve ball in our direction.

Adversity doesn’t discriminate. When you find yourself grieving, I hope you, too, might find these strategies supportive as you navigate your way forward, reshaping your life after loss.

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