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Learning that Grief is Normal

Learning that Grief is Normal

Grief is very natural- it’s been said that grief is the form love takes once our loved one is no longer present with us. Grief is the psychological pain response to losing a close family member or friend. When we look at it through the lens of attachment theory, we gain greater understanding into what the normative process of grief looks like.

We tend to have a handful of people in life who we have a psychological attachment to- these are people we have close relationships with, people who are invested in us and help us regulate our emotions and physical well being. We turn to them when we need help, comfort, or distraction. We experience a longing for them when we are separated. With attachment comes a disposition towards caregiving. Those we are attached to are who we are naturally driven to care for and most willing to accept care from. Research into attachment theory shows a very biological drive towards these bonds- they are essential to our survival and we are programmed to stay close to our attachment figures!

When we experience loss of one of our key attachment figures, we ache for them.  But beyond that deep emotional pain, we may experience sensations of being displaced or unmotivated, maybe even a loss of our sense of competence and ability to function. Looked at through a lens of attachment, these reactions seem expected. Our predictable system is disrupted, and we are reacting to that difficult disruption.

As our grief progresses, there are typically some changes in our emotions and behaviors over time. When you think of visiting a friend who was widowed a few days ago, imagine what you might expect to find- a bit of chaos in the home environment, weepiness, perhaps a lack of motivation to accomplish much. 

Now, imagine visiting that friend five years down the road- do your expectations differ? You might expect to find the friend still sad over losing a spouse, and certainly still missing that person- but in many ways, living life with more predictability and emotional steadiness. Over time, we never stop missing or loving our lost loved one, but the way we experience grief and even the nature and intensity of our emotions will typically change over time. 

This very normative process results in what we call “integrated grief”. Integrated grief differs from the first year following loss, when we are in a period of “acute grief”. While integrated grief can still have peaks and valleys, it doesn’t interfere with our day to day living the way acute grief does.  

How do we transition from acute to integrated grief? The task before us is to solve the problem of accepting something that is the exact opposite of what we wanted.

As we come to accept the reality of our loss, we oscillate back and forth between paying attention to the painful emotions and reminders of loss and setting them aside momentarily to pay attention to the basic tasks of life. This “Two Pillar Theory” in grief research explains how we bounce back and forth between these two realities at first- it’s impossible to do it all at once in acute grief. Gradually, we become more adept at merging those two pillars, and the reality that our day to day living and future are without our loved one sets in. We find a way to accept something that is the exact opposite of what we wanted.  And in that acceptance, life continues forward.  

Of course, there are times when this normative grief process is interrupted by some “derailer”- complicating life factors may act to sidetrack the normative path grief takes. In the absence of these derailing factors, we can expect our grief to progress to a place of integration.  

Why does this research matter? For starters, we can place so much undue pressure on ourselves and others to speed the process up. In paying attention to our outward appearances rather than our grief work, we can sacrifice the long term integration for short term “having it all together” points. We might begin to avoid grief reminders, important things we need to spend time integrating during our acute grief in order to get those societal gold stars. This pressure can actually act to prolong and complicate our grieving. When we have realistic expectations for ourselves and others in grief, we allow the processes to occur naturally and real integration can happen.  

As with so much of life- what we try so hard to avoid can end up being what eventually sinks our ship. In the short term, it may feel reasonable to run from pain. In the long run, avoidance leads to a continued inability to cope with distress (the darn distress isn’t going to catch a hint and cooperate with our scheme to ignore it!) 

I hope this knowledge empowers you to step towards your grief, to sit with it a bit today and get to know it. Remarkably, I’ve learned that it’s not present to torture you, but to guide you and teach you.  

 

The Messy Middle

The Messy Middle

As an adult, I find myself dismantling unhelpful, internalized attitudes and beliefs that I picked up from my youth. One that I’ve been confronting recently is this belief that “If you aren’t moving forward, you are moving backward.”

Have you heard that one too?

This belief makes me think about moving sidewalks in airports. My kids and I always love to get on the sidewalks that are moving in the opposite direction so we have to work extra hard to move forward toward our destinations. We giggle as we run full speed but hardly move at all. And then, when we stop, the sidewalk pulls us back, defeating all of our progress. This is a good time.

But it’s not fun and playful if we are all on invisible moving sidewalks that quickly eliminate our progress if we dare to stop moving. Operating from the belief that I’m on an invisible moving sidewalk that requires my chronic movement and dedication to not backslide, is exhausting at best, and fear and shame inducing at worst.

What’s funny about this belief system is it doesn’t follow physics. Well, I don’t know much about physics at all actually…but I feel pretty confident in asserting that if I’m not moving forward, I’m actually staying still.

And is there value in staying still?

That is the lesson I am learning in my life right now. In recent years, I have felt like life is asking me to slow down in important ways. I have been asked to confront and settle into spaces of “not knowing.” While this makes me feel messy, confused and vulnerable, I am learning to trust the process. It feels painfully slow and I’m not sure how or when it will conclude, or what that will even look like. Is this my midlife crisis?

I love how Brené Brown describes this messy place like being on Space Mountain. You are on the roller coaster, it’s too late to get off, and you are in the dark and can’t anticipate the twists and turns you are facing, nor do you know how and when it will end. But it does. It will.

Brené Brown discusses how you cannot skip this messy middle place. She even asserts that this messy middle place is “where the magic happens.”

I’m not feeling all sorts of “magical” but I am learning valuable lessons inherent in this space. I was listening to a guided meditation recently where the guru asked me to start breathing in ways I’d never considered breathing before. I’m used to breathing into my chest, or even down towards my stomach, but this guru asked me to breathe into my back and sides. He asked me to attend to the feeling of expansion from my ribs laterally, instead of feeling my breath move up and down.

That’s what this feels like. A new way of breathing that feels sideways. A way that is teaching me about how I can expand in ways I hadn’t anticipated. It is teaching me to settle and not be reactive. I am learning to be more deliberate and slow as I sort through all the messy pieces I am confronting. 

I am learning to be more present. I am learning to be “ok with not always being ok.” I am learning that I don’t have to be “productive” to be whole and worthy. I am learning to be compassionate with myself. Staying still, right now, is where I am learning to truly listen. So yeah, that all feels cool. I haven’t come out the other side, but I am so glad to learn that choosing to slow down and stop for a period is not the same as moving backwards. Just the opposite.

 

Stay in Your Lane

Stay in Your Lane

I recently had my first baby and it has been the most amazing and most exhausting experience of my life! There is a steep learning curve when having a baby and I have learned lessons on lessons on lessons. One important lesson came to me at about two in the morning as I was feeding my son. (more…)

Savoring

Savoring

While on my honeymoon I had the opportunity to eat at delicious restaurants. When I say delicious, I mean some of the most delicious restaurants I’ve ever experienced. As we ate these delicious (and itty bitty portioned—what’s up with that?) meals, my husband and I took the time to really enjoy every bite. Sometimes we would set our forks down and just really taste every single flavor and morsel. I can still taste the chocolate lava cakes and the scallops, truly divine! (more…)

Stop and Smell the (Garden) Roses

Stop and Smell the (Garden) Roses

I will be getting married in just a few days! I feel like for so long it has seemed like it would never come and now it’s here! To say I am excited is an understatement. I am also very excited to stop stressing about all the little details of wedding planning. Although I have actually had a lot of fun planning and preparing, it will be nice to not have wedding details constantly running through the back of my mind.

About a week ago, I was feeling very overwhelmed. It seems like every day something new came up to plan or prep that I hadn’t thought of. I’ve planned large-scale events before, so I was surprised every time I realized there was something else we needed to consider. It was all quickly becoming too much. Juggling work/clients that needed my full attention, students and a class that required emotional and mental effort, relationships, moving, wedding planning, attending wedding events, etc. was really weighing on me. I was not having a very fun time anymore and that made me sad. I plan for this to be my only wedding and the stress was really getting to me.           

I talked with my very level-headed and calm fiancé about this. We resolved to spend more time enjoying what we were doing and to stay present and engaged with whatever was taking our attention at the time. I set my intention to find more joy in the process.

The Perfect Bouquet

One of my unknown hobbies is floral design. I took a class in college and absolutely became obsessed with the unique colors, shapes, and textures florals offered. I decided to create my own bouquet for our bridal photos and was so excited to spend time working with high-quality flowers. I went to the flower wholesaler and spent about an hour in the cooler with all of the blooms. I stumbled across the perfect shade and variety of roses—garden roses, my very favorite. I’m running the risk of sounding dramatic, but I almost cried seeing them. My heart was so thrilled by the beautiful and unique flowers. I was so excited to go home and spend time assembling the perfect bouquet.

The bouquet turned out to be stressful as well. My floral design skills were rusty and I found myself taking to the internet to look up floral design tutorials. I accidentally dropped my first arrangement on the ground, snapping off the heads of several of the precious and very expensive “red tess” garden roses. I was not having a very good time with this endeavor. This exciting, creative, fun process suddenly felt exhausting and stressful, just like the rest of wedding planning.

I thought about it for a second and recognized that although it was okay and made sense that I was frustrated, my frustration was coming from my high expectations of my floral-arranging experience. I did not have to continue to feel defeated and sad. Instead, I could change my expectations to be “have a fun and enjoyable experience engaging in something I love.” I needed to drop the expectations that my florals would look like professional Instagram florist pages. I decided to try again, to just enjoy the process and the journey creating.

This time was much more successful and fun. I found myself returning to the feeling in the floral cooler at the wholesaler. I was excited and almost giddy. The bouquet turned out beautifully, although not professional level (I’m not a professional, so duh it didn’t look that way).

Iphone Bridals 

The next day when we went to take our bridals my future sister-in-law, who was taking our photos, had a catastrophe with her camera and it was rendered useless until it could be professionally examined. She was so disappointed and felt horribly. However, I did not bat an eye. I returned to my intention of being excited, happy, and enjoying the journey. I was in a beautiful landscape with people I loved, playing dress-up with my fiancé, and filled with so much joy. Although our bridals were taken on an iPhone, I am not disappointed! We had a blast and my expectations of “Instagram-worthy perfection” wasn’t helpful anyways. So, in my black winter boots (the snow was very deep), with a homemade, rustic-looking bouquet, we took photos on an iPhone and I couldn’t be happier.

Although it is okay for us to feel disappointment, stress, and discouragement, these feelings are sometimes rooted in our unrealistic expectations and perfectionism. Unfortunately, these two things can steal away our ability to see things as good and meaningful, although imperfect.

Challenge Perfectionistic Expectations 

I don’t know if there’s a magical solution for moving away from this style of thinking, but I have found it very helpful for me to recognize when my expectations and perfectionistic tendencies are getting in the way of me being present and experiencing joy. I think the first step to moving past this is to spend more time recognizing these thinking patterns within ourselves. When we feel discouragement, anger, overwhelm, etc. it might be helpful for us to do a quick internal and compassionate inventory: Why am feeling this way? Could this problem be lessened if my expectations were adjusted? Are my expectations getting in the way of me enjoying what I have and staying present? How do I shoot for “good” rather than the ever-elusive “perfect.”

As I was able to understand my own thought processes and emotions, everything changed for me! It doesn’t mean I don’t still experience stress during this time of planning and prep, but the overwhelm and desire for things to be “just so” has decreased significantly. I can more readily challenge these unhelpful thoughts now that I am more aware of them. What unhelpful thoughts of perfection and unrealistic expectations are getting in the way of your joy and presence? Drop a comment below or on our Facebook page and let us know!

Coping Wake Up Call

Coping Wake Up Call

I recently had a little bit of a coping wake up call.

I’m sure many of you can relate-the unique stress of this year has dialed up the heat slowly but steadily. Are you familiar with the frog in the pot analogy? A frog, if plopped in a pot of boiling water, would jump out quickly, realizing in it’s froggy brain- “hey! A pot of boiling water doesn’t feel good!” But, if you place a frog in a pot of lukewarm water over a flame that will heat the water slowly but steadily to the point of boiling, the frog won’t notice the subtle temperature differences over time and ends up getting boiled. (more…)

Social Media & The New Echo Chamber

Social Media & The New Echo Chamber

One of the best (read: worst), parts of college is the assignment (read: punishment) to write research papers on various subjects. Usually writing isn’t a huge deal, I’d like to think I’m pretty great at throwing some coherent thoughts together (though you probably think otherwise), but the issue is with a research paper, you can’t just put your thoughts on paper. You have to put a lot of time and effort into finding articles and studies that support your claims. I find this research usually leads me to change my claim, or adjust it to better fit the research, which means I have to adjust my paper and constantly check that I’m sticking to the research as I write. It’s all quite exhausting and much more difficult than a normal paper.

All this being said, research papers can be really interesting, and sometimes even rewarding (sometimes).

So let me tell you about my most recent paper. I wrote it for a communications class focused on mass media. Our assignment was to argue one side of a controversial topic focused around media, and find research to support our argument.

I decided to write mine about social media and its effect on political polarization. That’s right, politics. Buckle up kids, it’s time to get triggered.

I’m kidding, the purpose of this blog and my original paper is not to argue left vs. right or to hurt any feelings. The point is that a lot of us feel that our current political discussions are much more heated and extreme than ever before, and it’s important to know why.

What I found in my research, and what is truly worrisome, is that social media is having an effect on political polarization, and it’s not a good one. The ideological middle ground is quickly disappearing as we push farther to the extremes of both left and right-wing philosophy.

A Pew research article told us as much: ““The share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades, from 10% to 21%. As a result, the amount of ideological overlap between the two parties has diminished” (Doherty, 2014).

Now I’m not here to say that social media is the only reason polarization is increasing, there are plenty of other factors that we could discuss. But it is clear that social media does play a role.

There were two main ways I focused on social media’s polarizing effect, these certainly aren’t the only ways social media affects us politically or otherwise, but they are two notable ways. They are through availability of information, and echo chambers.

Firstly, availability of information. This is pretty straightforward: social media gives us greater access to information and at a greater volume, this encourages us to be more politically involved, and as a result, we tend to float to one side of the spectrum. This makes sense, because it happens with most other things: you learn about something, and as you do you form an opinion about that subject. You can learn more about this concept here.

The second way social media leads to polarization that I discussed was the concept of echo chambers. If you pay much attention to politics and social media you’ve probably heard this term. Echo chambers are “environment[s] in which somebody encounters only opinions and beliefs similar to their own and does not have to consider alternatives” (Oxford Learner Dictionary). Social media is built to create echo chambers. The algorithms are designed to suggest content that it thinks you’d like, so the more involved you are with one side of the political spectrum, the more your suggestions will reflect that side. It’s easy to see how only seeing one side of an argument would make an individual sympathetic to that side, and unable to see or understand the other side of the argument. Here is a study that discusses this idea in greater depth.

So what is to be done about it? Well, other than getting rid of all social media and living in a hut in rural Peru, I don’t think there’s much you can do to avoid the current political climate. But you can be a responsible part of fixing this issue. You can be more open to other ideas, willing to discuss things across the aisle, and be welcoming to people that disagree with you.

Online, you can diversify your feeds. Instead of unfollowing your politically active friend from the other side of the political spectrum, you can take the time to read their posts and consider their ideas. Note, this doesn’t mean embracing negativity. If someone is constantly trying to start fights, unable to have a discussion, or is otherwise toxic, you have no need to follow or interact with them. But for everyone else out there, embrace ideas that aren’t your own. Before your texting thumbs start commenting angry responses, or you hit the “mute posts” button, take a read, consider the ideas, and compare them to your own, without needing to dehumanize or antagonize the person who made the post. Not only will you avoid anger, frustration, and the risk of losing a friend, but you’ll be able to contribute to a more intelligent, healthy, and inclusive discourse. Heck, you might even find things that you agree with.