Harnessing Grief

Photo © Marisa Woodget 2015 (edited by Matthew Woodget)– in this photo, on my mothers first birthday since her death, I hold a message to her, in a bottle, preparing to launch it into the Pacific Ocean.

This post is aspirational.

It’s been three months. A quarter of a year. Everyone says it’s a long road and I can safely say that the past three months have been the longest of my life. I feel like I have aged. I know I’ve put on weight. I call it my ‘grief weight’. Everyone says "Take care of yourself". If that means being healthy then I’ve been doing so sporadically. I feel it must also mean other things – mental as well as physical. Escapism in movies or computer games can also qualify. I have told myself.

Time is a fickle mistress and I’m prone to prioritizing a nap vs. stretching my legs. Naps are important. Taking naps qualify as taking care of oneself as far as I’m concerned. I certainly seek them out at the weekends. Once I took a tactical, vertical nap on the sofa. My eldest who is six and I were playing some Forza Motorsport for a reward- he was taking a turn racing and I managed to get a lap-nap in. He was going around laps a little bit slower than I.

I used to love showing my dad the latest version of Forza. We had a shared love for cars and auto sport.

Three months ago yesterday I had been playing Forza with my boys and my American Nephew (I also have two British Nephew’s). I went to great pains to reinforce that in real life there is no ‘rewind’ button. You can’t hit the ‘Y’ button and undo an automobile accident. I didn’t realize at the time that my father had been killed and my mother was on her deathbed resulting from a car crash. Sufficed to say that now I have mixed emotions about cars and speed. In both games and real life.

I was subjected to some road rage on the drive in to work yesterday. I was then exposed to a rather nasty crash minutes later. Experiences like that can really shake me. When I got to work I needed time to center myself before getting out of the car. It is beginning to dawn on me that I may have PTSD.

In my last blog I observed what it’s like as normality starts to encroach. I’ve been living with that for some time now and it’s led to a realization that I need to "do something" with my grief. I don’t mean therapy, or this blog or time with friends. True, tackling of your grief is important. What I mean is what to do with life now that I has lived through this experience.

Everything that happens to us leaves us with tools and different ways to view the world.

What does grief give us?

Grief Super Heroes

I said in a prior post how messy grief is. It’s all over the map. For me it began with the experience of shear horror and shock that would eventually give way to numbness only then to switch back to soul tearing sadness. It was pretty much "all grief" in those early days… my shiny new grief. The thing is the world doesn’t stand still. The kids need to be taken care of. The mortgage needs to be paid. Chores must be done. I found myself living this sort of parallel life. It’s always there, they are always there. They can interrupt me at any time. During the day I "do life" and in the evenings I’m this sort of grief super hero. Batman was an orphan, he comes to mind a lot. My boys are very much into super heroes, maybe that’s why this analogy resonates so. Sometimes life dominates consciousness; running the gauntlet of dinner and bedtime for the boys, for example, forces my grief persona to be put to the side, for a while. I’m pretty sure I’ve made it a whole hour without thinking about them. And there they are, waiting for me when I get back.

The super hero analogy is good for another reason; my life is changed. I am changed. I’ve seen and felt things I never thought I would. Everything is different now. Mornings feel different. Hugs feel different. The passing of the moment feels different and I’m even more apt to focus on living in it than I was before. Yet I’m still holding back. I’m still trying to understand the scope of how I have changed.

Those familiar with Star Wars will know what Anakin went through on his journey to become Darth Vader. He suffered great loss. His mother. His wife… and as far as he was concerned his children. We know the later to be a lie. In part perpetrated by the Jedi (the good guys!!) to protect the babies from Anakin. And more importantly by Darth Sidious (The Emperor) who used their ‘death’ to push Anakin completely into the clutches of the Dark Side.

I don’t want to be Darth Vader. Apart from for Halloween… Maybe I’ll be him for Halloween. You know, in a costume.

And this is my point, the journey of torturous loss and grief can lead one to lash out at the world. There are the soldiers who return from war who end up committing violent crimes and ending up in prison. I’m not saying that what I’ve gone through is the same as experiencing the horror of war. I may not be in that club. I am however in a club that shares the same postal code.

The world does looks different after loss, and when the loss is tragic the contrast and saturation are turned up even further.

Things can go one of three ways…

The good

One of the things that is good that can come out of grief is that we realize now more than ever how transient life is. "The page is out of print, we are not permanent" The Pretender, Foo Fighters. I was always fond of focusing on the moment "Unplug the future, unplug the past, and plug them both into the present" was a phrase I coined in 2003 at a music festival in an effort to console a friend who was having a rough time in a relationship. I was seeking to encourage him to make the most of life as "this" was what it was all about. Being together and enjoying life with those you care about.

Take that insight, that understanding, and amplify it. Sort of like what happens to Marty McFly with Doc Brown’s Amp in Back to The Future (clip).

It is because of this that we have a power to live even more in the moment. The promise of this fact is great. It is a promise that we can eventually get to a place in life where the grief isn’t holding us back. Rather that we can actually realize strength in it – I’m not saying that getting there is easy. It isn’t, it’s tough. I do, however, see it as the silver lining in all of this. The shear fact that if my parents died that they died for one thing and one thing alone; that those left behind could live the rest of their lives more fully, more completely than they would have otherwise. Is it a hard pill to swallow? You bet. Feeling like there is anything positive because of their deaths is very hard to imagine. Let alone to live.

The bad

Look, let’s just get this out of the way; there is a lot of bad in this experience. And ugly. It is as far from fun and enjoyment in life that you can get. I’m sure my earlier blogs covered that in quite some detail.

What I’m talking about here is ‘the bad’ in the context of forward motion. It’s the corruption of life, the electrical burn that can cut through the toughest metal. The risk is that if you never make it "through" your grief. That you become trapped in sadness and potentially PTSD if you experience that as well.

Would Mum and Dad want that for me, for my sisters, for anyone? Of course not. The fact is this experience is really truly deeply sad. It’s soul crushing. It’s waking in tears in the middle of night and not being able to get back to sleep. It’s "that song" coming on the radio as you drive bringing waves of emotion and floods of tears that you feverishly wipe away as you find a safe place to pull the car over and recover. The salt of sorrow dripping into your mouth.

It’s also true that if you stay there forever you can’t ever turn the sorrow into something positive. I truly believe that it is possible to experience something bad and to use it to do good in the world.

To do that you need to tackle it head on.

The Ugly

The biggest risk is that a tragedy consumes one so completely that the trauma is taken out on the world. This is where those veterans ‘snap’ because of their experience both on the battle field and when they try return to the world. I simply can’t understand a society that will happily send a nations children to war yet not support the funding for the appropriate medical and mental care that those warriors require when they come back from the horror of armed conflict.

I’m not saying that everyone who goes through a tragic loss will end up in a situation where they are attacking and hurting others. Neither is that the case for all veterans with PTSD. It is however a real risk. And it does happen.

The example of violent outbursts is an extreme. The Ugly can manifest in much more mundane ways. When I first started to grapple with this experience and how it was changing me I wondered; will I take people’s crap anymore? Will I call bullshit every time I see it? Will my political (and political correctness) filter be thrown out? "Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater" Mum and Dad used to say. Oh Mum, oh Dad… you were so fond of saying that. It served me and my sisters well growing up. So many lovely aspects of your coaching.

I decided to give myself a pass. For a while. Maybe I would be more frank and "less political" moving forwards. Or maybe more political! Perhaps I would speak my mind a little more. The latter is starting to happen. However I have actively held back in the interests of giving myself time to go through the grief process.

It doesn’t have to result in ‘ugly’. You can harness it for good. It’s OK to be outspoken and passionate about what you believe in. It’s not what you say it’s how you say it. Kind of like the ‘joke’. "An Jew, an Atheist, A Muslim and a Vegan all go into a coffee shop… and they all laugh and joke and have a good time. Because they are not assholes".

I really don’t want to be an asshole. Mum and Dad wouldn’t have wanted me to be, either.

Channeling your power

This is where the super hero analogy comes back into play. All loss isn’t going to turn one into a crime fighting caped crusader. However like all good storytelling Batman works because it appeals to something in all of us. Those who have tragedy in our lives are given access to the full-blown directors cut. We have seen something, learned something, felt something and it is powerful. Very powerful.

We first started to experience that power in how it would bring us to our knees. Literally. In those early days I did find myself stopping and collapsing. In the first minutes of finding out I couldn’t even breath. I was curled up on the floor, screaming. My life had been shattered. Torn. Ripped apart. Grief is powerful.

The following question then comes; how can I channel, then harness that power for good?

Step 1 – Channel for healing

Focus on yourself. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself time, and space. Allow yourself to grieve fully. They are not platitudes, they are real. They are clichés because they are REAL.

This is no mean feat. It takes time. It also takes effort and focus. And patience. It is a road and it needs to be traveled. I went for a walk today and it was tough. One of those walks where you really don’t want to. But you force yourself to. And after a while you start to pick up a pace. It takes a while yet eventually you are just doing it. You are in the motion and you are fully present.

It’s like that on the dusty, dirty road of grief. And the wind will kick up and knock you back and blind your eyes and you won’t always be able to see where you are doing. That’s OK. Right now all you need to do is keep going down the road. Everyone’s road is different and there isn’t a destination, per say. What there is eventually however is a clearing from the dust.

The road terminates not in a place but at the beginning of a new journey. A new landscape. You find yourself in a glade at the edge of a forest, with views of beautiful mountains and canyons. That is the rest of your life out there. One of most beautiful analogies I heard with the ‘recovery’ from grief was how your lost loved one would eventually be ‘walking beside you’. It’s when the dust settles and you leave the rocky, tough road behind that you meet them in that glade.

Step 2 – Channeling for purpose

You will start to consider as you trudge through the dust in step one. That when you make it to the clear blue skies and crisp green rolling fields of life and love and opportunity that you will be able to tackle this a new.

Are you going to the mountains, to the coast?

Purpose is a uniquely personal journey. My favorite process for doing this to date is this resource from Steve Pavlina. It’s about what YOU bring to this world. When you have gone through a tragic loss you are left with this great power. What you can bring to the world is enhanced, amplified.

Whatever you chose for your purpose is what it all boils down to; what meaning can you draw from life? In your actions what meaning can you bring to life? It could be something ambitious which brings large scale benefits to the whole of humanity. Curing cancer. Sending us to Mars. Eliminating hunger in a region, or the world! Or it could be supporting such a mission – being a foot soldier who throws oneself at an existing mission and pours energy and life into helping it succeed. Or you could invest in the micro, the small scale. Living a good, loving life. Investing in your family. Your local community. Maybe it’s a mix of the two. Only you will know.

Step 3 – Channeling your new self

You are different now. You are forever changed. You were a warrior who trudged the road of grief. You sought all the help you could. You did the things you needed to heal. To grow. You integrated the grief into who you are. I read, and appreciated "The Courage to Grieve" by Judy Tatelbaum although I’m not 100% sold on her concept of "finishing" with grief. I get it, and understand how the process she talks about can help. I would just rather see it as a process that is whole and results in the integration of emotions and experience into who one is rather than moving beyond it. Nothing that ever happens to us ever leaves us. It makes us who we are. It defines us. And that is the problem I have with ‘finishing’. On the other hand if she really means "finishing" as per the phase, ‘the act of grieving’ and that all of the learning’s and experiences still accrue to one being ‘more’ at the end of it (despite the massive loss) then I could be sold on that. It makes sense not to be ‘stuck’ in the process of grieving for the rest of one’s life. That is where you can end up at "bad" or "ugly".

Having been down the road. Integrated the experiences, the emotions, the learning’s and come out the other side you are equipped to channel this powerful thing. Once you have channeled it you are able to harness it, to use it.

It is then that you are able to turn your life into a monument for those you have lost. The concept of ‘making them proud’ by who you are and your actions. We find ourselves back to that silver lining. I have to believe that is at the ‘end’ of this. Without that goal it seems to me that one could easily get lost in the dusty, dark landscape of Step 1. Never to emerge from the other side. Slipping into The Bad and The Ugly.

Final thoughts… for today

This has been the hardest of my grief blogs. In the beginning it was all so clear; I had lost, I was in pain. I could share that. I could address that. As I look to focus my mind so I can heal and subsequently share it is much harder now. Life is busy, complicated, and it dances a difficult dance with grief.

How did your journey go? How did you harness the new found power you discovered in grief? What did you do with it? What was the journey like for you – how long did it take? I’d love to hear your stories and thoughts. Do you disagree?

Remember – we are all in this together. None of us get out alive and the more we prioritize thinking and focusing on this subject the better prepared we will all be when it inevitably happens to us. Even for those of us who have lived through this it will happen again.

Like I said at the beginning, this post is aspirational. I will, I must, give myself time and space, permission to throw a glass at the wall and watch it smash (as long as no one is standing there!). Yet I can aspire for more. I can hope for more. I can strive for more. Thanks for joining me on this journey. Let’s keep at it… together!

Let’s discuss in the comments – that’s what blogs are for!

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