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Resilient Grieving

Resilient Grieving

I read Resilient Grieving: Finding Strength and Embracing Life after a Loss that Changes Everything by Lucy Hone, PhD, while flying across the country to teach at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health last weekend. It’s an excellent integration of research on resilience and research on bereavement, enfolded in the author’s personal journey of working with the tragedy and grief of the most dreaded of all losses.

Lucy Hone had completed her master’s degree at University of Pennsylvania, steeped in positive psychology and resilience/post-traumatic growth research, All of which she could skillfully apply back home in New Zealand, helping local businesses and non-profits cope with the unending losses of the Christchurch earthquakes, large quakes and endless aftershocks from 2010 to 2012.

On her way to her PhD, her beloved 12-year old daughter Abi was suddenly killed in a car accident. And Lucy Hone’s and her family’s grieving process shaped and informed this book. Many, many stories of their journey and their memories.

A few major points: (then strategies below…)

There is no one right way to grieve, and you have permission to learn what works for you, moment by moment. Rather than a step-by-step curriculum, Dr. Hone offers a jigsaw-puzzle model of using many different coping strategies, as many as you need, whenever you need – ask: is this helping or harming?; approach grief, then withdraw; identify your secondary losses (identities, future events); stress: burn it off or tune it out; forge ongoing connections; tidy those teaspoons; relearn the world.

Resilient grieving pushes beyond the Kubler-Ross model of accepting the loss and experiencing the grief to pro-actively developing the strategies that allow you to recover and re-engage with the world. “Most mourners are unaware that there are things they can do that assist the process of healthy bereavement; yet the way we choose to think and the way we chose to act have a substantial influence on our well-being.”

Human beings are hardwired to cope, and coping with death is as much a part of our fundamental deeply inherited human experience as finding a mate and having children. Death is universal across the lifespan and across cultures. It helps if we can understand this. Wrapping my head around that took some doing, but it helped. 

Resilience and bereavement work together

Many of the strategies that help us deal with the adversities of life can also help us grieve. We can learn resilience by learning how to govern our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, even our physiology. We can develop habits that help us feel gratitude, contentment and joy, without diminishing how desperately we miss our loved one. We can learn how to prevent new fears, anxieties, and “what ifs” from stopping us, contributing to and enjoying the life we have. We can learn to manage anger and guilt so these emotions don’t close us off from our friends and families. We can take purposeful action, even if some days the action is small, and by taking action we can increase our feels of mastery and prevent a sense of helplessness from become pervasive. And at the core of what enable resilience is relationships. The bereaved who cope best are ale to find comfort in ongoing connections.  We are sustained by the deep and aboding knowledge that we are tethered to other people and can continue to be sure of each other.

SIX STRATEGIES FOR COPING IN THE IMMEDIATE AFTERMATH

(with details suggestions for each)

There are no rules – do what you need

Choose where you focus your attention

Take your time

Feel the pain: walk right in, feel it, and weep

Beware the grief “ambush”

Re-establish routines

SIX STRATEGIES FOR ONGOING RECOVERY

Share the bereavementWe need others to discuss our feeling with, to talk openly with, to offer the veritable shoulder to cry on; we need others to keep memories of the dead alive, we need them to listen to us, cook for us, drive us places we cannot be bothered to go. 

What family, friends, and colleagues can do:

Let the bereaved tell their story

Help the bereaved adjust in practical ways to life without their loved one

Discourage the bereaved from making major life-changing decisions too soon

Help the bereaved reminisce

Understand the bereaved’s lack of tolerance to life’s small frustrations/details

Give the bereaved time to grieve

Don’t compare your own grief stories with those of the very recently bereaves

Stand by through depression

Cultivate positive emotions especially during the process of grieving. Instead of five solid stages, think of grief as an oscillation between sadness and other emotions, often positive. The oscillation can occur frequently over the course of a day. The sadness lets us adjust to the loss. The other emotions allow us to engage with the world around us. Positive emotions perform a key adaptive purpose by enabling us to broaden our perspective and discover a greater range of solutions and creativity and, over time, build our social, intellectual, psychological and even physical resources. In essence, positive emotions do more than just feel good; they actually DO good. 

Use Skillful Distraction We can use small activities – walking the dog, watching a movie, taking a cooking class – to return us to the world of the living. Distracting activities give us the opportunity to recover, to build up our strengths, so we can do it all again. Similarly there are times when we need to retreat: to lick our wounds, put our heads on the table, and lie down exhausted. Approach, retreat, approach, retreat. And so it goes. 

Identify secondary losses – the dreams, ambitions, opportunities, future life events and relationship that vanish from your life; also the specific roles and functions that person played in your life – the breadwinner, the hairdresser, the novel-find, the handyman, bridge/gold/tennis partner, chief recycle, meal make, wood chopper and fire lighter, homework advisor, towel folder, car cleaner, map reader, lunchbox maker, ironer, sober driver, Christmas wrapping expert, dog walker, etc. etc. 

Manage exhaustion and depression through rest and exercise

“Grief is so unlike any other of life’s challenges. Grief is utterly exhausting. Successful grieving requires successful energy management. Regular physical activity really is a magic bullet for mental health. Aerobic excise physically transforms our brains, and engaging in physical activity is the natural way to prevent the negative consequences of stress.” 

Use Rituals to Commemorate

Prepare a favorite meal of the loved one and enjoy it as he/she did.

Plant flowers, a tree, or a flowering bush in memory of your loved one. Wear a piece of jewlelry that was a favorite of the person

Wear an item of clothing given to you by him/her

Travel to a place he/she enjoyed or always wanted to visit.

Etc. 

Three things I especially liked:

Dr. Hone is from New Zealand. Resilient Grieving is an excellent guide to the most difficult journey any of us will ever have to make, inspired by the author’s own lived experience as well as research. But Dr. Hone is not overly well-known in the United States, so there are no major endorsements from other major authors, except for Adam Grant, co-author of the #1 New York Times best-selling Option B, and his credibility in the field is more than enough.

Resilient Grieving was published in 2018. I published Resilience in 2018, so my focus was elsewhere and I didn’t read Resilient Grieving until several different clients recommended it to me. Reassuring to learn that Hone quoted many of the researchers I have quoted in my own writings and teachings, especially Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges by Stephen Southwick, M.D. and Dennis Charney, M.D.; Positivity by Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life after Loss by George Bonanno, PhD.

And one sweet poem from the book to close…

You can shed tears that she is gone

Or you can smile because she has lived.

You can close your eyes and pray that she will come back

Or you can open your eyes and seel all that she has left.

Your heart can be empty because you can’t see her

Or you can be full of the love that you shared.

You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday 

Or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday. 

You can remember her and only that she is gone

Or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.

You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back

You can do what she would want; smile, open your eyes, love and go on. 

  • D. Harkins, Remember Me,

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