Grieving with Purpose
No one is prepared for the power within the bereavement experience. The rush of feelings; the thoughts, anxieties, and heartache can take us by surprise and drive us to our knees. Yet, when we choose to harness that power for self-growth, amazing things can happen. Good can come from pain.
Sigmund Freud first brought up the concept of grief work and although the specific tasks he outlined have been reconsidered in the years since the publication of his book, Mourning and Melancholia, in 1917, the idea that bereavement is purpose-driven continues in the 21st century.
In another article within this library, When the Pain Doesn't Ease, we discussed the work of James Worden who chose to see the work of bereavement as task-oriented:
To accept the reality of the loss
To process the pain of grief
To adjust to a world without the deceased
To find an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life
Your current job, if you will, is to focus your attention on achieving each of those goals. It will not occur in any logical order; each of us is different and the path we walk in the bereavement journey is not a straight one.
Dealing with grief is hard work. It takes both courage and hard work to successfully adapt to the loss of a significant person in your life.
"I have returned
From a world beyond knowledge
And now must unlearn
For otherwise I clearly see
I can no longer live."
~ Charlotte Delbo, Auschwitz and After
Six Signposts Along Your Journey
In What Doesn't Kill Us: the New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth, Dr. Stephen Joseph identifies what he calls six signposts to facilitating posttraumatic growth. He reminds readers too that "posttraumatic growth does not imply the absence of emotional distress and difficulties in living. It does imply that it is possible through the struggle to come out on the other side, stronger and more philosophical about life."
Before identifying these six signposts, Dr. Joseph reminds his readers of three very important things:
You are not on your own
Trauma is a normal and natural process
Growth is a journey
He also provides a fundamental rule: don't do anything you might not be able to handle now. "If you experience intense emotions, become physically upset, or begin to panic...stop." He gently reminds readers that "having a sense of personal control over your recovery is important. There might be some things you do not feel ready to handle now, but in time, as you discover new strength and develop new coping skills, this will likely change."
Sign Post #1: Taking Stock
Are you physically well? Are you getting enough sleep and eating the right foods for optimum health? Have you obtained the kind of medical, legal or psychological help you need? In other words, what is your current condition, physically, spiritually, and emotionally?
Sign Post #2: Harvesting Hope
People traumatized by loss often feel hopeless. It's hard to get up in the morning and thinking about the future sparks pessimism and negativity. Find inspiration in the stories of personal growth written by others; set goals and practice hope as you set out to achieve them.
Sign Post #3: Re-Authoring
Learn to tell your story differently. Take the victim mentality out of the story of loss you tell yourself and others and replace it with the word survivor to return to a sense of control over your life.
Sign Post #4: Identifying Change
Keeping a daily diary can help you to see the small changes within more easily. You can also track those moments when you feel at your best and identify the conditions that enabled them to exist. Identify and nurture the positive changes in your life throughout your bereavement journey.
Sign Post #5: Valuing Change
Review these changes, identifying the ones that you'd like to continue to nurture. Personal transformation requires it. Growth is encouraged when we take time to think about what we have gained from loved ones and when we find a way to use what we have learned to give to others.
Sign Post #6: Expressing Change in Action
Express your growth in new behaviors or, more simply, put your growth into action. When you think in terms of concrete actions, it helps make the growth experienced within your bereavement real to you.
"By focusing on these six signposts," writes Dr. Joseph, "you will find that your posttraumatic growth is beginning to take root."
Delbo, Charlotte, Auschwitz and After, Yale University Press,1995.
Fleming, Stephen, Ph.D., C. Psych. "The Changing Face of Grief: From 'Going On to 'On-Going'".
Joseph, Stephen, Ph.D., What Doesn't Kill Us: the New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth, Basic Books, 2011.