In her book “It’s ok You’re not Ok,” Megan Devine discusses the twin paradox of being human. In living our one life, we are here to love and lose. If we commit to loving, we will inevitably know loss and grief. If we try to avoid loss and grief, we will never truly love. Yet powerfully and mysteriously, knowing both love and loss is what brings us fully and deeply alive. In our society we struggle with how to process loss. We struggle with what to do and what to say, sometimes saying all the “wrong” things and other times saying nothing at all. For those who have lost, they are navigating a new landscape… it changes everything. The terrain of life is forever different and there is no normal to return to. But those who suffer carry a wisdom that the rest of us need. I believe it is truly a courageous work to love and lose and to walk with one another in the midst, no matter how long the road. Unfortunately, the way we deal with grief in our culture is broken. We tend to see our pain and grief as something to overcome or fix. But we’re not here to fix our pain, we’re here to tend to it. We can feel so at a loss when someone we love is grieving. Something deep inside us wants to make the pain stop. In these moments, it can seem like no one can win; grieving people feel misunderstood, and friends and family feel helpless in the face of grief.
In Megan’s book she challenges us to think about grief differently. If we want to care for one another we have to re-humanize grief. We have to talk about it. We have to understand that it is a natural normal process, rather then something to be shunned, rushed or maligned. We have to start talking about the real skills needed to face the reality of living a life entirely changed by loss. There is a fundamental difference between solving pain and tending to pain. We must learn to love better…. To love ourselves in the midst of great pain, and to love one another when the pain of this life grows too large for one person to hold.
How do we do this?
- Acknowledgment is everything. Say it out loud… “this sucks!” Or how about “I wish I knew what to say but I don’t, so I just want you to know I love you."
- Some things cannot be fixed. They can only be carried. Don’t try to fix the pain, learn to be with it. I know it’s uncomfortable and hard.
- Grief is part of love. Love for life, love for self, love for others. It is an important part of our human experience.
- There are losses that rearrange the world. Deaths that change the way you see everything, grief that tears everything down. Pain that transports you to an entirely different universe, even while everyone else thinks nothing has really changed. It can feel so overwhelming.
- Validation and frank discussion of the realities of grief help make things different, even when it can’t make things “right."
- We learn to move “forward” as opposed to “moving on” give grace as this new experience unfolds.
The truth is pain…. and love…. get integrated into a life, not overcome. After experiencing loss, however long it takes, your heart and your mind will carve out a new life amid this weirdly devastated landscape. Little by little, pain and love will find a way to coexist. It won’t feel weird or bad to have survived. It will be, simply, a life of your own making: the most beautiful life it can be, given what is yours to live. It’s important to remember that grief is as individual as love. That someone has experienced a loss - even similar to yours - does not mean they understand you. It is crucial that we recognize every loss is valid. And every loss is not the same. You can’t flatten the landscape of grief and say that everything is equal. It isn’t. Words of comfort that try to erase pain are not comfort. When you try to take someone’s pain away from them, you don’t make them feel better. You just tell them it’s not ok to talk about their pain. To feel truly comforted by someone, you need to feel heard in your pain.
What we need to remember, as a working practice, is to honor all griefs. Honor all losses, small and not small. Life changing and moment changing. And then, not to compare them. That all people experience pain is not medicine for anything. In the midst of some of my deepest grief and pain hearing “everything happens for a reason” made me so angry… I wanted to immediately call bull shit. What could possibly justify a “reason” for rape or murder? Grief is not an enlightenment program for a select few. On the contrary, in life, we respond to what we experience. The path forward is integration not betterment.
So how can we do it better?
Two simple things we can do differently are:
- Don’t compare stories in an effort to relate. What you actually do is turn the focus away from the one you are trying to console.
- Don’t jump to meaning making with phrases like “everything happens for a reason.” It’s painful and invalidating.
Megan Devine challenges us to tell new stories. We need new stories that tell the truth about pain, about love, about life. We need new stories of bravery in the face of what cannot be fixed. We need to do this for each other; we need to do this with each other because pain happens. Grief happens. In telling better stories, we weave a culture that knows how to bear witness, to simply show up and be present to that which can never be transformed. In telling better stories, we learn to be better companions, to ourselves, and to each other.
I want to leave you with some closing words from Megan. "Being brave is not about overcoming what hurts or turning it into a gift. Being brave is about waking to face each day when you would rather just stop waking up. Being brave is staying present to your own heart when that heart is shattered into a million different pieces and can never be made right. Being brave is letting pain unfurl and take up all the space it needs. Being brave is telling THAT story. It’s terrifying and it’s beautiful. Those are the stories we need. Real safety is in entering each others pain, recognizing ourselves inside it."