Solving the problem of grief is a problem in itself: if the ways you are broken cannot possibly be fixed, why does everyone keep giving you solutions?
Before my partner died, I was reading There is a Spiritual Solution to Every Problem by Dr. Wayne Dyer. It's a great book. When I tried to pick it up after Matt died, though, I couldn't get back into it. It just kept feeling wrong, like there was a burr inside the words that scratched uncomfortably. I kept trying to find comfort in the words I found comforting and helpful before, and those words were just not doing it.
I put the book down. I picked it back up. The burr rasped and the words didn't fit, and I put the book back down.
It was several weeks later when my eye happened to catch the title of the book as it lay on the coffee table: there's a spiritual solution to every problem.
Suddenly, it made sense. There may in fact be a spiritual solution to every problem, but grief is not a problem to be solved. It isn't "wrong," and it can't be "fixed." It isn't an illness to be cured.
This book no longer worked for me because grief is not a problem.
I was relieved. For one thing, I really like Dr. Dyer's work, and I wanted to keep liking it. But the larger relief was in suddenly seeing how just changing the orientation to grieving from a problem to be solved to a fact to be carried made a gigantic difference.
Seeing grief as a problem is very common -- it runs through much of the grief literature, and most people approach it that way when someone they love is in pain. Part of that is in the presentation: we assume that if something is uncomfortable, it means something is wrong. People conclude that grief is "bad" because it hurts. We hear about relieving the pain, getting out of pain, dreaming of a time when there is no pain.
We behave as though grief is something to get out of as soon as possible, an aberration that needs healing, rather than a natural response to loss -- in short, we treat it as a problem.
It may seem like a small shift, just the change of a few words. But small shifts at ground level make for huge differences in trajectory. Think of the space shuttle: two degrees difference on the ground translates into thousands of miles through space. Especially for the outside observer or support person, the foundation you stand on as you approach grief influences everything - you will either get where you most truly wish to go, or you will widely miss your mark.
Let me give you an example. If you feel that grief is a problem, you will offer solutions: you should get rid of her clothes. He's in a better place now, so try to be happy. Maybe you should get out more.
You will encourage your grieving friend or loved one to do what you suggest, because you are trying to relieve their pain -- which means, solve their problem. You get frustrated because your friend seems defensive. They don't seem to want to take your advice.
The more you try to help -- aka: fix it -- the more obstinate they become. Clearly, they don't want to get better.
The griever, on the other hand, knows that their grief is not something that can be fixed. They know there is nothing wrong with them. They don't have a "problem." The more people try to fix their grief, the more frustrated (and defensive) they feel. The griever is frustrated because they don't need solutions. They need support. Support to live what is happening. Support to carry what they are required to carry.
Grieving people expend a lot of energy defending their grief instead of feeling supported in their experience of it.
If this sounds familiar, you may need to check your orientation. Do you think grief is a problem to be solved, or is it a process to be supported? How you view it dictates your actions and your response. It's that difference in orientation that changes everything: the wrong foundation can make your best intentions fly wildly off course. The right foundation is supportive and helpful, even when words are hard to find.
So here's the thing -- if you truly want to be helpful and supportive, you need to stop thinking that grief is a problem to be solved.
This is true on a cultural level as well as on an individual level. We're talking about a whole orientation change in the ways we come to grief, the ways we understand grief.
Here's what you should know:
• Grief isn't something to be gotten rid of so that we can get back to life. It IS life.
• Grief is not a problem, it's a reality: a natural experience of love and pain.
• Our friends, our families, our books, our cultural responses, are most useful, most loving and kind, when they help those in grief to carry their reality, and least helpful when they try to solve what can't be fixed.
That change in orientation isn't just for the witness to grief. For the person in grief:
• It might help you to know that if something feels like a correction or solution rather than a support, it probably isn't for you. Some things, like Dr. Dyer's book, are specifically designed for problem solving, and may feel more grating than useful.
• You may find that you expect to feel corrected so often, it can feel hard to hear anything as supportive.
• The work here is to find -- and receive -- the things that help you live with your reality: softening into grief, finding your heart, offering yourself kindness.
• Understanding these things as supports rather than solutions is a subtle change, but an important one.
We need to develop some skillful means both to witness grief, and to live in grief. We need to learn how to support rather than to solve. We need to practice being in there with grief, rather than getting out of it. And we need to hear the distinction between the two.
When we don't see grief as a problem to be solved, but instead as an experience to be supported, loved, and witnessed -- then we can really talk about what helps. When we stand on the same ground together, our words and actions can be truly supportive and useful.
Megan Devine is writer, grief advocate, and clinical counselor. She helps people living deep grief bear the life they're in. You can schedule a free 30 minute phone call to talk about your grief by clicking here to choose a time on her calendar. Megan is the author of the audio program "When Everything is Not Okay: Practical Tools to Help You Stay in Your Heart & Not Lose Your Mind." You can find this and other resources on her website, www.refugeingrief.com.