How does an optimist deal with grief?
When my cheeky, charismatic, 18-year-old son Aaron died suddenly in a car accident last year, it felt like the very foundations of my world collapsed from underneath my feet.
My life as I knew it irrevocably shifted in the blink of an eye, one fateful accident, one phone call.
It’s been nothing short of a devastatingly tough journey, a road that I will continue to travel and navigate throughout the rest of my life.
I have learned many things.
Grief in its purest form is an expression of love. When we lose someone or something we love, we grieve. Whether it is someone we love, a broken relationship, our health, a job, or even our home, grief hurts, and it is a deeply emotional, physical, mental, and sometimes spiritual experience.
In life, tragic things can and do happen. The key here is recognizing that how we respond to events is often the difference between a positive or a negative outcome. We can’t change the fact that someone we dearly love has died, but we have choices about how we decide to respond and move forward.
You can feel sad, angry, and confused over your loss. Of course, you feel these things, and you can still feel optimistic about other aspects of your life at the same time.
Australia is the 2nd most medicated country in the world for depression and anxiety. Why so? In brief, people are not automatically depressed; often and naturally we are sad. It appears some doctors are far too quick to prescribe medication. Grieving people need guidance and support to adopt healthy ways to feel and express emotions rather than numb and avoid them.
When we deny the deep emotion of grief, we may deny our love.
For the grieving optimist, the journey of grief understands that through the pain, you can find and reconnect with love again. You can learn a new way to live life fully despite your loss.
This isn’t about finding the silver linings, being positive, and avoiding our grief. This is embracing the pain of our loss and learning healthy and resourceful ways to express and feel our emotions so that we can live our best life.
Here are some suggestions for being realistically optimistic in your grief.
- It’s essential to recognise that whilst pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. This is an important distinction.
- Notice your inner dialogue.
- The What-Ifs: It’s very normal and natural for our mind to have ‘what if questions. ‘Why wasn’t I there?’ “What if I had done something differently?’ These questions are natural when a person is seeking to process and make sense of what has happened. But in the absence of understanding, our mind can fill in the blanks. This creates more suffering; it adds to our pain and can keep us stuck. If someone you love dies, you will grieve – you will have pain, but you reinforce the suffering with what-if scenarios creating guilt and shame. Challenge the stories, play them out and be kind to yourself.
- Grief-stricken future: “I’ll never be happy again.” “My life is destroyed.” “I can’t live without him/her.” “I’m heartbroken.” Begin to notice and challenge these statements. Are they true? Are they kind? Serving you? Helping you grow? Nurturing you? If not, what can you replace them with? Therapy and coaching can be helpful with this.
- Find healthy ways to feel and process your grief: Don’t avoid your feelings of grief, get curious and learn to understand it. If your grief had a voice, what would it say? It’s unhealthy to shut down, suppress and avoid feelings, have fits of rage, feel guilty, be overwhelmed, anxious, shameful, depressed. Learn to move the pain through and out of your body. Healthy ways to handle and process emotion include writing, crying, resting, having your grief witnessed, taking care of yourself, eating well, exercise, meditation, energy healing, grief yoga, grief therapy or coaching, and so much more. There are many books, podcasts, and online resources available. David Kessler’s book Finding Meaning and website grief.com are great resources.
Everyone’s grief is different because everyone’s experience is different. Recognise that if you are 2+ years down the track and you’re stuck in your grief, then you are most likely suffering, so please reach out for help because it doesn’t have to be this way.
Set yourself up for success. When it comes to celebrating special events and occasions without your loved one, think of ways to fill your day with love and something you enjoy in advance.
What new rituals can you create, like setting an extra place at the table, lighting a candle, telling stories, and having a photo of them close by? What will help you, what do you need, and how can you include them?
Be realistically optimistic – when you ask yourself questions like, how can I live my life fully despite this grief, you are realistically optimistic. The fact that you even ask this question presupposes it is totally possible. Look for examples of people who are living well with their grief. What other empowering questions can you ask yourself? Write a list.
Remember that you’re the pilot of your life. You make choices; even doing nothing is a choice.
When it comes to being optimistic in grief, a good compass point can be to consider what your loved one would want for you.
Would they want you to be happy again, to love again, to enjoy your life? Use this as your compass – because I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t want you to be stuck in your grief.
An empowering and optimistic way that I can honour Aaron’s memory is to support others in their grief and to recreate a wonderful life for myself. A life that builds his legacy as a tribute to the fact that his life matters, he is honoured, cherished, loved beyond measure, and forever remembered.
In loving memory of my son, Aaron Wawra – Forever 18
Published by The Centre for Optimism