“Experience Is the Best Teacher, But the Tuition Is High” – Norwegian Proverb
“Write What You Know” – Mark Twain
I am going to turn 55 in this new year, and I have had a remarkably blessed life up to this point, interrupted by two terrible losses. In February of 2016, my college sweetheart and wife of more than 27 years, Danielle, died after a lengthy battle with a cruel killer called ovarian cancer. In January of 2020, before COVID-19 and racial injustice sent the rest of the world to its knees, my middle child Cameron died from suicide after a battle of his own with mental health challenges. Stacked on top of each other, these painful losses left my two surviving children and their father to wonder how much more suffering we could endure and whether the Book of Job was intended as some sort of cosmic horoscope for our family.
The year 2020 was the worst year in living memory for many of us, and I recognize my family is not the only one who experienced suffering and grief. As I sat down before my laptop and began to think about what this new year might bring, the two sayings printed above began calling to me, urging me to share what I have learned from my painful experiences rather than letting the pain go to waste. Because I’ve never been able to resist the allure of Norwegian wisdom and Mark Twain (and really, who can?), I decided to follow their direction.
First, the disclaimer. I am an employment lawyer and a leadership coach—not a mental health professional—and I am not qualified to give clinical advice on how to deal with grief in a textbook fashion. However, the reality is that most of us spend more time with our work family than we do at home, and the impact of our personal losses on our colleagues is hard to overstate. (Trust me on this, I know.) My experiences over the past five years have taught me some valuable lessons for how someone trying to cope with loss can move forward in hope and how their colleagues and friends can support them through their suffering. With apologies to the Great Philosopher Charlie Brown, I’d like to share these lessons of “Good Grief” in the same bullet point fashion they occurred to me.
Second, while Norwegian wisdom may be correct that experience is the “best” teacher, that doesn’t mean my experience is the best or only teacher for others. As you read the lessons of “Good Grief” I have learned, I would encourage you to add your own reflections and refine them for yourself. My hope is that my experiences, when added to the lessons you’ve already learned through your own experiences with grief, can lead to greater shared wisdom about how we collectively can work through these troubling times.
Lessons for Survivors in Their Grief:
Grieve YOUR WAY, not the way others might expect. Some people going through grief want pictures of their loved ones around as reminders, while others find them painful. Some people want to go back to work right away, while others don’t even want to shower early on. You have agency over how you grieve. Use it, including by ignoring anything I recommend here that doesn’t suit you.
Stay in motion—walk, exercise, bike, move in whatever way feels good. Movement is healing, and while grief will still find you, you can at least make it work hard to catch up.
Journal—let your pen do the writing without thinking. It knows what you need to say, how, and why.
Feel what you feel when you’re feeling it. This means granting yourself permission to laugh at inappropriate moments when something strikes you as funny or to cry when an unexpected memory sucker punches you from behind. As my therapist daughter reminds me, NO emotion is exempt from showing up: anger, shame, relief, guilt, sadness, or (heaven forbid) even joy.
Grief counseling is invaluable, either by yourself or as part of a larger group. Consider going through grief counseling as a family, particularly if you have younger children.
Grief comes in waves and seasons, not in tidy progressive steps or boxes to be checked off. You might have a productive and happy day totally derailed when your favorite Spotify playlist decides to play “your song” unexpectedly. Roll with it.
Be intentional about how you spend milestone days: the anniversaries, birthdays, and national holidays you used to celebrate with your loved ones, which can turn up the volume of your quiet grief to heavy metal concert levels. Personally, I like to plan something affirmative to do on those occasions as a way of making meaning out of the milestone, while others plan to stay in bed simply to make it through the day. You get to choose. (The dirty little secret here is that the milestones often turn out to be non-events because you are prepared for them, while the random Tuesday before or after the special date catches you off guard.)
Read good books about grieving. Grief Observed, Second Firsts, and Lose Love Liveare some of my favorites. You might even consider reading THE Good Book, which has more to say about suffering in this world than it does about mansions in the next.
Take care of yourself physically and emotionally both so you can take care of those around you and because YOU deserve it.
Don’t be surprised if some friendships you had before your loss fade, while others strengthen for unexplained reasons. Some people are built to accompany you in your grief journey, and some are not. Don’t hold it against them or yourself.
Talk often about your loved one, especially to and around your family. They need to remember that their memories are not off limits and that it’s OK to talk out loud about them.
Talk TO your loved one and allow them to talk back—it’s weird but enormously comforting. Remember you have a storehouse of memories together to draw from that allows you to know how they would respond to you in almost every instance.
Consider small changes to your living space to signal a new beginning. I bought new rugs and couches after my late wife passed, which helped me make our formerly shared space my own.
Learn something new as a signal to yourself that you’re not done learning and living. For me, it was an acoustic guitar I bought in 2016, which I spent a few months picking at before my short, stubby fingers told me to find a hobby for which I was better suited.
For parents, remember that your children will be looking to you as the example of how to grieve well. This means both being transparent with your emotions when you are stuck in your pain AND showing them what it’s like to continue to move forward anyway.
While this may be hard to hear when your grief is still fresh, know that a life of joy is still possible even after unimaginable losses. My personal conviction is that it’s not only permissible, but really our obligation to the ones we lost to do everything we can to seek, and live out, the life of joy they would have wanted for us—“Exhibit A” for me being the fact that I hit the lottery a second time when I fell in love again and married my wonderful wife Kristy. (Danielle is ecstatic for us, by the way! See bullet above about talking to the person you lost.)
Lessons For Their Supporters:
Take your cue from the person grieving about what they want to talk about. If they want to talk about their loved one, let them. If they want to talk about the latest show they’re binge watching, let them—unless it’s Tiger King because, after all, haven’t they suffered enough?
Most of all, sit with them and just listen. Or better yet, just be. What they need right now is a companion and a friend, not a philosopher.
DO NOT offer comforting slogans—e.g. “They’re in a better place,” “At least their suffering is over,” or ANYTHING involving God “needing more angels.” Instead, the most helpful thing you can say might be, “This freaking sucks, and I’m so sorry.”
Don’t ask them to tell you if there’s “anything you can do.” Speaking from personal experience, this well-intended question actually places a burden on the person grieving to come up with something tangible you can do to feel useful. Instead, suggest things yourself—offer to go grocery shopping for them, do the laundry, watch the kids, or bring coffee—and ask them if that’s OK. Keep offering even if they say no the first time.
Remember that it’s not your job to make them feel better, it’s your job to be there and let them know you love them. Nothing more, nothing less.
At the same time, remember that it’s not their job to make YOU feel better. Try not to make it about you and your grief over the loss (which you’re almost certainly feeling as well), unless they specifically ask how it’s affecting you.
While “How are you doing?” is a perfectly legitimate question, it can create additional unintended pressure on the person grieving to say something socially acceptable or clever. Instead, come up with your own code for asking about their state of mind. For example, you might ask, “How lousy do you feel today on a 1 to 10 scale, with 1 being ‘you never want to get out of bed again’ and 10 being ‘you might allow yourself to laugh.’”
Recognize it is inevitable that you will say the wrong thing and show yourself grace when you do. Remember that the only thing worse than saying the wrong thing is saying nothing at all. Grief is incredibly isolating, and human connection is as vital as oxygen.
There will be a flood of well-wishers and people who want to help in the first few weeks, but that flood will slow down to a trickle surprisingly quickly. The person grieving needs people to support them just as much in month 2 as they do on day 2. (In fact, they’ll need you even more in year 2, when the numbness has worn off and the permanence of their loss has set in.)
Finally, recognize that dealing with someone else’s grief without being able to alleviate it is emotionally trying, and it is a normal human reaction to want the person grieving to be able to “move on.” Accept that in yourself, while simultaneously understanding they will feel their loss every single day and might never be able to fully “move on” the way you would hope.
During my own journey through grief, I have thought often of the concept of alchemy, which is an ancient belief you could take a base metal such as lead and magically turn it into gold. While I would never choose the pain associated with our great family losses, I realize that I have been blessed with an opportunity to apply my own form of alchemy by using my experiences to help others going through their own pain and perhaps even to create a new life for myself that I could not have imagined before. As we collectively emerge from a year saturated with so much pain and sadness, perhaps a little alchemy is what we all need for 2021.
Mike Tooley is a partner with Ice Miller LLP and a Leadership and Strengths Coach with Upstream Principles LLC.