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The Grief Monster

Posted Jan 30 2010 3:12pm

I was sitting with a friend at dinner last week when she suddenly confided, "I woke up this morning and my heart just HURT".

I didn't have to ask her what she was describing. I know that feeling all too well - we all do - which is why not a one of us has to ask who is at the door when the Grief Monster comes to call.

Normally the call doesn't come at a convenient moment, either. In my friend's case, she had had to plow through a packed schedule of appointments that day, which she did by keeping her head down and keeping busy until the evening when she knew she would have a bit of space and the safety of a friend's company in which to unwind.

In my case, I too can hear the Grief Monster's knock in the most unexpected of places - while I am driving, waiting in line to board an airplane, cleaning out my closet, or hanging up after a brief call from my ex-boyfriend. A stranger's overheard conversation, a movie scene, or writing this blog post all are equally as likely to provide a ripe environment where mood and memory can collide in a sudden burst of unplanned-for grief.

In part to address these continued unwelcome intrusions, I've been reading Dr. Daniel Siegel's "The Mindful Brain" lately. In his chapter on "Stress and Suffering", Siegel writes, "When the mind grasps onto preconceived ideas it creates a tension within the mind between what is and what "should be". This tension creates stress and leads to suffering."

When I read this statement it stopped me in my tracks, because what Siegel seems to be saying is that grief, while necessary and healthy in the short-term while we are adjusting to unavoidable change, can become downright toxic when we refuse to reconcile our own inner friction between what is and what we have decided should be.

If this is the case, then the solution as Siegel proposes it is to equip our own mind with the ability to recognize our pre-conceived ideas and emotional reactions to those ideas as just that - preconceived ideas with predictable emotional knee-jerk responses - and then to understand that when these ideas and responses are left untended they will often and possibly always lead to ongoing unnecessary internal distress.1

In my book Beating Ana, I spend the chapter titled "28 Days" talking about how to navigate Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' five-stage cycle of grief. The first four stages, denial, anger, bargaining, and grief, all point to non-acceptance of what is. Only the fifth stage, acceptance, indicates that we have learned to match our outsides with our insides once again. The five stages are meant to be a helpful and self-respectful tool by which we can feel our resistance, our rebellion, our reactions in all their glory, and then have a preference-setting mechanism by which to make our own respectful but firm decision that living in the now is infinitely preferable to staying stuck in the grief cycle forever.

But we get to choose. I get to choose whether the Grief Monster is in fact a monster at all, or is rather a compassionate friend. I get to choose how fast and long I will dance with my own unresolved grief before I realize that it is as tired of dancing with me as I am of dancing with it. I get to decide where that fine line in the sand is between genuinely feeling and healing and continually re-enacting a tired bit part about the victim who expects more of the same and always makes sure she gets it.

My pet bird, Pearl, is probably the best example of a quick and efficient journey through the five stages of grief, which she does several times each day.

For example, we get up in the morning and it is time to clean her cage, which she doesn't like. She screeches a few times, hears the sound of her own voice, then ups the decibel level several times just to make sure everyone in our neighborhood knows she is upset. She then tries to steal the finches' food to compensate herself for this emotional invasion. I take the food away and she skulks away into the corner, sulking, and hisses and bites when I try to pick her up. I lock her in her cage and walk away, and she becomes quiet and solemn in the dark. Five minutes later when I walk back in, she greets me with a joyful chirp and eagerly climbs onto my arm for a neck rub!


We could all take a lesson out of Pearl's book. She experiences a disconnect between what is going on and what she thinks should be going on. She feels the disconnect - deeply and fully - denies, rages, bargains, grieves - and then at the first opportunity she lets go of all that very real but no longer useful rage and pain in favor of this moment's proffered joy of a thorough neck feather scratching.

In wise hands, the Grief Monster is no monster at all, but its friendship is best accepted for a reason and a season, not a lifetime. In grief, as in recovery and in life, we have to learn when to hold on and feel, and when to heal and let go.

1Dr. Daniel Siegel, "The Mindful Brain", pg. 77

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