The summer before my junior year of college, my uncle passed away from cancer.
This was the year that I began a long journey towards burnout. I had taken a role as a peer health counselor — once an avid positive psychology student and evangelist — but found myself constantly drained, struggling to take on others’ difficulties, and furthermore, to be inspired. I was surprised to find an inner-self that was confused, jaded, and angry in place of the cheerful disposition that had come naturally to me until then.
It took awhile to put two and two together: I had been grieving. And that was okay — more than okay. It was healthy, and the growth that arose has only made me a stronger person, crucial in developing the values I hold today.
It may seem that an expert on happiness would be the world’s worst person to talk to about matters of sadness, loss, and tragedy; but Carole Pertofsky, positive psychology expert and professor of one of the most popular happiness courses at Stanford University, just might disagree.
“When you look at popular media for the last few years, there’s been a huge amount of attention on being happy, being positive, the difference between surviving and thriving. And suddenly there’s a bit of a backlash, that by pursuing and chasing happiness, it’s just going to make you unhappy. And there’s both great misunderstanding in that, as well as truth in that,” says Pertofsky.
Instead, what Pertofsky wants to talk about, and where a more nuanced view of the emotional world develops, is in defining happiness as “a sustainable sense of wellbeing in day to day life.” What does it take to have the energy to continue doing what we want to do? How might grieving make us stronger and remind us of the essential brevity, pain, and wonder of life?
Regardless of our situation, we all deal with loss, and in our happy-centric contemporary media, I thought I’d take the opportunity to focus on the lesser-discussed, universal experience of pain, loss, and suffering by having a conversation on ways of coping with grief with Carole Pertofsky.
1. Allow yourself the time and space to grieve.
Be kind to yourself, too — giving in to a moment of weakness may be the ultimate sign of emotional strength and will fortify you in the long run. It may sound obvious. But it’s harder to put into practice than one might think.
“When we’re in grief, we can’t resist it,” Pertofsky says, “Grief calls to us. Grief is a natural human response to loss, and when grief is occurring, our tendency is to try to get out there and to get involved and that is a stage, but in the beginning, we have to go inside of ourselves.”
“For people in our culture that are highly achieving, we equate wellbeing with being in the drive zone,” she says. She’s referring to psychologist Paul Gilbert’s theory delineating three main zones of human motivation. The first, the red zone, is based on threat and adrenaline — it’s what happens when you perceive danger. The second, the blue zone, is about drive — setting off the internal rewards system of serotonin, dopamine, or even adrenaline, by accomplishing things, achieving things, and finding meaning in that. The third and final zone, the green zone, is the “self-soothing, relaxing, comforting parasympathetic.”
So, when people are grieving, Carole Pertofsky often hears them say that they “can’t function,” but she wants to question what that means — because if it means being filled with malaise, starting to do something and then losing interest while doing it, or turning inward, maybe that’s just the absence of being in the blue zone. When we place ourselves in the green zone and give ourselves time and space to self-soothe, and become patient and understanding when we are fragile, it gives us energy to heal and continue.
2. Turn to creation and expression.
For people who are grieving, there are often two dynamics: the first is to stay with experience, which is deeply internal and requires a lot of self-compassion, and from there, people sometimes move toward expression.
At a recent media conference I attended in Detroit, there were a series of workshops on grieving through dance. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the word “movement” can refer to physical, emotional, abstract, or even groups of people tied together by a message. Artists led us through workshops where we acknowledged the pain, trauma, and grief we held in our bodies through movement — and we discussed the fact that, in recent years, researchers are even coming to terms with how intergenerational trauma is carried through our bodies.
Pertofsky points to the fact that many of the world’s most brilliant works of art have come from grief, loss, and trauma: “Bill T. Jones, the choreographer, created the most amazing dance pieces. His romantic partner was also his dance partner, and when he tragically died of HIV, amazing pieces came out of his grief.”
Just this year, musicians have made headlines with albums that were born out of their sadness: Sufjan Stevens released an album based on the loss of his mother and her absence in his life called Carrie and Lowell. Bjork released her album, Vulnicura, on the loss of a marriage and heartbreak, after divorcing from her partner of many years. “When I lost my mom — at a certain point, it took a little while — I wrote a story,” says Pertofsky.
After the loss of my uncle, I turned to music as well as gardening, a pastime he had shared before becoming ill.
3. Grieve with others.
“One part of expression is creative, and the other part of it is giving a voice, people-to-people, and that’s where the support groups come in as beautiful community agents,” says Carole Pertofsky, who encourages those grieving to find community. “…People might think, ‘That would be even more depressing, why do we want to sit with other people who may have lost their children?’” However, there’s a period of time where nothing is more healing than to be with others who understand what it’s like to lose a beloved, or who have undergone unbelievably traumatic events.
“When people are grieving, it can be an isolating experience, but to get stuck there,” she says, “is to perpetuate a frozen quality about life. To seek and resonate with others, to attune to it, to work with it, to give it a name, to give it voice, to give it expression then frees the experience.”
Ultimately, grief is a long journey. Even this piece is, in some part, a way of honoring my uncle, and of acknowledging the inevitability of loss and how it can make us stronger.
Even a happiness expert like Pertofsky finds it “a bit of a mystery. We never truly get over loss, ever. But we can find different ways to honor it, and it’s like a weaving process. We can weave that loss into the beautiful fabric of our life…This happened, this tragic thing happened, this traumatic thing happened, but it’s a piece of the tapestry, not the whole tapestry.”
In the face of relentless buzz about positive psychology trends, grieving can be a time to let go of positivity, come together in all of life’s sorrow, and create beautiful work and movements out of our loss and struggle. It’s a time let those we lost become part of who we are and to continue moving with their stories carried within us.