Really excited for the launch of ambiguousgrief.com. In collaboration with my research partner, Dr. Sophia Caudle, this site features everything Ambiguous Grief (AG):
🌱the AG Process Model 🌱the AG survey and (interesting) survey findings 🌱an Assessment Tool- to help determine if you are experiencing AG 🌱links to helpful articles and meaningful personal stories.
It’s my hope that this website will serve both patients and clinicians alike, and help them to recognize and name this grief. Doing so is the start of a positive pathway to healing, and I know it’s important.
The capacity to recover quickly from difficulty is known as resilience, and we hear a lot about it today. Or at least, those of seeking to understand grief and healing do! It’s a cornerstone block in the building of life, and has proven to me, to be a valuable tool that I’ll strive to keep sharpened. Undoubtedly, we will all face adversity in life. But, I’ve recently learned, it’s our ability to find and hone our resilience that determines how we get through that adversity and come out the other side. Or not.
As I came out of the shock phase of my discovery, (which was many months after D-Day), I began looking for tools to feel better. Showering and meditation helped, but only momentarily. I needed more sustained reprieves from my grief. It was about that time, two friends sent me the then new book, OptionB by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. It’s a beautiful, candid story about love and loss, hope and healing. In it, the authors speak of the importance of resilience. Working on it daily, building it like a muscle, they said, was key.
“I thought resilience was the capacity to endure pain, so I asked Adam how I could figure out how much I had. He explained that our amount of resilience isn’t fixed, so I should be asking instead how I could become resilient. Resilience is the strength and speed of our response to adversity—and we can build it. It isn’t about having a backbone. It’s about strengthening the muscles around our backbone.”
– Sheryl Sandberg
I devoured the book, reading it like a text book, complete with notes and margins and plenty of highlighting. Ok, I get it. I need to get resilient, and fast.
Thankfully, the authors offer suggestions that I immediately instated into my daily practice. It was one in particular, that made a huge difference for me:
At bedtime, write down 3 things you did well that day.
For me, this started out teeny tiny, I struggled to identify 3, and my list looked like this:
“Got out of bed”, “Brushed my teeth”, “Packed school lunches”.
But I stuck with it, and night after night, I noticed the list was growing. I had 5 things, then 7, then 10 things that I could list that I didn’t just DO, but DID WELL. A year after beginning this practice, I saw just how far I had come.
“Ran 3 miles”, “Folded and PUT AWAY 3 loads of laundry”, “Booked flight for family trip”.
I wasn’t just taking baby steps back into reality, I was now living in the moment and able to dream (albeit just a little) about my future.
This exercise provided me with a way to build my resilience muscle. All in a 1-minute mental exercise, laying in my pajamas. (If only my abs could be built that way!)
Over time, it’s precisely that resilience that teaches us so much about who we are. It shows us our capacity to love, our determination to heal, and the inspiring human ability to find joy after heartbreak.
If you would have asked me about my own resilience 3 years ago, I would have shrugged not knowing.
Today, I own it, embrace it, and celebrate it. I have worked so hard to learn about my particular kind of grief and take control of my healing. Along the way, I’ve met my own resilience, an unexpected part of me that I’m so glad I’ve gotten to know.
There are moments that strike where my body shifts, and my mind trips into a space I dread. In these moments, which materialize from any number of unrelated happenings, I find myself facing a most burdensome emotion: Shame.
It consumes my body. It feels hot and sweaty. It prickles my skin and stabs into my gut. It sits on my shoulders, a heavy, uncomfortable load. It is nearly unbearable, and I scan my space for relief. But nothing helps, and let me tell you, I’ve tried a lot!
Not chocolate (drats!), not wine.
Not loud music, or a fast run.
Not punching pillows, or screaming under the covers.
Those things help relieve stress, but for me, they do nothing for shame. I see Shame as that unwanted part of myself that I can’t escape. It’s a remembrance of what I’ve done, or not done, or who I am, or who I’ve become. It’s an ugly mirror I’d rather never see. Thankfully, I understand that I’m not alone in this and that shame is universal.
Brene Brown, the beloved storyteller and researcher who studies shame says, “ I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
We’ve learned from Dr. Brown’s research, that shame cannot survive empathy. If we’re vulnerable with our shame, and share it, speak of it, and not hide from it, then we open ourselves to the opportunity to connect with others. In doing so, we then invite a space for those understanding our shame, to offer us empathy. In that beautiful gift the shame begins to evaporate. It becomes less burdensome. I suspect this is because we have just authentically connected with another, and not subsequently rejected for doing so.
In my journey through ambiguous grief, it’s been an important learning for me to identify shame. As an empath, being able to understand and feel another person’s pain or insecurity, it’s especially important that I learned early to identify my shame versus the shame of others.
When I accidentally discovered that my marriage wasn’t what I thought it was, and that my then-husband wasn’t the person I knew him to be, Shame settled in and became an unwanted house guest. (Not unlike Shame’s first cousin Grief, whom I write about often).
What took me time to unravel though, was that the shame I was experiencing wasn’t mine. That heavy feeling didn’t come from who I was or wasn’t. What I had done, or hadn’t. It was coming from me feeling pain for the person I had loved so deeply. Pain for the shame he must be carrying. And not only because of WHAT had happened, but because I understand that there is a deeper, underlying shame that drove those choices.
In looking to connect with others in my position, I was disappointed to find that many (most?) women weren’t talking about betrayal trauma. I asked professionals about why this was and was met, time and again with the same answer: “They feel ashamed.”
This struck me.
I was naive, to the experience of trauma and to the power of shame, so I wondered:
Why would a VICTIM of someone else’s abuse be quiet about their experience when THEY weren’t responsible for it?
I was told by one betrayal professional, “your beef is well-taken…but women aren’t speaking out because they feel ashamed…even though they didn’t cause the trauma, they are associated with the other person’s actions, which is often embarrassing ”.
So if victims aren’t talking about it, what happens?
Shame, when not exposed to empathy will grow. Even if the person knows it wasn’t their fault, and they didn’t cause the events to happen. Deeply embedded shame digs in and roots itself. Unattended, it festers and moves untamed until, I believe, one’s own soul becomes covered in the tangled mess that has grown. Without connection to our soul, how are we connecting to the divine within us? How do we connect with our higher power? How do we tune in to our own GPS? With shame so thick, it makes sense that researchers believe it drives our egos, and hijacks our being.
So, what to do with this feisty beast?
For me, when that prickle arises and I know Shame is coming, I pause. Like an early warning alarm notifying a town of imminent dangerous weather, I heed the warning and begin to prepare. I’ve created my own little warning system protocol, too. Here it is:
I stop what I’m doing. I sit and I breathe. I scan my body for the space the shame is developing. Then I ask the most important question I can in that moment:
“Is this my shame?”
I sit some more.
Within moments, I have my answer.
Most often, the answer is no.
No, this is not my shame.
I push out a long exhale, shake out my limbs and let it pass through until it’s gone.
(Which doesn’t take long).
I remember it as an ACRONYM:
STOP – get quiet and pause
HONE – tune in to find the trigger
ASSESS – scan your body and focus on the feeling
MEET IT – look directly at it and repeat the question “is this my shame?”
EXHALE – armed with your understanding, breathe that shame-energy right out of your body.
Identifying and being able to separate my own shame of things from the shame I feel over the actions of others, has saved me uncounted hours of grief.
When I identify that the shame I’m feeling is my own, I give gratitude for Dr. Brown’s work, and know the remedy lies in vulnerability and empathy. So, I take her prescription and share my shame with a trusted loved one, mentor, or my therapist. It’s amazing what the simple acknowledgement of shame can do for it’s healing.
Time and again, the simple act of identifying and understanding the source of shame and to whom it belongs, has helped me. I believe it has kept that gnarly entangled overgrowth from finding a home within me.
Shame from being abused is a heavy load to haul. Abuse, be it physical, emotional, or sexual, takes a toll on the human condition. We know that as survivors deal with trauma of the experience, they often find themselves questioning their role:
“Did I cause this?”
“What is my part in this?”
“It’s my fault.”
But if we can help victims, and those healing trauma look at the situation and understand Shame, it might help. I know it has helped me. My ambiguous grief is healing for many reasons, but not being a victim to Shame is tippy top among them.
While I do not wish Shame on anyone, I do wish everyone the ability to distinguish their shame. In doing so, perhaps we can work to extinguish it, and in the process begin to heal our hearts.
When my kids were toddlers and learning to talk, I used to tell them to “use your words” when they wanted to express something. Though those years are now long behind us, I recently found myself encouraging one to “use your words”, when a frustrating situation was spinning in the wrong direction. Then, I heard myself give the same advice today, this time to strangers asking my advice on how to cope with ambiguous grief.
As it turns out, ambiguous grief impacts a lot of people.
Two years ago, I surely didn’t.
In fact, I didn’t even know it existed.
But not anymore.
Now, I know it well, and I am honored to hear from others who are finding themselves seeking to understand their “different” grief, too. Just today alone I was contacted by three people who heard of my story and writings on “AG”, and wanted to connect. They too, were looking for is an understanding of what they were experiencing, and finding that few (if anyone) in their circles seemed to understand, much less feel comfortable wanting to listen and discuss.
Their stories were varied, but all held the commonality of heart-aching loss and deep grief over losing a loved one, but not to death. One to the diagnosis of addiction, one to an unwanted divorce, and another to the discovery of deep intimate betrayal. Though each “entered” into ambiguous grief from a different starting point, all were working to reframe (if possible) their relationships with their living loved one.
When asked what tools help me the most, I always talk about writing. Which can take many forms: journaling, blogging, scratches on paper, or typing notes on your phone.
So, today I suggested they each try writing out their stories so as to seek to find words to express their pain. But none of them thought they could.
“No, It’s too late, I should have started when this first happened.”
“I wouldn’t know where to start, it’s so painful and I’m not a writer.”
“I don’t know if I even have the words to describe this.”
While I understand that not everyone enjoys writing, or believes they are capable (they are!), I invited them to consider doing so for a few reasons:
1) It helps one articulate and process difficult emotions and experiences
3) I reminded them that this isn’t a submission for a Pulitzer Prize – it’s writing FOR THEM! It’s available for public consumption only if they so choose.
I assured them that their story could be theirs and theirs alone. Or when ready, maybe shared with a friend or two, so that they can better understand the experience. Or perhaps they may feel brave enough to share it with their networks on social media, or submit it for publishing in hopes that it may resonate and be of service to someone in need. But for now, just.start.writing.
Recently, a friend wrote about, and bravely publicly shared a candid account of a difficult day. As her mother transitions into residential care for Alzheimer’s Disease, their roles are shifting and the relationship taking a new form. Her story is a beautiful testament to the power of love and the willingness to face, and not run from, ambiguous grief. I invite you to read it and share it, too. We never know who our stories will inspire.
Then, I hope you’ll consider writing your own story. My hope is that the more we share our truths – the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the hideous piles of pain – the more we will be able to heal, see our shared humanity in one another, and help feel well-able to move through the difficult days when they arise.
So pick up a pen, or plunk on your laptop – whatever modality helps you “write”.
Start by writing just for you, without the pressure of sharing it. Don’t worry about structure or punctuation, just do what my kiddos would do, and