“There is no getting over it, but only getting under it. Loss and grief change our landscape. The terrain is forever different and there is no normal to return to. There is only the inner task of making a new and accurate map”
In It’s OK That You’re Not OK, Megan Devine offers a profound new approach to both the experience of grief and the way we try to help others who have endured tragedy. Having experienced grief from both sides―as both a therapist and as a woman who witnessed the accidental drowning of her beloved partner―Megan writes with deep insight about the unspoken truths of loss, love, and healing. She debunks the culturally prescribed goal of returning to a normal, “happy” life, replacing it with a far healthier middle path, one that invites us to build a life alongside grief rather than seeking to overcome it.
Grief is tough, draining, and lonely as most people think they understand what you are going through; I have been there a couple of times, from losing my closest cousin, losing my mum, to getting laid off. We handle grief differently, but most grievers have something in common: you get judged, people make assumptions, they say hurtful things unintentionally, some relationships dissolve while others get stronger. Our culture does not prepare a lot of us to handle grief and care for people in grief.
“Grief is already a lonely experience. It rearranges your address book: people you thought would stay beside you through anything have either disappeared or they’ve behaved so badly, you cut them out yourself. Even those who truly love you, who want more than anything to stay beside you, fall short of joining you here. It can feel like you lost the entire world right along with the person who died. Many grieving people feel like they’re on another planet, or wish they could go to one. Somewhere there are others like them. People who understand.”
The book provides a path to rethink our relationship with grief. It encourages readers to see their grief as a natural response to death and loss, rather than an aberrant condition needing transformation. By shifting the focus from grief as a problem to be solved to an experience to be tended, we give the reader what we most want for ourselves: understanding, compassion, validation, and away through the pain.
“Grief is not a problem to be solved; it’s an experience to be carried. The work here is to find—and receive—support and comfort that helps you live with your reality. Companionship, not correction, is the way forward.”
Acknowledgment is one of the few things that actually helps. What you’re living can’t be fixed. It can’t be made better. There are no solutions. That means that our course of action inside grief is simple: helping you gauge what’s “normal” and finding ways to support your devastated heart.
Here are my favourite takeaways from reading, It’s OK That You’re Not OK by Megan Devine:
“Grief is a very personal experience and belongs entirely to the person experiencing it”
There is a twin paradox in being human. First, no one can live your life for you—no one can face what is yours to face or feel what is yours to feel—and no one can make it alone. Secondly, in living our one life, we are here to love and lose. No one knows why. It is just so. If we commit to loving, we will inevitably know loss and grief. If we try to avoid loss and grief, we will never truly love. Yet powerfully and mysteriously, knowing both love and loss is what brings us fully and deeply alive.
“There is no getting over it, but only getting under it. Loss and grief change our landscape. The terrain is forever different and there is no normal to return to. There is only the inner task of making a new and accurate map”\
Grief and loss happen to everyone. We’ve all felt misunderstood during times of great pain. We’ve also stood by, helpless, in the face of other people’s pain. We’ve all fumbled for words, knowing no words can ever make things right. No one can win: grieving people feel misunderstood, and friends and family feel helpless and stupid in the face of grief. We know we need help, but we don’t really know what to ask for. Trying to help, we actually make it worse for people going through the worst time in their lives. Our best intentions come out garbled.
“All of us are going to experience deep grief or loss at some point in our lives. All of us are going to know someone living great loss. Loss is a universal experience.”
The Fragility of Life:
We don’t talk about the fragility of life: how everything can be normal one moment, and completely changed the next. We have no words, no language, no capacity to face this, together or as individuals. Because we don’t talk about it, when we most need love and support, there’s nothing to be found. What is available falls far short of what we need.
The reality of grief is different from what others see or guess from the outside. Platitudes and pat explanations will not work here. There is not a reason for everything. Not every loss can be transformed into something useful. Things happen that do not have a silver lining.
“Grief support is kind of like the emperor’s new clothes of the relational world—those in pain know that what passes for support is truly nothing at all, while well-intentioned support people continue to spout off empty encouragement and worn-out platitudes, knowing in their hearts that those words don’t help at all. We all know this, and yet no one says anything.”
“Grief is visceral, not reasonable: the howling at the center of grief is raw and real. It is love in its most wild form.”
While there is no one perfect way to respond or to support someone you care about, here are some good ground rules
1. Grief belongs to the griever.
You have a supporting role, not the central role, in your friend’s grief. This may seem like a strange thing to say. So much of the advice, suggestions, and “help” given to grieving people tells them they should be doing this differently or feeling differently than they do. Grief is a very personal experience and belongs entirely to the person experiencing it. You may believe you would do things differently if it had happened to you. We hope you do not get the chance to find out. This grief belongs to your friend: follow their lead.
2. Stay present and state the truth.
It’s tempting to make statements about the past or the future when your friend’s present life holds so much pain. You cannot know what the future will be, for yourself or your friend—it may or may not be better “later.” That your friend’s life was good in the past is not a fair trade for the pain of now. Stay present with your friend, even when the present is full of pain.
“It’s also tempting to make generalized statements about the situation in an attempt to soothe your friend. You cannot know that your friend’s loved one “finished their work here,” or that they are in a “better place.” These future-based, omniscient, generalized platitudes aren’t helpful. Stick with the truth: This hurts. I love you. I’m here.
3. Do not try to fix the unfixable.
Your friend’s loss cannot be fixed or repaired or solved. The pain itself cannot be made better. Please see #2. Do not say anything that tries to fix the unfixable, and you will do just fine. It is an unfathomable relief to have a friend who does not try to take the pain away.
5. This is not about you.
Being with someone in pain is not easy. You will have things come up—stresses, questions, anger, fear, guilt. Your feelings will likely be hurt. You may feel ignored and unappreciated. Your friend cannot show up for their part of the relationship very well. Please don’t take it personally, and please don’t take it out on them. Please find your own people to lean on at this time—it’s important that you be supported while you support your friend. When in doubt, refer to #1.
6. Anticipate, don’t ask.
Do not say, “Call me if you need anything,” because your friend will not call. Not because they do not need, but because identifying a need, figuring out who might fill that need, and then making a phone call to ask is light years beyond their energy levels, capacity or interest. Instead, make concrete offers: “I will be there at 4:00 p.m. on Thursday to bring your recycling to the curb,” or “I will stop by each morning on my way to work and give the dog a quick walk.” Be reliable.
7. Do the recurring things.
The actual, heavy, real work of grieving is not something you can do (see #1), but you can lessen the burden of “normal” life requirements for your friend. Are there recurring tasks or chores that you might do? Things like walking the dog, refilling prescriptions, shoveling snow, and bringing in the mail are all good choices. Support your friend in small, ordinary ways—these things are tangible evidence of love.
“Please try not to do anything that is irreversible—like doing laundry or cleaning up the house—unless you check with your friend first. That empty soda bottle beside the couch may look like trash, but may have been left there by their husband just the other day. The dirty laundry may be the last thing that smells like her. Do you see where I’m going here? Tiny little normal things become precious. Ask first.”
8. Tackle projects together.
Depending on the circumstance, there may be difficult tasks that need tending—things like casket shopping, mortuary visits, the packing and sorting of rooms or houses. Offer your assistance and follow through with your offers. Follow your friend’s lead in these tasks. Your presence alongside them is powerful and important; words are often unnecessary. Remember #4: bear witness and be there.
“Grief changes you. Who you become remains to be seen. You do not need to leave your grief behind in order to live a newly beautiful life. It’s part of you. Our aim is integration, not obliteration.”
9. Run interference.
To the new griever, the influx of people who want to show their support can be seriously overwhelming. What is an intensely personal and private time can begin to feel like living in a fish bowl. There might be ways you can shield and shelter your friend by setting yourself up as the designated point person—the one who relays information to the outside world, or organizes well-wishers. Gatekeepers are really helpful.
10. Educate and advocate.
You may find that other friends, family members, and casual acquaintances ask for information about your friend. You can, in this capacity, be a great educator, albeit subtly. You can normalize grief with responses like, “She has better moments and worse moments and will for quite some time. An intense loss changes every detail of your life.” If someone asks you about your friend a little further down the road, you might say things like, “Grief never really stops. It is something you carry with you in different ways.”
“Grief never really stops. It is something you carry with you in different ways.”
Above all, show your love. Show up. Say something. Do something. Be willing to stand beside the gaping hole that has opened in your friend’s life, without flinching or turning away. Be willing to not have any answers. Listen. Be there. Be present. Be a friend. Be love. Love is the thing that lasts.
“Life is call-and-response. Things happen, and we absorb and adapt. We respond to what we experience, and that is neither good nor bad. It simply is. The path forward is integration, not betterment.”
Loss of Friendships
Your loss intersects with often hidden or especially painful heartbreak in the people around you. Your pain bumps up against their pain. We may not call it that directly, but that’s often what’s happening when people behave poorly or fail to understand the immensity of your loss. And even when your friends want to support you, we don’t often have the skills—no matter how skilled we truly are—to witness and withstand another’s pain. Feeling helpless in the face of loss makes people do strange things.
“No matter what the deeper reasons are, the loss of friends you thought would stand by you through thick and thin is an added heartbreak. The injustice of these second losses makes grief itself that much more difficult.”
All the best in your quest to get better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.