Grief as a Springboard for Joy

angel art black and white clouds
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There are many kinds of loss I have experienced throughout my life, but death has been the hardest by far. The finality of it stops me in my tracks, makes me suck in my breath to see if I still can. The pain in my chest is visceral, like a stab wound that won’t heal. Yet it’s also the one thing we are all certain to experience—losing loved ones to other side and one day taking that leap ourselves. Lately death’s shadow has hung over me like a thunderstorm with an endless supply of rain and I have had to rely on my training in positive psychology to find hope. In the midst of my despair, I have fallen back on some things that I know to be true. I will share them with you in the hope that they might help you climb out of a similar hole or reach out to someone who needs a little nudge back toward joy.

  1. Savor every moment you can. We’ve all heard from our elders that we should take time to enjoy the little things, but how many of us actually do? Savoring is placing your attention on something that brings you joy and consciously keeping it there. A warm cup of coffee, a dance outside in the rain, a shared joke, a quiet moment with your pet, an extra few minutes snuggling with your significant other. These are the moments we remember most when we’ve run out of time to enjoy them again.
  2. We can’t control everything, so focus on the things you can control. Life happens and it’s not always rainbows and sunshine. Little inconveniences and big worries often are beyond our realm of influence, so take the negative things in stride. Don’t try to shoulder them alone; we are social creatures by nature and should rely on each other when things go wrong. Make sure you are building healthy relationships that will help to provide you with a safe place to fall. Work on your communication skills and share your thoughts and feelings with someone you trust. Recognize if your mind slips into victim mentality by having too many “woe is me” moments; work actively to replace negative thoughts with positive ones and look for opportunities to grow. Put your effort into something constructive, whether it’s working toward a goal, training your body physically, or helping someone else.
  3. Bring joy to others when you are feeling the loneliest. There is something healing about giving when you are down. It may seem like you have nothing to give, but my mom once said to me “we must give of the substance of ourselves if we are to make a difference in the world”, and those words have never failed me. My husband embodies this attitude every day and there is nothing like the smile on his face after he has helped another person. So next time you are feeling low, reach out and extend a hand to someone else. In helping them, you may just help yourself.
  4. Remember that grief is a process, so allow it to work for you—don’t fight it or you will only delay your own growth. No matter how hard we try, we can’t win the race against loss, but we can turn our grief into a journey of self-discovery. At the moments when I feel my heart breaking, I imagine it growing even bigger, allowing myself to become a legacy for all those I have lost. I want nothing more than to make them proud and I know they would want me to move through this pain to find out what’s on the other side.
  5. Find words that inspire you and repeat them to yourself. Repeated thoughts or mantras can impact our neuronal connections, so we want to make sure they’re positive ones! One phrase I have been reminded of is from the movie “Secondhand Lions” when one of the wacky uncles tells the nephew: “True love never dies.” It’s an age-old adage, but at the core of my being, I believe it to be true. I cannot tell you what the other side looks like, if there are pearly gates or a rainbow bridge, but I do know that matter is neither created nor destroyed completely. I do know that there is something else, even if I can’t explain what that is. When I sit in silence with my tears, wishing that I had just one more moment with my loved one, I suddenly feel that I am no longer alone. Love lives on, even if it feels further away for a little while. 

    As my loved ones watch over me, they will no doubt see me shed some tears, but they deserve to see me smile. They would want me to move forward with joy, celebrating this beautiful world we live in, sharing laughter and focusing on making a difference. Through helping others, I can honor their memories, spread kindness, and heal myself in the process. And though I know that grief is a process and will contain difficult moments, I am determined to allow it to change me. If I have to endure the pain of loss, I would rather do it as a springboard into joy, savoring every bit of life I can muster and using their love as a guide. In this way, I not only believe that “true love never dies”, but I become the message, so that when it is my time, I might inspire someone else to do the same in my memory.

    ~M.L.

    Additional Resources for Positive Psychology:

    University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center: https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu/

    Authentic Happiness Website: https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/

    Positive Psychology Program: What Is Positive Psychology & Why Is It Important? https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/what-is-positive-psychology-definition/

     

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Creativity Can Make the Darkness Conscious

Close Up Of Woman's Face Covered In Dripping Paint

Most people who know me would describe me as a smiling optimist, but the people who know me really well also know that I am deeply creative. Quite frankly, being creative (and by default sensitive) in this world is difficult. For creative people like me, there is adventure around every corner—a story dancing in the leaf that floats to the ground, a character hiding behind the sunglasses across the room, a poem peaking out from behind a great tune. We see possibility in everything—and we also feel the pain of a thousand pin pricks when someone around us is suffering. Emotion and empathy are two of our greatest allies, but at times can be our undoing. Perhaps you can relate—sympathize, empathize—however you want to put it.

As if sensing my dual nature of bleeding heart in the armor of positivity, a student recently asked me: So how does a person who teaches positive psychology write horror stories? I had to think about it for while before answering. It’s a good question and requires a complicated answer. But then, I am a complicated person.

For starters, many people assume that I am naturally optimistic.  On the contrary, my emotional nature has pushed me to find effective ways to cope; I have found much of what I need in positive psychology—optimism with a healthy does of realistic thinking. Focusing on the positive takes work. Most of the healthiest people I know view optimism as a process that involves the development of skills—it’s not something that we are born knowing how to do. It’s not easy, but it becomes easier with time and dedication.

It is true that much of my day job focuses on optimism and possibility, whether I am teaching a psych or a composition class. But writing is a different animal. Developing characters who see the world through rose-colored glasses (even if the view is healthy) is not that entertaining (and not that realistic if I’m being honest). In my own life, the “teachable moments” for my spirit are those that involve challenge and difficulty. I wish it was easier, but that’s the truth I have found about myself. Perhaps it is not so for everyone, but there are many out there who can relate. It may be anecdotal evidence, but teaching thousands of people from diverse backgrounds over the last decade has shown me that this is the case.

Thinking about it from the perspective of psychology, Jung suggested that every human being has a shadow element to his/her personality—a dark side. In Aion: Phenomenology of the Self, he wrote: “The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality… to become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real” (Jung 145). I have shadows just like everyone else, and while I have learned to use optimism as a steering wheel for a healthy life, it doesn’t magically slay the dragons that hide in the darkness. Sometimes you have to lure them out cleverly.

Creativity is one way to explore the shadow aspect of the self in a safe way, allowing it room to breathe but also giving it boundaries—like a figure trapped within a painting. I am careful to try to humanize even the most haunting characters in my stories; there are reasons that they have evil motives (though of course these are not justifications for their actions). Similarly, there are reasons for the dragons that hide within me—they have been fed by betrayal, heartbreak, loneliness, and self-doubt. In order to slay them, I have to recognize them and call them out first. Sometimes they take on the faces of my characters and allow me to do this—symbolically, anyway.

Additionally, creating characters that have darker motives allows me to explore what it might be like to walk in someone else’s shoes (even if I don’t like the choices they make or the way they think). When thinking about painful experiences in my own life, I try to remember that there is more than one side of the story—mine is not the only one that matters. And if we are to have a hero or heroine, we must have a villain, whether that is another person or just another facet of the main character. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies.

Perhaps this long answer was more than my student was looking for, but articulating it helped me to make peace with some of my darker characters and the role they play in my war against the shadow. As Jung said: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” As a creative person who values the road to enlightenment, engaging in artistic endeavors is not a choice—it is essential to my psychological and emotional health. And, it gives me an occasion to suit up and play the role of badass, if only in my imagination. In short, creative outlets provide opportunities to recognize the many facets of self, and if we’re lucky, the darkness we find will only help us to define the light.

Success isn’t truly realized until you’ve helped others.

reaching back

You never know who you might inspire by sharing your story, but don’t underestimate the power of letting others know their story inspired you.

Today is my 41st birthday and I had an unexpected gift this morning. While talking with two of my colleagues at the college about hosting a seminar to help women connect, I was expressing how I feel that women often lose those close friendships they had as girls as they grow older. If we’re lucky, we can count on one hand the number of close female friends we have as adults. With our various experiences, just think of all of the things we could learn from each other and how we could inspire one another. One of my colleagues turned to me and said I probably didn’t realize it, but several years ago I had done just that for her.

As a teacher and administrator at the college, speaking at new student orientations and graduation celebrations is part of my job. I am just one of many professionals who share their stories of challenges, sometimes failures, and ultimately successes at such events. But that day, my now dear friend was sitting in the audience; we’d both been young moms, struggled to make ends meet, and found ourselves juggling kids, work, and school at the same time. Our stories were not identical, but she said she could relate to my journey in a very personal way, and could envision herself following a similar path to academic success. If I could do it, so could she! She offered this feedback to me today: There are those who succeed and never look back; there are those who succeed and reach back to pull others up. I strive every day to be the latter of those, and knowing that I inspired her years ago by simply sharing my story has filled me with gratitude.

But that’s only one side of the story. You see, this dear friend of mine has a profound effect on others every day, too. Whether it’s her warm smile that greats you on the fifth floor or her heart-felt laughter that fills the halls, she is a walking, talking inspiration. You may find yourself in deep conversation with her, when all you were asking for was a stapler… but she knows better. She can tell when a person needs to talk, or maybe just needs to listen; this type of intuition can’t be taught, but it can be honed with education. She knew this, so she didn’t just sit with that inspirational feeling several years ago; she put things into action. Today, she has already earned one degree and is well on her way to earning her second. She is also one who has succeeded, and always reaches back to pull others up.

Today’s gift was a reminder that when we live from a place of service, we may not always know when our thoughts, actions, or stories impact others. For every “thank you” expressed, there may be 100 more lives we’ve touched that we may never know about. There is an old adage about success that says “it’s lonely at the top”, but it’s only lonely if we neglect opportunities to help others.

Finding Light in the Shadows

Rock House, Hocking Hills, OH

“We encounter the power of our soul, very often, in extreme circumstances. It’s always in the extreme that we experience something like a miracle.”          ~ Caroline Myss

For those of us who have been through a dark night of the soul, we find kinship in others who have met this painful rebirth. Whether your pain stems from losing a relationship, battling addiction, or the death of a loved one, you can be certain you are not alone in facing this road. The truth is that it is a hallmark of human experience, and those who fully emerge from this journey do so as wiser, more loving people.

While in the midst of a transformational experience like a dark night of the soul, there is no escaping its shadow; it can invade every aspect of our lives, from the office or classroom, to our children’s bedrooms as we tuck them in, to the quietest corners of our hearts. It is during this time that many find strength and comfort in spirituality and the company of loved ones. We search for hope in the mundane and connection despite the pain.

Though this type of journey is never one we wish for, there is little that compares to its power of transformation. Living in the shadows and learning to find your way out of them changes you. You question your past, your reality, your life purpose. You discover parts of yourself you underestimated, or didn’t even know. As many of today’s gurus put it, you have the opportunity to be “cracked open”.

I have come to the realization that, in the years following a dark night of the soul, we may move beyond it but it never fully leaves us. There may always be experiences that trigger that pain, and move us unsettlingly into the darkness we knew, even just for a moment. But what also lingers is knowing how to find our way back to the light, and this is knowledge we can only develop first-hand. Having our vision enshrouded in the illusion of shadow, being “cracked open” by our own personal pain, leads us to begin the journey toward the self. And we learn that we are much stronger, more beautiful, and more capable of love than we ever thought we were.

You are invited to share your experiences with a “dark night of the soul” here. How were you “cracked open”?