Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘happiness is a choice’? Have you ever been told, in the midst of your grief that you can ‘choose to be happy’, as if it’s actually a choice we have, as if during our grief, we can suddenly flick a switch and just be happy. Such sentiments however well-meaning, oversimplify the nature and complexities of grief and underestimate just how powerful a force it is. Those of us that are grieving want to be happy. Desperately. We want to wake up and feel free from the crushing weight we’ve been under. We want to get through each day and not feel like hiding away from the rest of the world. We are not deliberately choosing to be sad. However, as much as we want to choose to be happy, sometimes we just can’t. Grief is heavy and raw and it can smother us. And working through it takes extraordinary time, effort and attention.
However, whilst choosing to be happy is not something we necessarily have control over, and whilst there are many other things in life that we cannot change, I do believe that there are certain choices that we can make throughout our grief journey that can mitigate our suffering and help us to heal more positively and more productively. Although the passing of time can blunt the edges of our grief, we cannot rely on time alone to manage our pain. Rather, it is the conscious choices we make during this time that will ultimately determine how quickly and how well we heal. Although these choices may not seem obvious, nor are they always easy to make, they do exist and by making them we can start to regain some control over our decision making and shape a more positive future for ourselves.
So often in life, situations and events take place that we have no control over. We can’t control what others say to us or how they behave towards us. We can’t change where or how we were brought up and we can’t, (as much as we may wish to,) change the past.
It’s common during grief to reminisce about what could have been done differently, what could have been said that wasn’t and to hypothesise about alternative outcomes. But we cannot go back in time and change what we said, what we did or how we reacted and to focus our mental energy on how it could have all played out differently is both futile and exhausting.
Neither can we predict the future. We can try to plan and shape the future we want for ourselves, but we don’t know with any degree of certainty that it’s definitely going to happen. The loss of our loved one with whom we planned our forever with, is surely testament to that. The simple truth is we don’t know what’s around the corner. All we have is the here and now.
But here’s the good news. The present does offer us a brilliant opportunity to reflect and learn from the past and use that knowledge to shape the choices we want to take now – choices that will empower us, choices that will help us regain a sense of control and enable us to navigate our grief with less pain and heartache. We can’t change what has happened to us, but we can consciously choose how we confront it.
Grief is one of the most painful experiences anyone can go through in life. The intense emotional anguish and physical trauma that many of us endure during our bereavement journeys can be excruciating.
However, whilst pain is an inevitable part of grief, how we choose to respond to it is not. The way in which we shape our own internal dialogue and the conversations we hold with ourselves whilst we grieve, are not predetermined. These are choices that lie entirely within our own hands. And sadly, more often than not, the stories that we tell ourselves, the meaning we place on things, our perspective and the words that we use, can add to our turmoil and suffering.
When we lose someone we love, we often lose ourselves. Our confidence is knocked. We have no idea who we are, where we are headed or how to make sense of the world. And a lot of the time we don’t recognise that we’re struggling because we are not tuned in to our bodies and what they need. We’re too busy trying to show the world that we’re coping. We keep writing to do lists and endeavouring to finish them. We continue trying to please everyone. We lose sleep, we don’t eat properly and we keep layering on our own unrealistic expectations about what we should be doing and achieving, whilst all the time refusing to stop, to ask for help, to admit that we aren’t coping. And it is this denial, this constant desire to prove that we are managing, to show everyone that we are mastering our grief, that can add to our pain and lead to greater suffering.
Instead, by developing our self-awareness, by learning to interpret what our bodies are telling us and by choosing to prioritise our wellbeing we can begin to take back some of our power, make healthier choices and mitigate our suffering. Facing these choices is not easy, in fact it can be very tempting to just maintain the status quo, to keep doing the things we have always done. It’s often more difficult to pause and reflect, to be open and honest with ourselves and question what it is we really want and need. Because change is hard. Choices are hard. They require us to act consciously and courageously, to face uncomfortable truths, to push ourselves beyond our comfort zone. It’s tiring, it’s challenging and it can feel overwhelming, but it is doable and the results can be so incredibly rewarding.
By putting our needs first and showing ourselves kindness rather than judgement, we can start to make better choices around how we respond to our grief. But what exactly are these choices? They are decisions we make around our personal narrative, our thought processes and the actions and behaviours we adopt.
We can learn to choose our words more carefully. By reframing our narrative we can speak more kindly to ourselves and avoid using words that will wear us down - phrases such as ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I’m failing’ and ‘I can’t do this’. We can learn to replace these phrases with kinder ones such as, ‘I may not know how to do this right now, but I can learn’. We can stop using words such as ‘never’ and ‘always’ that are unhelpful, because of their finality. How many times have we said to ourselves or others in the midst of our grief, ‘I’ll never be happy again’, ‘life will never be good again’, ‘I’m always going to be miserable’? Have we ever stopped to think about whether that’s true? Because if we did, we would realise that it’s not, not if we don’t want it to be. Our personal narratives hold so much power. They can shape how we think and influence so much of what we believe is possible and so in this way, can be either our best friend or our worst enemy. By learning to reframe negative self-talk, by choosing our words more wisely we can start to shift our thinking and avoid closing ourselves off from new possibilities.
We can choose our actions. Instead of burying our emotions and refusing to deal with them, we can choose to be brave and honest about how we’re feeling. We can make time to sit with our grief and to be curious about our emotions – to let them in, without shame or guilt. Rather than going through the motions of a life we are pretending to enjoy or one dictated by others, we can choose to live authentically and without fear. We can open up to others and lean on them for support, instead of pushing them away. We can consciously reshape our thinking and acknowledge that reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness and more an indication of enormous strength.
We can choose our behaviours. We can choose to treat ourselves with kindness and compassion. We can choose not to judge ourselves for the way we feel. We can choose to open ourselves up to love again, as conflicting and difficult as this may feel. We can actively remind ourselves that it would be more of a disservice to our loved one if we sat miserably berating ourselves, than if we were getting on and living our life to its fullest, whilst still honouring our person.
We can choose how we evaluate our progress. We can learn to reshape what success looks like and instead of focusing on what we have lost, or what we have been unable to achieve, we can choose to look back at our journey and be proud of how far we have come, the battles we have fought along the way and the transformations we have made.
We can choose where to draw our boundaries. Instead of spending time with people who drain us, who don’t nourish us or give anything back to us, we can choose to keep company with those who support us, fill us up and nurture us. We can choose to avoid toxic environments and instead spend our time doing things we enjoy with people who make us feel happy.
Grief is quite simply one of the hardest and most painful experiences any one of us can endure. For many of us who have experienced grief first-hand, who have been plunged (sometimes without warning) into a life of immense pain and sorrow - a life we didn’t ask for nor one we recognise - our world can feel chaotic and uncontrollable and we can feel robbed of possibilities and opportunities. However, whilst we don’t choose our grief, whilst it is imposed upon us, we do have choices within grief; the single most important being how we choose to respond to it. By developing self-awareness, and treating ourselves with the compassion we deserve, we can learn to make wiser and more constructive choices about our grief journey and in doing so build a more authentic and exciting future for ourselves.