A Grief Mindset: 6 Beliefs That Make Managing Loss A Bit Easier
I grew up in a secular household. The Bible sat on the shelf, but no one really read it. My father was raised Catholic (“in Catholic school as vicious as Roman rule”) and chose not to raise me and my two brothers as such. My mother’s father was Catholic, but he chose the same for her. It wasn’t until two years before she died that she decided to invest formally in the faith and be baptized and confirmed.
When she died, I started my search for Truth in a way that I never had before. What I realized is that, just as religion shapes the mind of a believer, what a person takes for truth in a secular society or family is a product of secularism itself. Individuals that abide by the “flesh and bones” belief often have trouble reconciling mortality. Because it would seem to point (whether for our mind’s survival and comfort or for Truth itself) that there is something more out there.
We all have an innate human desire to understand what this experience means. What is life for? What shapes our experiences? Is there life after death? There is no greater time to try and answer these questions than when faced with deep grief.
As a part of my wide search, I’ve studied the traditions of cultures, religions, and even scientists when it comes to understanding death and our experience of loss. I know now, for example, that my experience is much different from an astute follower of the Bahá’í Faith who grew up hearing the quote:
“I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve?”
It’s also different than a person who follows the Jewish Faith, which mandates particular grieving practices and timelines for “re-entry” into society after a major familial loss.
Because I was not raised immersed in such a belief system, I have taken it upon myself to create my own, a set of beliefs that comprise what I call a “grief mindset.” I’m not sure these beliefs are capital-T true, but they have seemed to help me get through the dark, stormy days.
To me, that’s what matters. It matters that I can continue living on in the shadows of my losses, and to integrate and activate my grief in powerful ways. In this way, the pillars of this belief system are similar to what it takes to overcome any adversity and succeed because of it.
Below you’ll find a sampling of some of the most impactful beliefs I’ve built. I hope they help.
You can do anything you set your mind to.
- Could you become the President of the United States if you wanted to?
- Could you become a world-famous actor or actress?
- Could you become a better parent, child, friend, or data analyst?
- Can you be a better person through grief than you were before?
These are some of the many questions that plagued a budding psychology student named Carol Dweck. She has dedicated her entire professional life to answering them.
And through her research, the simple answer to any of these questions has surfaced:
You can quite literally change anything and everything about yourself. You can do and become anything you ever wanted. You are in complete control of your outcomes.
You can overcome any obstacle, including grief.
All that’s required is a deep belief in yourself and to match that belief with corresponding effort and strategies. Dweck calls this having a “Growth Mindset.”
Under this theory, inborn talent and natural inclination aren’t responsible for happiness, success, or genius; concerted focus and effort are. If someone else has done it, there’s nothing stopping you from doing it, too.
And so, when it comes to overcoming deep grief, suffering, and adversity, we can look to models of people who have gone before us, such as Abraham Lincoln.
Or a modern-day presidential example such as Joe Biden — whose wife and daughter were killed in a car accident when he was 29. And whose son, Beau, recently died of cancer at the age of 46.
How can that man even get out of bed in the morning? It starts with a belief in something far greater than yourself, one which connects you with the evolution and progress of the Universe. To say to yourself, when you are by yourself:
“I can make it another step, another moment, another day… and I will.”
It is this driving belief in self that allows you to start saying the things you need to say when faced with grief such as:
- I can become more vulnerable.
- I can begin asking for help.
- I can learn about my own neurology and psychology.
- My identity is not lost.
- I can succeed even with the pain.
- I can overcome any obstacle, including grief.
You control the meaning.
Nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” — William Shakespeare
This is a simple truth when you apply it to getting yelled at by your boss or cut off in traffic. While annoying, these things are manageable. It’s easy to catch yourself and correct course.
But what about when your child is killed in a school shooting? What about when you lose your family house in a forest fire? What about when the most devastating thing you can imagine actually happens?
Although seemingly impossible to integrate, Shakespeare’s words are the gold standard. They are the bar by which we measure our progression towards okayness. We won’t believe them all the time. In fact, you may outright disagree with his idea at this moment (I don’t blame you).
But as we move closer, we realize the Ying and Yang of Eastern Philosophy is true, too. There’s good in the bad and bad in the good. We are archaeologists digging for the silver lining in all of it. That is the path we must take now.
Every tragedy paves a road to something better. Success can come of every adversity. Smiles are often born from sadness. Or as the author, Robert Greene, might say: “you can turn shit into sugar.”
This isn’t all just platitude. The aim here is always practicality — what pushes you to move forth. And I know if you can figure out how to believe this, that you control the meaning, that you will be better for it.
You are responsible for your experience of reality.
Once you accept life for what it is, you realize that more of your life is in your hands than you knew before.
It isn’t what happens, it’s how we respond to what happens that determines the course of your life.
Again, life is not good or bad. It’s not black or white. It’s some sort of moderate grayness. And your job, on this planet, is to make the best fucking monochromatic masterpiece possible out of that moderate grayness.
So, the only question is: what are you going to do with yours?
In your grief, no one is coming to save you. No one is going to process your pain for you. You have to do that. You have to find a way to move through, harness, and activate it. You have to find a way to survive and thrive again.
It isn’t your therapist’s job. It isn’t your friend’s job. It isn’t anyone’s but yours.
At first, most if not all of us, go into some period of numbness and then depression. The darkness is blinding and the hope for survival is low.
Your job at this time is to be honest with yourself. It’s to ask for help when you need it. It’s to seek the books, people, activities, support groups, psychologists, articles, and distractions that will help.
You may not be in control of human nature, the Universe, God, or the powers that be, but you are in control of you. And while that sucks sometimes (all the time) because you have to wake up, pay bills, suffer, and grieve, it’s awesome in the sense that you, yes you, get to decide what to do and who to be.
You decide what you make of your grief. You decide what this experience is. Make it a masterpiece.
Death is a friend, not a foe.
The phrase “Memento Mori” — remember that you will die — has resurfaced and gained a lot of traction in secular circles recently (thanks be to Ryan Holiday). But what does that really mean? What does it mean to remember? And why on earth would we want to focus on something so, well, depressing?
Losing someone you love presents a unique opportunity to make friends with death. The person you love is now on the other side, whatever that means to you.
I held my mom’s hand as she took her last breath. Her breath had been labored for about an hour, every inhale and exhale made my stomach drop. I was waiting nervously for eternal silence, for her body to finally be devoid of life. And when the last exhale escaped her mouth, I didn’t second guess. I knew in an instant and let go of her hand immediately. I looked up at my dad and said, “It’s done.”
That was one of the most beautiful moments of my entire life. The reversal of the process that brought her into this world, she was gasping for air, and then suddenly free.
Your birth was a massive trauma like your death is sure to be. You had to squeeze that big head of yours through a birth canal, or perhaps you were pulled out of your mother's womb via an incision. Even if everything went according to nature’s plan, it was still traumatic beyond belief. It was traumatic for your mother, too. You were thrust into a new world with bright lights and loud noises. She was thrust into a new world with you.
Death is a form of birth. A birth of what is to come. And when you make friends with death, see it as a form of birth, it’s less scary. You came into life okay; you’ll go out okay, too.
And now that you know you will be okay, now that you are focused on the finite nature of life, as Tom Bilyeu might say:
“how you spend your time is a spiritual consideration.”
Your vulnerability is your strength.
You are this person at the office. And you’re that person at home watching Netflix. You are this person at a bar with your college friends. And that person in your place of worship. This. That. This. That.
Compounded over time, this shape-shifting — or posturing — really screws us up. Big time. Because we are always lying, hiding, or omitting something. We feel like imposters in our own bodies. In the worst cases, this behavior leads to debilitating anxiety and depression. Even suicide.
If you see the world as I do, then your gut tells you this is the wrong way to live life. We aren’t supposed to be in pain all of the time.
So why are we doing this? Why are we accepting this behavior in ourselves and each other?
Because the opposite reality — in which we are authentically ourselves — is equally terrifying. It requires diving into the edges of our discomfort and jumping into the pools of uncertainty.
We must be, wait for it… VULNERABLE.
We must do and say things that reveal what’s going on behind our posturing.
By sharing our hopes, dreams, fears, and insecurities. By telling our darkest stories. By saying what makes us feel like we are naked. By doing things that make us feel stupid. By engaging more with what Ph.D. Michael Gervais calls the “third tier” of conversation, in which we share uncomfortable, hard to communicate ideas using personal experiences.
This means owning your experience of grief. We have this compulsion to lie all the time and make others believe that we are “okay” or “fine.” We rarely if ever share in the dark truths of what it is to experience deep grief. But it’s ugly, confusing, and messy out here. That’s okay. What isn’t okay is lying to ourselves and others. The resistance of what is true simply makes things more difficult.
I graduated from college, my mom died, I found out that my dad was cheating, and I came out as gay all in the same summer. Combined, those experiences hardened me to the core at first. I became a wall built of bricks. With so much heartbreak on my side, no one could touch me.
It took me a long time to realize that this hardening, which was a great survival strategy at first, was actually harming me. By refusing to feel the grief, the loss, the pain — I was actually inhibiting my ability to move forward (not “on”).
The author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote an incredible book titled Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. His claim is that as human beings we should not try to be unbreakable. Instead, we should try to be antifragile. Which means, not that we refuse to break, but that when we do break we find ways to become much stronger at the broken places.
If there’s a goal in grief, I imagine that it’s to become better than we were before.
To use our pain to aid the suffering of others.
To build an extra layer of compassion.
To decide to use our lives wisely.
To use our new understanding of life and human nature to hack the system.
To carve a different and more beautiful path.
I see no other reason for this particular kind of human suffering.
And so, whether you are religious, atheist, agnostic, or just confused, I know there is something in this grief for you. It’s your job to find it and to design a belief system to activate it. That I know for sure.
In Pain In Search For Power?
I’ve created a 5-step guide to help turn your suffering into your superpower, your pain into power and purpose.
You can download that here.