The title was click bait (I’m sorry). I don’t have an ultimate guide for surviving loss. Loss is highly individual and varied, and therefore, I think it would be completely disingenuous to claim I have the one-size-fits-all solution for you.
So, the bad news is: no one has a catch-all guide. The good news, on the other hand, is: I have my own guide, a guide I want to share with you, with the caveat that it may not work for you.
Now before you read this guide, you need this 10-step guide for reading the guide (yes, I realize how ridiculous that is):
- I’m defining “loss” in a broad scope, not merely as it relates to death. Loss, to me, is heartbreak of all forms. The athlete that has her life long dream torn (literally) by her ACL. The young man who’s family doesn’t accept that he’s gay. The victims of sexual abuse who have lost some feeling of safety and security as a result. The high school and college graduates that suddenly feel a sense of disconnectedness from the universe. In addition to everything you normally think about when you hear the word “loss.”
- If loss is the instant something’s disappeared, grief is the process we go through to move forward. There’s this conception that grieving only extends to people who have lost someone to death. I don’t think that’s true. I think we all go through grief all the time and that it applies to every loss (small and large). I use these two words interchangeably throughout. Don’t be alarmed by this. It’s okay to grieve — expectations, careers, dreams, memories, things, and people.
- All loss and grief are dealt with in some manner. You’re either doing it or not doing it. I submit that we should all do it. We should do our best to process the sh*t out of our grief. Because loss, grief, and all the residual pain that tags along — these things are nondiscriminatory. To decide not to process these things would be choosing to marry a life of unresolved pain.
- There is a goal in grief. It’s to become better than you were before. It’s called Post Traumatic Growth. Grief is the pathway to exhibiting unprecedented resilience in the face of pain. You can gain things from spiritual suffering. And as screwed up as that sounds, it IS the goal.
- All loss is created equal in this respect. It doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with a drizzle that may ruin your picnic plans or a hurricane has the power to kill you. Both suck in their own right. Both have some sort of embedded lesson. Both need to be worked through.
- There is objectively no right way to go through grief, just as there is no objectively right way to live your life. There is no straight line to being okay again. There is no timeline you need to try and follow. The “5 Stages of Grief” only matter in hindsight (or from the therapist’s seat).
- Sometimes I forget just how individual loss can be, and write in a way that seems I am trying to impose my will. I’m not. If anything comes off overly preachy, I’m likely just writing to my younger self, trying to get her to calm down and believe that everything’s going to be okay.
- What worked for me on this path will not work for you. Maybe some of it will. But a lot of it won’t. What resonates with me now may not resonate with you yet or anymore. These things ebb and flow over time.
- It took me a long time to get here. A long time to be able to share these stories and these ideas. It didn’t happen in a clean fashion and it didn’t happen automatically. I can’t state that enough.
- Pick up what resonates. Discard what doesn’t. And when you have the strength, begin writing your own guide.
Step 1: Just Survive
Loss can be crippling. Sometimes you just have to sit in it — the pain, the tears, the anger — and let it be. It’s okay, as Andy Grammer reminded me, “to hold space for what sucks.”
I’m a firm believer that we do what we need to do to survive. In every moment, you are doing the absolute best that you can — given your experiences, education, beliefs, energy, etc.
Sometimes you have to be “wild” like Cheryl Strayed — and do a bunch of heroin, break off your marriage, and then hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone. Although I must admit, on more than one occasion, I felt compelled to follow in her footsteps, I’m certainly not advocating for this. She’s very lucky she made it out okay.
The thing is, sometimes you have to do things you wouldn’t normally do when you’re in such immense pain. While it’s better to do things that are constructive, not destructive — sometimes we just can’t help ourselves. We have to go on a hundred different dates to numb the pain of our past relationships. Move three times in three years (me) after losing a parent. Go off the grid for awhile.
Whatever it is —whatever it is that you may be doing — recognize that it may just be your survival instincts kicking in, shielding you from the immense pain or void that exists.
But promise me this, okay? At any time, when you’re doing what you believe you need to do to survive, and you begin to see that your current strategy is starting to lessen your chances of survival, cut it out FAST.
Surviving is good. I want you to do that — whatever that means for you at this time.
Step 2: Listen
The goal of life, I think anyways, is to live in alignment. That can be really tough to do when you’re experiencing the (very natural) period of depression that follows any big loss. Your thoughts are all consuming; your energy is at an all-time low. The pain is blinding.
How do you escape? Simple. Create space in your mind. Listen to what’s really going on. Let the emotions come up. Observe the recurring thoughts you’re having. Pay attention to what’s going on around you — not just on the physical plane, but on a meta one as well. Stop moving and just be for a bit.
When you do this, you begin to see the world in a different way.
A few nights after my mom died, she started playing with the lights in my bedroom (I swear). I’d get up and turn off the light and it’d turn on again.
“MOM — STOP. I’m not ready for this yet.”
I wasn’t and in some ways I’m still not. We may not all have people pulling strings on the otherside — but we are all part of a universe that’s trying to communicate with us all the time. We just have to stop and listen.
Step 3: Forget It
I don’t really believe in “moving on” — that seems like an impossible standard to meet. I believe the best we can do is try to incorporate loss into our lives in positive ways.
Nevertheless, whether we believe it’s realistic or not, we are all compelled to try and “move on” anyways. Oddly enough, your brain may be ahead of you on this. See, the reason loss hurts so bad is because you remember. You remember everything — every smell, feeling, and dream — associated with the loss.
Depending on how bad the pain gets, your mind may block you from accessing your memories altogether — the good and the bad.
What I realized, shortly after my mom died, is that I couldn’t really remember her — especially what she was like before she was terminally ill. I’d have flashes here and there, but when someone asked me to describe her, I couldn’t really do it. I was in too much pain.
She’d bought me a journal shortly before she died. I remember trying to write down as many memories as I could. I was so afraid of “forgetting.” I made it only a few entries before I hit a wall.
Psychologists call this “repression” and it’s usually onset by some form of trauma. A survival mechanism kicks in and kicks out all memory that could potentially make us feel pain in the present.
This is great in the short-run. It doesn’t allow us to become comsumed in playing a highlight reel of hurtful thoughts. In the long-run though, this will fade. You get to the point when it becomes okay — to look back, cry, and then smile again.
Step 4: Resist
Resisting the pain seems like the right thing to do and in some ways it might be. (See above — Step #1: Survive)
But when you resist the pain of loss, it often just takes on new forms. Instead of feeling the pain in itself, you began to experience proximate symptoms. Guilt for not thinking about him. Shame for not feeling guilty about the breakup.
You think somehow that this might be better, but it’s likely not. You enter this seemingly infinite loop of self-loathing and depression.
For almost two years, I woke up with the words: “my mom died” trailing across my consciousness. I was primed with that thought each morning, and everyday I lived in its shadows.
When, for some reason, I woke up from some sort of bad dream, and didn’t think those words immediately — my day started off with guilt or shame. How many minutes have I gone without thinking about her? How can I go on living happily when she didn’t have the privilege of living at all?
Resist until you’re ready to let go and let love do its work again, until you’re ready to forgive yourself and incorporate loss into your life.
Step 5: Fake It
After anything “big” happens in your life, everyone is always asking how you’re doing. Generally speaking, we usually aren’t okay after these BIG Ls. I mean, you can be okay, and not be okay if you know what I mean.
You just are. That’s it… just being and doing. Just trying to breathe through it.
The thing is, there’s this compulsion, especially after “enough” time goes by (whatever that means), to start coddling the people asking you that question. They ask, “How are you doing with that heartbreaking loss you just experienced?” And out of discomfort, you start saying things like, “Oh, I’m doing just great!”
How you feel, moment-to-moment, in grief is never this black and white.
In the wake of hard things, there are okay days and there are bad days. You have 1% faith that the sun is behind all the dark clouds that are looming. And after a long cloudy day, sometimes you just don’t want to talk about it. I think that’s okay. I think it’s okay to fake being okay if you need to for awhile.
The secondary benefit to this — I thought anyways — was that if I could convince others I was “great” then it may actually manifest as truth. Not sure that worked at all. In fact it ended up kind of being like trying to fill a water balloon with a few holes in it. No matter how much water I put in, it was never full. In other words, if I couldn’t face the real emotion now, I was certain to pay the price later, when I was alone.
That was okay. I processed alone for awhile, and when I was finally ready, I started asking for help.
Step 6: Exercise
This is just a rule of thumb for living a good life, but it’s especially important when you’re grieving someone or something.
Exercise, especially weight and interval training, is proven to increase happiness. It’s also what Charles Duhigg would call a “keystone habit” or a habit that leads to the implementation of a host of better habits — eating well, sleeping well, etc.
It won’t erase your pain, in fact it may very well cause pain, but it’ll give you something to sink energy into that gets you out of your mind and into your body. When you’re stuck in a squat with a heavy bar on your back, you can’t think about anything else — you have to focus 100% of your attention on standing up.
My mom was a big-time runner. She loved going fast. She ran a hilly 6 mile loop every morning in 43 minutes flat. It disturbed her deeply, late in her life, when her lung capacity only allowed her to run it in 47 minutes.
I, on the otherhand, hated running. I ran only because I wanted to play soccer — and to play soccer, you had to be able to run a sub 7-minute mile. It was a means to an end, not an end in itself.
My mom would “train” me in the summertime — which consisted of her going for a 6 mile run and then coming to “pick me up” for another 3 miles. She’d run backwards for our route together, while I’d do my best to keep up running forwards (and not cry out of embarrassment).
After she died, to her dismay somewhere in the clouds, I started running. I wanted to feel close to her — and running gave me that. When I lived in New York City, I’d wake up at 4:45 and put in 5–6 miles on the East River before work, just liked she’d have done. I even wrote her initials on the inner soles of my running sneakers.
My mom ran because she loved it, because it was her 43 minutes in the morning, by herself before most of the world was awake to just go.
I run for the energy benefits. I also run because it’s a priming mechanism. I know, if I can build endurance and strength by putting in the hours on the road, I can likely do the same with my grief. If I put in the hours, I’ll build the stamina and I’ll be able to recover quicker next time.
Step 7: Write
I am definitely biased here. Writing is one of the few true soul mates I’ve seemed to cross paths with in life, but I’ve seen a lot of people benefit from it. It doesn’t have to be writing for an audience at first. In fact, it never has to be that. There is something so powerful about processing and refining your understanding of your pain on paper (or a Word doc).
Something I like to do is have dialogue with myself in a journal. This sounds insane as I’m admitting it here, but it’s so powerful. Some of the most profound breakthroughs I’ve had in my grief and in my life started by writing questions to myself and answering them. Questions like:
- Why are you so held back right now?
- What are you focusing on that’s creating this substantial overwhelm?
- What do you really want?
A lot of people like going to therapy because they can say whatever they want without a filter — that’s why I like journaling. I can say whatever I’m thinking — and unless my journal really wants to break our confidentiality agreement and open for someone else, I’m safe.
I’m also a lot more articulate in the written word than in spoken word. The key is finding an outlet — somewhere to put your ideas and thoughts. Journal. Start a YouTube channel. Write a fiction story or a screenplay. Start a blog. Paint pictures. Find a therapist. Do something that let’s you “get it out” or even create something from it.
Step 8: Read
Not everyone likes books. If you’ve made it this far in this article, I’m sure you do because damn, you’re still reading this? (Thank you.)
That said, I’m not some purist. You don’t have to read books. Watch YouTube videos and documentaries, listen to podcasts and audio programs, have experiences and inspiring conversations — it doesn't matter. I just learn best reading at my own pace and taking notes in the margins.
What matters is learning. To heal the brokenness, I believe you need to be exposed to new ideas.
About six months after my mom passed, I was in such a terrible place. I didn’t know what to do — but I was committed to getting the hell out of the darkness. I hated reading (mostly because I think school teaches us to hate reading). So it was an act of total desperation when I went onto Amazon and proceeded to order ten books (mostly off of Ryan Holiday’s reading list at the time).
One by one, I read them all. Each one simultaneously broke me and mended me at the same time. Tiny Beautiful Things is perhaps the best book you could ever read if you are dealing with something hard. Fight Club if you’re feeling trapped by societal norms. Meditations for any breathing person with a pulse. Essentialism if you feel unfulfilled and overwhelmed. Bird by Bird for the writers out there. Etc.
Since then, I’ve read voraciously. I’ll give almost anything a chance in the non-fiction arena and I’m trying (not as hard as I could) to add more fiction in there.
I’ve written about this before but it’s still true as ever: books have saved me. The ones in the above picture particularly. I am more grateful to a group of random authors that I will never know than I can even possibly write.
We can’t underestimate the impact of art — of ideas communicated through music, movies, books, paintings, all of it. Each piece, when created, and when consumed, has the potential to bring new light into the darkness.
In loss, we desperately need that light.
Step 9: Find Distractions
Our always-on digital world can be all-consuming at times. There are always emails and notifications to attend to. If you’re feeling lost or broken, you can easily find something in the digital realm to distract you — make you feel important for awhile. Something to sink your energy, pain, and anger into.
For me, this “distraction addiction” after my mom died took on a number of forms. The worst of all was that I became obsessed with (unfulfilling) work, mostly so I could assert my importance and have something to blame my unhappiness on.
And I had some pretty wild success (at distracting myself and making myself more miserable I mean).
Looking back, I don’t blame myself. It was easier to do this than to deal with purposelessness I felt after she died.
We all do this. We all find things to make us feel like we have a sense of direction — the key is that we don’t forever confuse this with actually having direction. It’s okay in the short-run, but distraction will eventually fade. You will come to a crossroads and you’ll be given the decision to choose otherwise.
Step 10: Compartmentalize
PRIMARY LOSS TRIGGERS SECONDARY LOSSES.
Perhaps the worst thing about loss is that it’s like an earthquake in the sense that the first shake doesn’t signal the finish. It’s just the start in fact — it’s likely the catalyst for a series smaller quakes that have the potential to inflict just as much damage (sometimes even more).
- How many times have you heard a story of a family that essentially breaks apart fighting over a deceased love one’s belongings?
- Or the exhausting process of splitting the pot after the divorce is mentally and emotionally finalized?
The issue is: when you’re doing “clean up” in your life, you have to treat each quake as a separate occurrence. You have to compartmentalize. Because even if the secondary losses had occurred independent of the primary loss, they’d still have sucked. You can’t just forget about them, and you can’t just try to fold them into what did the most damage.
The most painful example of this for me is that I found out something not-so-cool about my dad the night of my mom’s wake. My parents were married when my mom died. And I had deeply suspected, before she passed, that my dad had gone outside the marriage but never asked either of them about it. I think I was a little afraid to know the truth.
Standing in front of my mom’s casket, my fears were confirmed. My dad may have been a widower from the public eye, but I had just unveiled a man who was in a committed relationship to a woman who was very much alive.
For a long time, I tried to treat these issues — my dad cheating and my mom dying — as the same thing. It genuinely felt like I was grieving both of my parents. I like to call it, “Finding Out Santa Isn’t Real (For Adults).”
But here’s the thing, the anger, disdain, and disgust I felt towards my dad for almost three years — often blinded me from really dealing with the loss of my mom. The pain I felt for my deceased mom, who had knowingly been cheated on, made it almost impossible to forgive my dad.
It wasn’t until I was able to treat my parents as separate people and pull these losses apart that I was able to deal with either.
Step 11: Reprioritize
When something terrible happens — someone dies unexpectedly, you experience some trauma, or you go through a terrible breakup — everything else falls off. I mean everything else. It becomes so hard to focus on the day-to-day bullshit that you used to find so consuming. You realize that almost everything we do in life is meant to distract us from the void, from our own mortality.
As John Maxwell famously said:
“You can’t underestimate the unimportance of practically everything.”
It can be kind of hard to operate in the world normally for awhile. You have little patience for gossip or useless meetings. The minutia seems to weigh heavier than the pain itself. What everyone else is complaining about will annoy you to no end.
This makes it really easy to take inventory what and who really matters in life. Some material things, purposes, beliefs, and people won’t make the cut. That’s okay — use this loss and grief as a prioritization tool. Use it as an opportunity to design a life of greater meaning.
Step 12: (Re)Build
You don’t rebuild a house when it burns down; you build a new one.
There are elements that stay the same — maybe you pick the same light fixtures or even the same layout. But the foundation, walls, and roof are new. Even the ground has changed — it’s been moved and manipulated to fit the new foundation.
But the space, the area that both houses have filled — that will never change.
When something knocks you down, mostly everything will change. You must build a new purpose, belief system, and understanding of the world. But there is something that won’t: that is who you really are independent of it all. That is your essence. That is why you are feeling this so deeply.
There is no better time to discover it, to build or rebuild yourself, than after you’ve experienced something disastrous. In fact, it’s really the only time.
But as Chuck Palahniuk writes in Fight Club (yes I’m quoting Fight Club):
“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”
The person that’s writing this is very different from the person that would have been four years ago. Every single one of my beliefs has been stripped down. New ones have replaced them. My purpose has been redesigned. This is more than okay; it’s more than good. It was necessary.
Step 13: Connect
This likely won’t come at first. You won’t want to share anything about your pain. You’ll have to fight to get there, because there’s a unique sense of discomfort that comes with admitting you are confused, sad, angry, or depressed. You feel like you need words to describe why you feel so terrible — but the words won’t come. Everything is just dark and blurry; there’s no real reason.
It took me three years to see and admit that I’d gone through a long period of depression after my mom died. At some level, I didn’t have the words. I was extremely uncertain of how I was doing every time someone asked. And the belief that I needed to be certain, that I needed to have the perfect words to describe it, kept me from speaking up altogether. I “faked” okayness (See Step #5: Fake It).
It’s why I’m so open about it now. Because I realize it’s a necessary step in the healing process. There used to be this voice in my head that said “don’t share anything.” I wanted to be viewed as this amazing, productive, and inspiring human being independent of the struggles I’ve gone through in my life (which extend far beyond the death of my mom). I thought, well when people find that out after, then they’ll really appreciate me.
But in 2018, we are living in a world that is being optimized for connection. The best we can do is show up and be honest in that space (when we are ready). Our story becomes our service to the world, if and when we have the courage to share it.
And a story not shared cannot serve.
Step 14: Honor
Before you can honor what you’ve lost, and really gain something from it, you have to honor yourself and the process you’re going through. This sounds cliché AF, and I would have scoffed at it six months ago, but I (neglectfully) discovered…it’s true.
To do this, you have to stop asking yourself questions like:
- Why do I still feel this way?
- What is wrong with me?
You feel this way because you have a broken heart. There is nothing wrong with you; you’re just going through something.
It’s hard to have this kind of blanket self-compassion. We all have such high expectations of ourselves. We all think we can beat “the timeline” or that we are better than this. But dealing with grief and loss is different.
The necessary prologue to the story you’re trying to write — the story of how you made it through — is that you stop loathing yourself. You’re going through enough already; quit piling it on.
To honor my mom, I had to accept, forgive, and honor myself first. I had to accept that I’d been in a bad place and done things I wasn’t entirely proud of. I had to accept that I’d been going through a depression. I had to accept that our relationship wasn’t perfect (and didn’t need to be portrayed as such).
I still drink a strawberry shake on the eve of my birthday every year — one I used to share — one shake, two straws — with my mom. I have her initials written on my running shoes. I got a tattoo. I still celebrate “Iced Coffee Fridays” (despite drinking iced coffee on way more days than Friday). I make her favorite cookies and write stories about her. I find quiet moments when no one’s around to talk freely with her.
These things are small, they are private, and they are mine.
Step 15: Feel Everything
Coping isn’t a skill that’s taught in school. Teachers and administrators are equally as uncomfortable with talking about loss as young kids are. Until we’ve gone through it, none of us really know how to navigate it.
The key is just to be you in the process; let whatever’s going to come up, come up. Realize that the tears, the anger, the pain — it’s all because of this loss. And own it. Feel it. Live it.
Jonathan Van Ness, from Queer Eye, said something in an episode to the effect of:
If you close off yourself to being vulnerable, you close yourself off to experiencing all of the good, too — like joy and love.
That really resonated with me, and it’s been true in my experience. Once I was open to experiencing the range of emotions including the depression and the verifiable anger, and let go of my compulsion to posture my story in a certain way, I started to experience joy again. I started to be able to live again.
When I told Andy Grammer my mom had died, the first question he asked (after asking her name) was:
What have you gained?
My answer was long, but in retrospect it’s pretty simple. I’ve gained the ability to be compassionate and love unconditionally. To understand human beings at a new level of depth. To stay grounded. To find a new and empowering perspective in life.
I truly believe we don’t succeed in life despite the things that break us, we succeed because of them.
This positive consequence doesn’t come immediately, and it likely takes way more than 15 steps to get there, but it can happen.
Wherever you are in grief, with whatever loss you are facing, have faith you will get to a place where it’s okay to focus on what you’ve gained. Where you can see the better half of that equation. To sit back and say: “Maybe there is good that can come from this.”
That’s okay. There is no timeline. There are no milestones to meet. There is no threshold you must live up to. And there is no floor or ceiling on your emotions.
This is your path — in loss, in grief, and in life. Do what you want with it, what you can with it. Own it. Love it. Hate it. Beat it. Write your own guide.
And make it f*cking beautiful.