How To Transform Grief Into Gratitude

The date September 12th, 2013 will be indelibly imprinted on my family's emotional scrapbook. It was the day we were awakened at 6am by our cat poking her claws into our feet until we got out of bed and opened the curtains to find the 500-year flood raging through our yard. It was the moment you see happening to other people, but never believe will happen to you.

It was a "before and after" moment, an event of such archetypal proportions that you know—as you're packing your bags and rushing your children down the stairs and across your driveway (which is now submerged under three feet of water)—that your life is being irrevocably altered.

The initial days were a blur as my husband remained at the house to create a makeshift dam out of our fence in an attempt to prevent the river from entering our first floor (which, thanks to his sheer will and the help of angelic neighbors, he did) while my young sons and I remained in the safe shelter of my mother's home about 45 minutes away.

As he charged full force into the overwhelming practical tasks at hand, I attempted to guide my kids and myself through the torrential grief that stormed through our bodies. And in order to offer a lifeline to them, I needed to process my own grief first.

Which means only one thing: To cry.

For crying is the innate antidote to loss, the only medicine during times when our entire world is falling apart. These pivotal, milestone events occur when we graduate from high school or college, lose a loved one, suffer through heartbreaks and breakups, get married, have a baby, leave a job or a city, and a multitude of other transitions and losses.

We live in a culture that encourages us to "buck up" and "look at the bright side," but when you're enduring a loss, the only sane response is to grieve. And here's the secret that our culture fails to share: It's when you let yourself grieve fully, allowing the tears to rock you body and soul, that you create space for genuine gratitude to enter.

Amid my heart-shattering grief at losing much of our home, people would say, "You'll rebuild. It will be more beautiful than before." While that's likely true, it's premature and annihilating to the healing process to skip ahead to the rebirth stage of grief when someone is soul-deep in their death experience.

What we all need is a cultural handbook so that we can help ourselves, our children, and our loved ones lovingly navigate a flood of grief. Below are five guidelines for walking through grief consciously so that you can arrive safely on the other side not only intact, but stronger than before:

1. Don't rush your grief.

Grief has its own timetable and rhythm. You may grieve every day for a week and then not cry for days, only to find yourself falling apart in the parking lot of the grocery store weeks after the initial loss. Clients will often say to me, "It's been three months. I should be over him by now," to which I respond, "There are many cultures that allow a full year to process a loss. Three months is nothing."

You'll grieve as long as you need to grieve.

2. Bring compassion to your pain and don't compare.

Even with as much knowledge as I have about the grieving process, in the midst of weeping, I'd sometimes hear a small whisper saying, Really? There are people who have lost their homes and even loved ones as a result of this flood. Get over it. But knowing how unhelpful that voice is, I would shush it away and return to the task at hand.

Because my pain is my pain. My loss is my loss. In the moments when the magnitude of my loss hits, it doesn't matter that other people have lost more than I've lost. My heart goes out to them and I do what I can to help, but comparing my loss to others does nothing to move the grief through me.

Grief requires only one thing: A safe, compassionate container inside which to run its course. The more you give yourself that space, the more the grief will move through you and the faster you'll find yourself on the dry, solid ground that juts up on the other side of pain.

3. Let the tears surge through you full force.

Since many people grew up absorbing false messages about pain like, "Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about," or "Crying is weak," we tend to disconnect from the waterworks early in life. But when a disaster or a major life transition breaks through the wall created by the false beliefs, we're offered an opportunity to reconnect to our natural and brilliant resource for navigating the inevitable losses of life.

It's as if the dam breaks and we have no choice but to surrender and fall apart. The falling apart is essential. I've cried more in the past two weeks than I've cried in the past ten years. And it's exactly what is allowing me to move forward, to show up for my kids and clients, and to connect to the place in me that knows that, regardless of the state of our house, my inner home is impervious to the transitory forces of nature and of life.

4. Reach out for support

I didn't cry when I drove away from our home at 7:30am with my kids, our cat, and some luggage in the backseat. I didn't cry when I arrived at my mother's house and she wrapped me in her embrace. I didn't cry that night when I lay awake sandwiched between my sleeping boys, thinking about my husband who, due to the washed-out roads, couldn't get to us and had to stay with friends. But when my husband finally arrived the next day, I cried. I needed his arms around me before I could let go.

Since I didn't want to lose it completely in front of my kids just yet (I have many times since that day), I told my husband I needed a few minutes, went downstairs, called my best friend, and sobbed. She held the space as she's done for me a hundred times. She didn't say a word; there are no words when someone is crying the brokenhearted cry of profound loss. She just let me cry until the heaving stopped and, for the moment, the water ran its course.

5. Connect to gratitude and rebirth

If you follow the previous four steps, your connection to gratitude will occur effortlessly in random moments throughout the day.

Immediately after we evacuated, I was flooded with gratitude that we were all safe and had a warm, dry place to go. And in the days that followed, gratitude surged as I'd look at my children's perfect, sleeping faces, as my husband returned to my mother's house at the end of another long, grueling day fighting the water and we'd collapse into the safe haven of our sturdy marriage, as our dear friends were evacuated from their home, as the crews of volunteers showed up at our house to help with the monstrous clean up (true angels who crack my heart open as I witness their acts of service), as I remember every night that everything that matters is still here.

Yes, we will rebuild. Yes, the rebirth of spring always follows the death of autumn and the stillness of winter. Yes, we will learn and grow through this, as it's when life brings you to your knees and humbles you that you're invited to grow to the next stage of consciousness where you learn a little more about what it means to be human and that the light will always overpower the darkness.

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