Take Note: Grief Advocate Megan Devine On Changing How We Think About Loss

May 20, 2020

Credit: Anna Caitlin Photography

Megan Devine is a psychotherapist, grief advocate and author of It's OK That You're Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn't Understand. She's the founder of Refuge in Grief, an online community that helps people understand grief and navigate loss.

Interviewer Lindsey Whissel Fenton worked with Devine on WPSU's multiplatform project Speaking Grief.  

Read an excerpt fro Megan's Book, It's OK that You're Not OK here

Listen to more from this interview:

FULL TRANSCRIPT:

Lindsey Whissel Fenton:

Welcome to Take Note. For WPSU, from my home studio, I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton. Megan Devine is a psychotherapist, grief advocate and author of It's OK That You're Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn't Understand.She's the founder of Refuge in Grief, an online community that helps people understand grief and navigate loss. I worked with Megan on WPSU's multi-platform project Speaking Grief. Megan, thanks for joining us.

Megan Devine:

Thanks for having me.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton:

How did you become this sort of grief revolutionary?

Megan Devine:

I had been a therapist for around 10 or so years and I didn't want to be a grief expert. That, that wasn't my thing. And I got sort of thrown into it. So, on a beautiful, ordinary fine summer day, my partner and I went out for a swim and only one of us survived. So Matt drowned in front of me. And it threw me into a, a world of grief that I didn't know existed. And, experiencing firsthand how we sort of treat grieving people in this culture was, horrifying and shocking. Hearing and connecting with so many people who were grieving intense, atypical losses. As I was really hearing what it was like for all of us to be out in the world and to hear things like, “everything happens for a reason” and, “at least you had them as long as you did,” and how damaging that was. I knew that I had something to say about that.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton:

You said you never wanted to be a grief expert and ,more broadly speaking, that's sort of how it is with grief. It's this thing we know we're going to go through, but tends to be something we don't look too closely at until we have no other choice.

Megan Devine:

I think you're right. Like we tend to avoid even thinking about it until we have no other choice. And I think that's a problem, right? Because if we haven't been having those conversations before life goes sideways, it's going to be even harder when life does go sideways. So the, the time to have these sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes scary conversations about what it's like to lose the people we love is now before we lose them.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton:

Part of getting better at grief has to do with understanding it. There's so much misunderstanding around grief that, rather than asking you what grief is, that I feel like it's almost easier to start by talking about what grief isn't. So what is grief not?

Megan Devine:

Grief is not a problem. Grief is not a disease. Grief is not pathology. Grief is not proof that you aren't evolved emotionally, relationally, or spiritually. I think we have all of these ideas that grief is something to fix and move through really quickly and put behind you as soon as possible so that you can go back to quote unquote normal and be happy and productive and sunny and vibrant and rosy and all of these things that we equate or conflate with health and this culture. So the biggest thing here is that grief is not a problem to be solved. What does that mean though, right? Like, because we don't talk about grief in this culture, we don't really understand what's normal. Grief can be messy. Grief lasts way longer than most people think it does. When we think about grief, we sort of reduce it to this two-dimensional thing where you, you know, you're just sad. Well, there's also a lot of other stuff that goes along with that sort of umbrella of grief. Sad is definitely in there. Grief I think is, I mean it's a really normal part of being human and whether you've lost a human who is important to you or not, and we all have loss in our lives and being able to name that and talk about it and say when something hurts from those tiny everyday losses, right up to the loss of somebody you don't want to have to live without. Like that conversation is really important. And when we have those conversations, we start understanding what grief is and what grief isn't.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton:

There are a lot of analogies for helping people conceptualize grief. A fairly common one is to think of grief as the ocean. That, sometimes, the waters calm, sometimes it's choppy or a huge wave might come. I know you aren't a fan of that particular analogy and instead you have a rather unique one about thinking of grief as going to the movies.

Megan Devine:

I tend to avoid water metaphors because I've watched somebody drown and I have nearly drawn myself and please stop using that analogy, everybody. Let's use the movie theater. It's like you bought tickets to a romantic comedy and then all of a sudden the screen splits into and everything melts and suddenly it's a horror movie and you're the only one who seems to care or notice that the screen changed. If you say something to the person next to you like, “Hey, this wasn't the movie we signed up for,” they're like, “It's fine. It's a great movie. Watch ‘til the end, have some popcorn.” This idea that for the person who just went through something, life-altering, the movie of the world has changed and a lot of other people don't see what you see and even if they do, they don't have a problem with it and they're not sure why you do.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton:

There's no way we can cover all of the misconceptions about grief and one half an hour conversation. So, I'd like to touch on some of the big ones, and you talked about this a little bit already, but I think one of the biggest ones is this idea about how long grief lasts. How does our expectation about the length of grief match up with the lived reality of grief?

Megan Devine:

Oh, it's completely wrong. So it doesn't match up at all and there are many problems with that, but I think we can talk about the two main ones because we've got this idea that grief should get resolved really quickly and put behind you. We have this idea that one grief is linear and if you do it correctly, the loss won't bother you anymore. Like we have this sort of communal expectation that hardship goes away quickly and if it doesn't go away quickly, you're doing it wrong. So that does a disservice to grieving people because they feel like they're failing their own grief and it does a disservice to people who are trying to be supportive because we have an imagined timeline in our heads and we're assessing the person we care about as to whether they match to that timeline or not. So, we're really failing each other in that way. If we don't talk about the reality of grief and the way that I think about it, as you know, grief is part of love. Grief is going to last as long as love last. When we look at grief as part of love, we understand that it doesn't have an end point. It may not always be as intense as it is and those early days, weeks, months, years, it may not always be that intense, but it will always be with you. And, I think it's, it's much more realistic and much more kind, both to the grieving person and those who want to be supportive, to think of loss as something that gets integrated into a person. It's not something that gets overcome and left behind.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: 

Hm. That makes me think of a line from your book. Things get different. They don't get better.

Megan Devine: 

Yeah. That idea that things get better. Right? Like that's baked into our, our storyline as a culture, right? Like all of our movies, all of our books are all about that hero's journey. Bad thing happens. You look inside yourself and you come back better and stronger, and if you don't do that, you're failing the story. That resilience porn doesn't really help anybody.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton:

What I'm hearing is maybe there's not always a happy ending and maybe that's okay.

Megan Devine:

I don't think there's ever a happy ending. I think there are always complex endings, right? Like let's see some stories with some complex endings because that is what being human is. I have a really beautiful life and Matt's dead. Those two things are always going to sit side by side and it's never going to not be weird. In interviews, I get asked that question a lot, right? Like, so you've built this beautiful thing and you've helped a lot of people as, as those that's a trade, right? Like this idea that we reduce a human to a series of binary equations. If this, then that. You lost this, but you gained this like that. But in there, our lives are complex, our stories are complex, our endings are complex and let's just tell the truth about that. 

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: 

Well, and the grief experiences complex and I think that can, another tricky thing with grief, especially as someone on the outside sort of looking in is we do have these sort of binary all or nothing interpretations of feelings. Something a number of people shared with me through the course of Speaking Griefis the complexity of grieving but also still being able to feel happiness.

Megan Devine:

That idea that you can only be one feeling at one time. Again, like that is not how humans work. I think we really do this sort of binary black or white thinking and we have this idea that you were either positive, resilient, strong, happy, or you are rocking in the corner in a basement wearing sackcloth and being self-indulgent and, I don't know, Eeyore. There is a vast middle ground in there for everybody relationally, emotionally, right? Like, you can be sad and happy at the same time. I am really particular about words, so I really like the use of the word “and” instead of the word “but.” So, I have a really beautiful life and Matt's dead. I think the way that we would normally phrase a statement like that is, “Matt's dead, but you have this really beautiful life.” And, anytime we use “but” like that where we're dismissing what came before and where we're trying to make a  transactional equation out of the human heart and that it's not fair and it's not accurate and it doesn't, it doesn't do anything except lock us in a corner.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton:

And this can be intimidating. I, when I began work on speaking grief, I was intimidated. I came to this as someone who, well, I've certainly had losses. I haven't had one of those—and I love your phrase for this—one of those “losses that reorders the world,” because I think that's a fair way to put it. But it, it's intimidating and it's hard to look at someone that you care about and you want so badly to be able to show up for them and know what to do. So, I'd like to start talking about how we can get better at offering support and showing up for each other. And one of my favorite things that you said in the documentary is that, “Our job as a support person is not to make someone feel happy, it's to make someone feel heard.” What's the difference?

Megan Devine: 

It is uncomfortable to learn that what you're doing isn't helping. And we, we certainly see this in grief, but this is like, this is that same sort of thing like when, when you are confronted with your own systemic racism, right? And you go, “Oh crap, I'm actually complicit in this in ways that I didn't intend” is, that is uncomfortable. I think what also happens for some people is they know that they can't take away their friend's pain and they know that they can't do it perfectly. And so that feels really uncomfortable. Like, “I, I'm not going to say the thing and maybe I'll stick my foot in my mouth and I'll make it worse.” And so we sort paralyze ourselves into inaction and choose to not say anything rather than say something that isn't right. And that's not a good answer either. What happens for the grieving person in your life is that they feel invisible. So don't let your concerns around imperfection silence you cause that's, that's not a good option. So what do we do? You’ll hear me say this all the time, but we always want to go back to acknowledgement, right? Acknowledgement is the best medicine for everything. It's like the ibuprofen for life. Lead with being awkward. It's OK to lead with, “I have no idea what to say, but I love you enough that I'm willing to be awkward and show up anyway.” And, I get that particular kind of distress, right? Like watching somebody you care about suffer and be in pain is horrible. If I think about what it was like for my parents to watch me in those early days, like, that's really challenging emotional territory for me to pull up in my mind and I know it like looking at people that I care about. It's hard. And so that impulse to take that pain away from them, that is a very human impulse. And I'm not saying to people squash that impulse. It's actually a beautiful thing. And what I want people to do is to recognize that impulse and then take a moment to sort of align yourself with what's the most effective way that I can support this being in front of me. Right? It's not by taking their pain away, because I can't do that. And I think if we take that pressure off of ourselves to make somebody feel better, then we can breathe a little bit.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton:

I don't think we can talk about supporting someone through grief without talking about platitudes, which you touched on earlier. We've all said them, right? We've all, I've been there, I've said the things, even, even now, after spending years in the space, when I know better, I've said the things. You know, “everything happens for a reason” or “at least they had a good life.” You know, and we mean well, but what's the problem with those kinds of phrases?

Megan Devine: 

The problem is we're dismissing and erasing somebody's pain. I like this idea of the second half of the sentence or the ghost sentence. So, if you tell me, this is around the time of year when your dad died and it's a really hard time of year for you. And I say something like, “It's such a beautiful time of year, you know, this is, this is a wonderful reminder of the good times with your father,” I just told you so stop feeling the way that you feel. Right? If you can add, so stop feeling so bad to the thing that you're about to say to your grieving person, don't say the thing. Don't say the thing. I think the thing true to bring into this though is that, you don't have to be perfect, you have to be practicing. And that you can ask for a do over. You can always come back and say, “You know what? I realized, I realized that this morning when you sent me a text and me that you really missed your sister this morning. I didn't really hear that. I came back with something about what a beautiful day it is and that probably wasn't the best thing and I, and I want you to know that I, I hear you and I would love to talk about your sister today if that's what you want to do.”

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: 

If you're just joining us. This is Take Noteon WPSU. I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton and our guest is Megan Devine, psychotherapist, grief advocate and author of It’s OK That You’re Not OK: MeetingGriefand Loss in a Culture That Doesn't Understand.I worked with Megan on WPSU’s multi-platform project Speaking Grief.I think another maybe misstep that people tend to make in the space of grief support—and again, I will own it, I've been there, I've done this many times—is when someone starts sharing something with us that hurts them or that's hard for them, a lot of times we tap into one of our own experiences and you know, maybe that's from a place of trying to empathize, but that doesn't always have the effect we think it's having. Why is that maybe not the best thing to do in the space of grief support?

Megan Devine:

The thing that can happen when you jump in with your own experience, for the grieving person, they can be like, “I thought we were talking about me because I needed an ear, but now we're talking about you.” Honestly, I think one of the things that happens is because we don't talk about grief very often in this culture, everybody's got a backlog of grief. Everybody's got something that they want to talk about. So, if I see you in the coffee shop and I ask you how you're doing, and you say, “Not that great, this is the time of year when my best friend died,” something in my mind goes, “Oh, we're going to talk about grief now. Let me tell you about mine cause I never get to talk about this. And since you just made this overture, here's this opening.” Everybody has a story of loss that they want to tell them that they need to tell. So, I think one of the things that happens unconsciously when we sort of get into that grief hijacking thing is we're always sort of looking for a place to tell the story. And if somebody else opened a discussion about grief, there's a part of us that is like, “I've been waiting to tell the story for a really long time. Let me tell it to you now.” Right? So part of that's part of that impulse in there. The other thing is that impulse to empathize is that impulse to connect. And again, that impulse is beautiful. I want us to get in the habit of say, of like looking at ourselves and being, bringing attention to that and saying, “Is this the right time for this particular offering or sharing or action? Is this the right time for this?” So don't jump in with your own story of loss as an immediate response to somebody else's story. Let them have the grief spotlight. They have got the mic right. Let's let them have it without jumping in with your own experience. There's also an accidental conflation of loss when we jump in and share our story. Even if we think we're trying to show empathy and relate, there is a lot of solace and support to be found in speaking with your own kind, so I'm not saying that we should never share our own experience of loss. I'm saying that we should apply that sense of right timing to it and never offer your story without consent. A great thing to say here is, like if my neighbors started to tell me about the death of her sister and whatever was up for her, I might say, “I do have some experience with the loss of a sibling. I'm happy to talk about it. If you're interested, you let me know.”

Lindsey Whissel Fenton:

I do just briefly want to go back to where you talked about conflating losses, and I know that's something that has come up a lot in the work on Speaking Griefis that we want to be very mindful that even when losses are similar, they are never the same.

Megan Devine: 

They're never the same. Let's say that there are three siblings in a family and a grandparent died, one person died, but really there are three losses. So each one of those siblings had their own unique relationship with that grandparent. They all lost a different person. So if that's true in individual family systems, this is true across the board. Just because you lost a baby doesn't mean you understand what it's like for that person who lost a baby. We can be curious about each other's losses instead of thinking we know who they are and where they are and what, what the experience is like for them.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton:

Even with the genuine intention of offering help our, you know, our phrase that we've been taught is, “Let me know if you need anything.” And, guilty. I've done that a lot, even recently. But why is that phrase actually kind of problematic?

Megan Devine:

That is a really common thing to do. The reason why that is tricky, we're sort of asking them to do all of the work to figure out what they need and then organize it and then ask for it. That is a lot of work that we put on the person, right? That also, as the support person, puts you in this weird position where like if somebody asks you to do something that you don't actually have time to do, then you feel like a jerk for saying no. So we want to take that impulse to care for somebody and make it a little bit more concrete. So you might say something like, “Here are these three things that I could do for you. Would any of these feel good?” And that could be like, one of the big things daily life keeps running. So anything you can do to sort of like lessen the burden of daily life from your person so that they can sort of just be in the pain that they're in. If you can offer something concrete to your person, like, “I will come and walk the dog at seven o'clock on Mondays and Wednesdays, will that work for you? I know that the recycling truck comes on Thursday afternoon, so I will come over on Wednesday night and bring the recycling to the curb, if that works for you,” that that relieves a lot of burdens. It meets that need for you to, to be a tangible support. It reduces the decision making fatigue on your grieving person or your ill person. They don't need to think up something and you're, you're coming up underneath them and providing a net for them, which is a really glorious, wonderful thing to do.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton:

I think it's so helpful when we can give people these direct phrases or formulas. And to recap the formula you just gave for offering help, which I love because it has the sort of built-in consent feature within it is, “I would love to do XYZ, insert the specific thing there. Would that be okay?”

Megan Devine:

Yeah. And that consent and permission is really, really important. There are several reasons that you want to do that. So, I know for, for some people, like when their partner died, people offered to like, “Let me pick the kids up from school for you,” which is a great concrete thing to offer. And some people really love that. They were like, “Thank goodness.” Other people are like, “I need to know that I'm going to see my kids at 2:35 every day, so picking my kids up from school for me wouldn't be a good thing for me.” So we want to be able to give choice in there. The other thing is that we can accidentally remove something important that we aren't aware of. Like, if you, you know, you go over to your grieving person's house and you noticed that the laundry has piled up, so you go do the wash and then your person says later like, “That was the last thing that smelled like my kid and now it's gone.” If we don't ask first, we can erase something mundane and ordinary that has become precious. So consent and permission in all things, but especially if you're thinking of doing something that is irreversible.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton:

A question I've had, that's come up in my own personal journey and trying to support people through grief is that where I feel like I struggle is people who fall maybe more into that acquaintance category. Like, I feel like if it's one of my friends or my family or my close people, like I know them well enough to have a sort of a sense of their needs or their routine or where I could really be helpful, but if it's someone who is more of an acquaintance or like, like a coworker or a neighbor, how can we be supportive, kind, caring human beings while also being respectful of people's privacy and their boundaries?

Megan Devine: 

I think that we can always sort of fall back on acknowledgement. Here's this colleague of mine, we're not really close and I know that they went out on maternity leave and the baby died and now they're back at work. What do I do? Here's what I've suggested in a situation like that where it's an acquaintance and not somebody you're really close with, I would go with an email or a text rather than walking up to the person in person and I would send something that says like, “I'm so sorry to hear it what happened for you. I don't want to invade your space, but I just want to acknowledge and I just want to let you know that I see you. And, if you ever want to talk about it to somebody you don't know very well, I'm here.” Right? So acknowledge the weird, acknowledge the, we're not very close, but I'm also not going to ignore the fact that I know this very intimate detail about you. And I will say, you know, whenever, whenever we talk about like, I don't know this person very well, I think back to those early weeks after Matt died and, strangers sometimes gave the best support. You know, in the early days, I needed to tell the story of his death all the time and I must've been sitting in our coffee shop talking to a, an actual friend of ours telling the story of, and the friend left and this young man who was sitting at the table next to me came over and he crouched down and he put his hand on the table, not on me. And he said, “I, I just want you to know I wasn't eavesdropping on purpose, but you are sitting right next to me and I can't not acknowledge what just happened in your life. And I'm so sorry. And he got up and he walked away.” That was magic. I mean, it stuck with me all these years, wasn't intrusive, very respectful, and also just acknowledge the human moment that happened in a public space. That's beautiful. That's really, really beautiful. So I think again, we come back to acknowledgement is not only the best medicine, but it's sometimes the only medicine,

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: 

Aconversation about grief unfortunately feels more timely than ever because of everything that's going on with CODI-19. What lessons can we take from this unprecedented collective grieving that's happening right now?

Megan Devine:

I think it's too early for lessons, honestly. I think lessons sort of come as we reflect back after the crisis has resolved in whatever ways it might. What I noticed during this pandemic is that everybody wants to talk about grief. I think it's sort of a gloves are off moment collectively here where we can't fall back on separating ourselves from loss because there is loss everywhere from the loss of daily routine to the loss of jobs to the loss of life and the loss of a certain future. Right? Uncertainty is really difficult for people and this means that grief, pain, suffering is front and center for a lot of people in a way that it maybe isn't usually and we don't have the rhythms of daily life to distract ourselves from pain at this point, which means it's taking up more space and I, and I hope at least one of the things that's happening in response to that are more honest, real conversations about what it means to hurt and what it means to lose along that entire continuum of loss from the small everyday losses to the life altering ones.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton:

A lot of this conversation has unfolded as sort of a categorizing people as, as someone who's grieving or someone who's trying to be supportive, but because we are all in this collective grief right now, what message can you offer all of us for how to navigate the grief that this pandemic has laid on us and will continue to lay on us?

Megan Devine:

One of the things I've been talking a lot about lately is emotional timeshare and right timing. So a very dear friend of mine has a lot of stressors going on in their personal life and she's a doctor and like the world has gone sideways. All of these things. I'm not going to go to her for emotional support at this time, even though I could really use her. Right? I'm going to find other people to go to for support because it's not that her stress and her pain is more valid than mine. I'm being respectful of bandwidth. I think the most important foundational thing is that all grief is valid. All grief is valid from the little ones to the big ones, to the medium ones to whatever, like if it hurts, it's valid. I think what can happen as if that sort of competition of grief, like, “How dare you be sad about missing your graduation when people are dying?” Well, you get to be sad for missing your graduation at the same time that it is very sad that people are dying. There is enough compassion to go around if we treat compassion as an the abundant unlimited resource. That is

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: 

Megan, thank you for talking with us. 

Megan Devine:

You are welcome. 

Lindsey Whissel Fenton:

Megan Devine is a psychotherapist, grief advocate and author of It's OK That You're Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn't Understand. Read an excerpt from the book and hear more from this interview at wpsu.org/takenote. From my home studio, I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton, WPSU. 

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