Many Solo listeners have requested an episode on loss – whether due to the death of a loved one, the loss of a beloved pet, a difficult breakup, or just the disappointments of everyday life. Peter McGraw invites Tessa Bringer and Jaclyn Foglio into the Solo Studio to examine healthy coping strategies, find meaning after loss, and discover the potential for post-traumatic growth. As part of the conversation, they discuss the unique challenges singles face when grieving and mourning.
Listen to Episode #193 here
Loss, Grief, And Growth
This is a much anticipated and often requested episode. There’s no escaping loss, whether the loss of a friend or family member, a relationship via breakup or divorce, or simply the failures of everyday life. I brought two experienced guests into the Solo Studio to talk about loss and how to cope with grief and perhaps even use it as a vehicle for personal growth. They were introduced to me by a friend of the show and a frequent contributor, Amy Gahran. My first guest is a certified end-of-life coach and sacred passage death doula, as well as a transition and consensual non-monogamous relationship coach. Welcome, Tessa Bringer.
Thank you for having me, Peter.
My second guest is a licensed social worker, a hospice worker, and an occasional Death Cafe facilitator. We’re going to have to unpack that. Welcome, Jaclyn Foglio.
I’d like to start with a few definitional things if we can. I’d like to start with the difference between loss, grief, and mourning. I have a feeling we’ll be talking about each of those things, either together or separately. Where should we start?
If I had to define these three terms, I would say that anytime we have something, hoping for something or expecting something, and we experience the lack of that thing in a way that makes us yearn for the return of it, we have experienced loss. That is universal. Everyone can relate to that in a way. The way that we experience that is personal and singular. It sometimes can feel as though no one’s ever experienced it the way we do personally. That’s grief. The need to get that out of our body, screaming, too keen to wail, renting of garments are mourning, and expressing that outwardly are mourning.
There’s a cultural element to mourning and a psychological one for grief. Jackie, would you add something to that?
It’s universal. There’s a certain element of grief that needs to be done alone. There is this more community aspect to mourning. There’s internal work that needs to happen, but there’s also external work that needs to happen.
It explains some cultures have some particular rituals around mourning, like mourning the loss of a loved one or a friend, whether it be dressing in black or heavy amounts of drinking if you’re Irish Catholic. I did a research project about the deathcare industry in the United States. I even intended a funeral director’s convention to research it.
One of the things that stood out to me, and I couldn’t tell how much of it was truly a built-in belief or a side benefit of believing this, but this belief in America, for example, especially Christians, that you need to see the deceased one last time in order to be able to grieve and say goodbye. Hence, there is a need for embalming, makeup, and doing all the things that may end up happening with an open-casket funeral. I’ve come to believe that this may be important, but it’s likely culturally determined.
The embalming and the makeup are new cultural things. It used to be that when you would see a person in the front room of their home on a long table, typically in a wooden box that was not often that ornate unless you were wealthy or sometimes you would rent an ornate box for the viewing and have a lesser box for the burial. You would have this table, and it would be draped.
You would have your viewing in the front room of your home. This would take place soon after the passing of the person. Because of the decomposition, this was taken into account, which is one of the reasons why flowers surround the loved one who has passed. It’s to mask the smell of death. It’s one of the reasons why, often, you’ll see women with their little nose gaze, their little bouquets, or their potpourri.
One of the reasons why scented beeswax candles are often lit around the deceased is to mask the smell of death. These traditions that we have are now being manufactured away through embalming, makeup, and the artificial appearance of life. We’re moving away from accepting death on its own terms.
We’re going to end up talking a bit more about this because I want to talk about the grieving process. What are some elements of it that can enhance that healing and that experience? We’re going to talk more than about death and mourning here. That’s a goal of mine. Are you implying that this change is not necessarily good, or is it different?
I’m implying that there is no necessary value judgment morally. It is not good or bad. You are on a highway headed West, but you’re telling me that you’re going to Albuquerque. I’m merely pointing out that this highway goes to San Francisco. If you would mourn death, mourn death. The embalming, they say, is necessary to extend the shelf life of the deceased and delay the decomposition. The funeral can be extended in terms of how long it can take. This is big money for the funeral industry. For the natural course of death, it is unnecessary.
I came to a similar conclusion, but I also recognize that, in particular, families, that’s the way it’s done, and to do it otherwise would cause more harm than good. We are off to the races here, as the readers are recognizing. As I was prepping for this, I listened to an episode by Andrew Huberman, who’s a neuroscientist. He does an in-depth look at the grieving process. I recommend people listen to that as a supplement because we’re not going to be able to cover everything here.
One of the things that he talks about is, at least, the research showing this notion of remaining emotionally attached to the person you lose while also recognizing that they’re no longer present. Tessa, it sounds to me like you’re saying that, in some ways, and let’s give the death care industry the benefit of the doubt, a well-intentioned practice might have a counterproductive effect, which is to mask the fact that this person you care deeply about has transformed.
By mimicking the appearance of life, it masks the reality of death. It can make it difficult psychologically for us to make that transition visually, emotionally, and psychologically to that notion that the deceased has now transitioned to the next phase of existence, whatever it may be. None of us know. We’re not here to speculate about that. The point is that whatever it is that we believe is happening to our loved one in that next phase. We are now in this phase of experiencing the love of that loved one alone to carry it now without them here to carry it with us.
Jackie, are you comfortable with this perspective?
Yes, I don’t have anything to add to that. I enjoy listening to it.
I want to get something out of the way. As a behavioral scientist, I have a few pet peeves, which is that, fortunately, the work of good, important psychologists makes its way into the public vernacular and consciousness. Sometimes, some bad work makes its way in, like the Myers-Briggs, for example. They are compelling, perhaps personally useful, but not great science.
I used an entire episode to address attachment theory and some of its flaws, especially for secure singles, which a lot of my readers are. With this one, I’m not bothered, but it deserves some clarification. That’s the Five Stages of Grief Model by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. We should give her flowers because there’s a lot of good with this model. The problem is that our understanding scientifically and clinically has evolved since then.
My understanding is that Kübler-Ross was talking about people who are dying and the stages they go through versus the stages that people who are grieving go through.
It’ll be anger, anger, denial, acceptance, and depression.
Is it in negotiation or something like that?
Yes, it’s bargaining. One issue is that a lot of people think that these stages happen in a particular order. It can be pathologizing if you don’t go in the “correct order,” or it takes longer than you think it’s supposed to take. There is a lot of validity to the stages. They don’t happen that cleanly.
I would agree with what Jaclyn is saying. I don’t think that the word stages is necessarily helpful. If we said that these are pieces of grief, like they’re puzzle pieces, it might be a more helpful model to call them pieces of grief because they fit together in puzzle pieces. That’s how I envision them. One day, you’re going to wake up and be angry that this beautiful thing you had was ripped away or that you didn’t get what you hoped for, expected, or wanted. One day, you’re going to wake up ready to do anything to get it back. That’s the bargaining.
You’re going to wake up accepting that this is how it is now, and the next day, you’re going to wake up three steps back thinking, “Yesterday, I was in acceptance. Why am I angry now? That’s not fair.” You’re right. It’s not fair. That’s one thing about grief that I will agree with you about. Many people have this expectation that they’re going to wake up one day and become the person that they were before they experienced this grief. My observation is that is not how grief turns out for most people.
We’re going to get into this now, but I’ll add one thing. It’s a useful model. It is overgeneralized. It’s not useful to think of it as fixed. There’s nothing wrong with you. If you don’t experience all these stages, you regress, as you were alluding to Tessa. The other thing is I’ll speak from personal experience here. I lost my mother in a way that was a shock but not a surprise. The fact that she died wasn’t surprising, but when she died when she did. She felt like she was on borrowed time. She had many near misses. I was never angry about it, in part because her life was painful. She was in physical and emotional pain. In many ways, I felt great relief for her.
She didn’t have the quality of life.
I felt like she was in a more peaceful place than she had been for a long years in that sense. If I was looking at this model and being like, “Why aren’t you angry that your mom’s dead? What’s wrong with you? Don’t you have any empathy? Don’t you care?” It was the opposite. I cared so much about her that I was able to welcome that change for her. I was sad. There was a grieving process, but it didn’t look like the one that people see on TikTok when they’re learning about grief.
Something important to acknowledge is that when you step outside, what you expect to have happened based on what you saw in a ten-second catch-your-attention scroll, the first thing that happens to a lot of people is, I’m wrong, I’m bad, what’s wrong with me guilt and shame. I want to take a moment to say, “Nothing is wrong with you. You’re okay. It’s okay to experience your own grief without guilt and without shame in whatever way it is showing up for you now.” If you needed to hear that and you needed permission to set it down, set down that grief. Set down that guilt about whatever way it’s showing up for you.
It’s already hard to lose someone you love and to be beating yourself up that you’re not responding the way you ought to be responding.
There is no ought to be. That’s important to know. People say that you get 3 days or 7 days off from work if your company’s generous. You’re supposed to show up and put your files and reports together, and the sun is going to rise, and the rain’s going to come in. The car payment’s going to be expected, but you don’t even know the login. Suddenly, the mortgage is due. What if you are single? We’re here to talk about that. What if you are a single tenant? What if you are unpartnered? What if this person wasn’t your anchor? What if this person wasn’t your nesting partner?
You don’t get days off from work.
What if they weren’t your domestic partner? What if you have to take your own one single PTO day to go to that funeral or half-day worse and go back to work the next day like nothing happened?
Let me map this out as I see it for the readers. I want to talk about grief and mourning. I want to talk about the loss of someone you love, whatever that relationship looks like. I love people who I haven’t seen in years. I want to move on and talk about loss that’s not limited to death, for example, breakups or failures in life.
We’ll talk a little bit about how to cope with these, whether it be brief for the loss of a loved one or loss more generally. I want to finish talking about specific issues for solos. If they come up as we go, I don’t want you to hold back in that sense. That’s the way I’ve been thinking about this conversation. Tessa, you were saying that there’s not one way you ought to respond. Are there some common experiences that people tend to have with the loss of a loved one?
Yes, I would say that the most common experience I’ve observed when it comes to the death of a loved one is typically going to be that initial shock, the denial of not wanting it to be true, and the sinking feeling of accepting that it is now true, but the wish that it wasn’t the and that cognitive dissonance of wanting it badly to not be true. You can almost magic into making it be the way you want it again and be like it was before. Your life separates like broken glass before this moment and everything that comes after.
In that shattering moment of loss, who you are shifting a little bit. That grieving person starts to make decisions as a grieving person. One thing I see over again among grieving people is that the decisions they make are affected by their grief. They may not be what we would consider rational, fair, normal, or ordinary.
Could you give an example of something you’ve seen along those lines?
I knew a man who lost his incredibly beloved wife, leaving him with three children. Two of the oldest two boys were autistic and difficult to raise. They were autistic in different directions. The boys had special needs in different directions. This father felt pulled, and his youngest was a girl. The dad, not knowing how to be pulled in many different directions at once, shut down and talked about the mom.
He didn’t give the children an opportunity to mourn her because he didn’t take time to mourn her because he was entrenched in his new role, “I have to step up as a single dad because this is my role in life now. I don’t have time to become a human who is in grief. I had to tuck my vulnerability away.” That was what his children saw. As time has passed, there’s been some repair work that needs to be done around grief, intimacy, vulnerability, and parental relationships within that family. That’s been challenging. He’s up to the task. He’s a great dad. He’s made it work, but there have been some challenges that have arisen around that.
Thank you for that example. That helps take this abstract idea and give it some detail as an example of a well-meaning reaction that felt right in the moment but had a potential downside.
Talking about commonalities, and this certainly doesn’t apply to everybody, but it’s going back to what you were saying, Peter, especially, I’ve been working in hospice for a long time.
Can you say what hospice is for the small number of people who may not be familiar with it?
Hospice is care at the end of life in the last several months of life, but sometimes people end up on hospice for a lot longer or a lot shorter period of time. It’s a benefit that you get through Medicare, where you’ve got a whole team that either comes into your home or wherever you are and takes care of you, and it’s awesome.
I’m a hospice social worker. Something that needs to be normalized, which happens a lot in the context of hospice, is a sense of relief when people die, as well as a sense of guilt that comes along with that because family members are saying, “I feel bad that I feel relieved that my mom has died, but she’s not suffering anymore, and we’re not suffering anymore. We’re suffering but in a different way.”
There’s so much that gets tangled up with that, and people feel guilty. The truth is, especially in these situations where somebody has been slowly dying for a long time. Their family has been losing little bits and pieces of them over a long period, and they’ve been consumed by dementia, cancer, or chronic health issues, whether it be physical or mental, or both. There is a huge sense of relief that can come along with that. Yes, you’re sad, and there are a lot of negative feelings about that, but more often than not, I hear family members tell me that they are relieved when somebody has died.
To Tess’s point earlier, we’re living in a new world where the end of life can be rather protracted, and we can keep people alive in ways that maybe we weren’t able to long ago. You witness a longer duration of suffering in that. On the one hand, it’s wonderful to keep someone in your world, especially if they aren’t willing to let go, but it was painful to see my mom like that for so long and be unable to remedy it. I appreciate you saying that. It seems to me the most common emotional reaction is a sense of sadness. Loss and sadness go hand in hand. My guess is that sadness manifests in different ways for different people, even this common emotional experience may not look the same.
I would agree with that. I would say that sadness is something that when people say, “I feel sad.” Jaclyn, if you were to say, “I feel sad,” I might say, “I know what my sad feels like, but I don’t know what your sad feels like to you.” Your internal experience of that is still personal to you. It might cause you to act and behave and respond in ways that I would find foreign.
In that manner, we can still have these deeply personal experiences that can be almost alien to another person. The deeper that emotional experience is for us, and the more protracted in terms of duration and time, and the more deep, the more it feels like sometimes it feels like you’re not going to get out of that alone. This is where being a singleton can affect how you’re impacted by grief.
Community and ritual is an important factor in grief. There are things that we can do to help us manage our grief that we are not doing because we are not taught how to regulate any emotion, but particularly, we’re not taught how to handle grief because we’re taught to hide away from it. When it comes up in us, we don’t know what to do with it, but it is universal and unavoidable. Eventually, we’re all going to have to face it, and if we have tools, which I’m hoping that we’ll get to.
We should talk about them now. I appreciate you saying this about how two people can have an emotional response to loss and sadness. They may react completely differently to it. Someone might distract themself from the loss and throw themselves back into their work or into something.
I have something to say about that. The Heartlight Center is an awesome place for grief programming in the Denver area. I went to a grief-related class there years ago. I don’t remember the terminology they used exactly, but there are some people who deal with their grief by processing it in the way of talking about it.
There are some people where that does not work for them. If you put that person in therapy or a support group, they are going to not know what to do. It’s going to be uncomfortable. Some people grieve by doing. Whatever it is, that can look different for everybody, but that helped me to learn that it doesn’t have to be a bad thing that this guy has died, and his wife is immediately in go mode, going around the house and getting all the papers together because she’s not in a space to talk about it right now. The process looked different for everybody. I thought that was helpful for me in my work.
Even though you can’t see yourself in that person’s response, you’re like, “I couldn’t go back to work. I have no interest in starting a charity around the illness that killed my friend.” Recognize That might be right for them, while you might need to bring your people together, mourn together, and talk about, reminisce, and memorialize. The question I have is, is it fair to say that whatever the response, as long as it’s helping, is a proper response?
As long as it’s helpful, it is, yes.
Drinking heavily is generally not a proper response.
Everybody is entitled to tie one once in a while. Drinking heavily five nights out seven, probably you might want to call a friend.
I only bring this up because alcohol is often used as a coping. I made a joke about the Irish Catholics, which I am one. I’m being a little cheeky when I say that, but in general, there are healthier ways. As long as it’s not become routine, is what I’m hearing you say.
Everything is in moderation. Anything to excess can cause a problem.
I’m turning into a teetotaler so that my bias is showing. Jackie came from having a beer before this show. The fair assertion, is it helping?
Sometimes, something that helps immediately at the moment may not be a great decision in the long term. That is where stuff like drinking can come in. It might help me right now to take this shot and forget about something hard for me to think about. In small doses, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If that’s how I’m responding to any feeling that I have, then yes. Is it helping? For a second, but not long term.
There’s a difference between having a glass of wine every now and again and having a bottle of wine every night because you can’t feel what it feels like.
It could be other drugs or medications. Let’s continue talking about grief and the loss of a loved one. I would like to also bring in the loss of a pet, especially among the solo crowd. This can be as profound. There’s little distinction between the loss of an animal that is a loved one and a human that is a loved one. Let’s do the following.
We’re not painting an easy picture here. There’s no set of stages that you’re going to follow, and you’ll be okay. There are these individual differences. You don’t even exactly know what’s right for you until you are dealing with it. Most people are unprepared for a profound loss in their life and often inexperienced because they’ve been kept away from it when they were children and the loss of a grandparent. Maybe they were kept away from it. We don’t have conversations. We haven’t normalized death in our own personal lives. It’s something that feels sanitary and distant.
You two have a lot of experience with death through your work, and personally, you have had some experiences. What can we generally give a reader to help them if they’re grieving or we know they will be grieving at some point? Are there any special considerations for the singles with regard to this process? That’s a big question, but let’s get going on it.
I’ll give Jaclyn a moment to put her thoughts together. If I were going to brainstorm on that, the first thing I would say is to be gentle with yourself. Whatever it is you’re feeling, it sucks and it’s uncomfortable. It hurts, and I’m sorry. I wish you didn’t feel what you’re feeling, but you do. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s acceptable. You don’t have to be ashamed of it. If you’re angry, relieved, sad, scared, or don’t know how to do whatever it is that you think you have to do next, it’s okay to feel that way. You can be gentle with yourself about that. That’s the first thing. It’s important for everybody to remember that it’s okay to be gentle with you in your grieving process.
There’s something I’d like to say to the reader who has a friend or a loved one who is in grief. Often, we don’t know what to say to the grieving person. We don’t know how to help a person who is going through a profound loss. We want to be there for them, and we don’t know how. Sometimes, this grieving person is not aware of what they need and is not in a position to make big decisions. The best thing you can do, if you know them well, is to take a decision off of their plate. Show up around dinner time and dinner. Show up and clean their cat boxes. Show up, mow the lawn, and leave again. Show up and clean their bathroom.
The big thing there is showing up.
That’s what I said in every sentence, and you caught it.
People get caught up in wanting to do or say the right thing. We underestimate the power of presence and being with somebody because there’s nothing you’re going to say that’s going to make somebody feel better when they are in that, but being there makes all the difference.
I was once lost in grief and a person who I confessed I did later, Mary, showed up at my door with a box of brand name lotion and tissues, my favorite kind. My favorite brand name is Rocky Road Ice Cream, the kind with chocolate-covered almonds that you normally can’t get. It was imported to the state that I lived in at the time. It was hard to find. You had to go to a specialty grocery store to find it. It showed up at my door with this stuff and said, “I don’t have to stay. I brought these in a hug. If you want company, I’m here. If you don’t, I’ll go.” Showing up was amazing. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.
This episode is going to coincide with an episode I’ve already taped. It might come after. It’s about being single with cancer. My guest and I talked a lot about the need for a team and community. She’s proactive. A lot of her advice was like, do not be afraid to say, I need this. Would you do this for me? Can you?
I like the idea that, with the right friends, you don’t have to ask so much. They’re already stepping in in that way, delicately and thoughtfully. One of the best things about that story is this eventual partner, someone who clearly cared about you, said, “I don’t have to stay. I’m not forcing a particular experience on you.” I’m curious. Did that person stay in that situation?
He came in for a hug, and he said, “What’s overwhelming you?” I said, “It’s the yard work.” He said, “Why don’t I go mow the lawn?” He mowed the lawn that day. I could focus on getting some other stuff done, and I didn’t feel overwhelmed.
Be gentle on yourself to recognize that you don’t have to have this all sorted. It is interesting. There are people who stumble through life, and life is difficult for them. There are people who are good at life. Mike Tyson’s manager used to say, “Everybody has a plan until you get punched in the nose.” This feels like one of those situations. You’re like, “I got this.” Things have changed. What are some other things? One of them is showing up for others, but for yourself, if you’re dealing with this, but if you have someone who you care about who’s grieving, this is also appropriate.
As somebody who has been living by myself for over a decade, stubbornly independent, and solo polyamorous, I have had to figure it out. There are a lot of different elements here. It’s redefining family and whatever your community is, whoever is involved in that. It is striking a balance between wanting to do things on my own and being independent but also knowing when to ask for help because I am bad at asking for help.
In a nutshell, it’s trauma. Having a trauma history is a big part of how I ended up being a single solo person. I’ve done a lot of exploration with that. For better or for worse, sometimes it’s a good thing, and sometimes it can be something that hurts me. A few weeks ago, I was going to stay home, and I was having a hard time. I texted a friend and said, “I don’t care what we do, but I would like to see you this weekend.” She said, “Yes.”
It was such a hard thing for me to even ask because that’s not something I do a lot. A lot of these questions and things are big for me because, in the last few years, it has been hard for all of us, but I’ve gone through multiple breakups. I’ve lost a cat that I had for several years. She was almost 21. She was my girl. There’s been a lot. Being this single person is, for the most part, something that’s awesome and something that I love, but it can also get isolating if you don’t reach out to your people.
It doesn’t have to be a serious talk where I’m sitting there crying to my friend. It can be us having beers, but it’s important to have that community and to reach out. Working in healthcare, people talk about self-care a lot, to the point where a lot of people roll their eyes about it because it’s something that is encouraged but sometimes not encouraged. It’s framed in the sense of like, “Take a bubble bath. That’s your self-care.”
That is an important consideration, like, what is self-care for me? What does fill my cup? There are many elements of it for me. It’s my cats. It’s going home and cuddling them. It’s doing yoga, taking a walk in the cemetery, and therapy. I don’t know what I would do without that. There’s so much, but it is unique when you’re somebody who’s on your own dealing with various types of loss and big changes.
That was brave, Jaclyn.
There’s a little bit of an irony here in that you are good at giving this support. This is what you do for a living. My guess is you’re number one on the speed dial for a lot of people in your life. That’s something that I think is useful for people to read that no matter how good we are at life, we are still human. We still have our challenges.
Walking the talk can be a little difficult sometimes, especially when you know what you’re supposed to do. Asking for help is tough, even when you know it’s what you’re supposed to do when you know it would help. It’s tough for everybody from time to time.
One of the things that’s standing out from this is there’s a dual message here, which is don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be too proud of whatever sin you think is associated with this. Don’t be afraid. You’re not a burden on people who love you.
You are worth the effort it takes to love you. People want to help you.
These people want you to be happy. They want you to thrive, repair, and be at your best. What has to be clear hearing this is don’t wait for the request. If Jackie, a trained professional, is reluctant to make the request at times, maybe it’s worth it to check in with those people, even if it’s been a while since they’ve had a loss, and say, “How are you doing? Is there something I can do for you? Would you like to spend some time together?” That’s important.
I’m going to read it verbatim. This is a member of the community. I have a Slack channel. You can sign up for it at PeterMcGraw.org/solo. It is about some of the unique challenges of being single and facing grief. This is what this person wrote, “Lack of respect for married siblings or relatives for what we do offer elder care and support for the dying. It’s often not viewed as enough. Solos always should be doing more because we don’t have real responsibilities.”
I have an episode about solo caregivers, and this is a common experience. You love your siblings. Mom is sick. They say, “I don’t have the bandwidth. I don’t have any wiggle room. Can you do it?” Often, that single person steps up. Second, there is a lack of recognition or support for significant losses we suffer that don’t involve the death of a family member by birth or marriage. That could be a pet, a close friend, or a platonic partner. She writes, “They’re not important enough to deserve true grief.”
Can we sit with that for a moment?
Jackie and I were chatting about couples’ privilege before this, which is a conversation that happens in my living room now that I’m running this show, and this idea that there are important relationships that we can all agree on. The world doesn’t reflect that. Good luck getting a day off to bury your pet or your best friend.
It’s important to acknowledge these things because people who are reading know this feeling. It’s the lack of offer or support when we need it. Sometimes, the solos are seen as being self-sufficient and being good at all this stuff. You say, “Peter, he’s got it.” A few no unsolicited condolences or offers of support. Sometimes, this is because people are uncomfortable. They’re unaware, or they don’t see the gravity because they have a different mental model about relationships.
A lack of a model or awareness altogether could be part of the goings-on behind that working and those wheels turning. When it comes to relationships, people have a binary model. There are real relationships, and there are friendships. There’s this desert in between emotional affairs and nothingness. There’s a lot of nuance.
If I see one more person saying they want a serious relationship on a dating app, I may scream.
I have a serious relationship with everyone I have a relationship with.
All of my relationships are serious.
As a solo poly person, that is special. People don’t think that any of my relationships are serious and committed because I do not want to live with that person, get married, and “start a family.” People don’t take my relationships as seriously, even when they’re people who I’ve been with for years. I have had friends, and I’ve had a breakup. They’ve said, “You have other partners.” Granted, these were friends who were monogamous. They don’t 100% get it.
For a long time, I was with a monogamous person. We tried to make it work and couldn’t. At the end of that relationship, that person asked me, “This isn’t going to hurt your feelings because you’ve got other partners.” This had been somebody who was one of the most important people in my life for over a decade. If you don’t climb the escalator and your relationships don’t look the way that society thinks they’re supposed to look, they don’t get taken as seriously.
I’m sorry that that experience occurred for you.
Tessa, I can learn from you. I want to talk about breakups because there’s something different about breakups compared to death.
It lacks that same finality, especially in a small town or small community. Sometimes, you have to see your old flame with a new flame, and that can be its own level of hell.
There’s the thought of, “Maybe this is not a real breakup.” There’s no finitude associated with this. I want to pause that and come back to it because I want to continue if there are any other best practices.
I have a resource. I did bring it with me because I have a terrible time remembering the title. This is my favorite resource for grief. It’s a relatively small book. It’s called Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart. I have the second edition. This is by Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD.
By someone who has long titles for his books, I appreciate this long title.
That was a subtitle. I wanted to wedge the whole thing in there. This book talks about not only the experience of stepping through grief as a person who is experiencing the loss. It doesn’t only talk about loss from a perspective of death but all good grief and how universal it can be. Many quotes here are from CS Lewis and Pema Chödrön. There are lots of good chewable little pieces. They’re in short chapters. It’s digestible.
It talks about how you can accompany a person who is experiencing grief. I like that approach to companion someone who is experiencing grief. The goal is not to guide someone who is experiencing grief. They are the guide. The person who is experiencing grief is the guide back to either themselves or forward to who they’re going to be incorporating this grief into their lives and who they’re going to be going forward.
They don’t need you to tell them what they’re doing right or wrong. They don’t need your moral value judgment. They don’t need anything other than their laundry folded, a reminder of when the car payment is due, and potentially the login information for the electric bill. They need little details and reminders. They might need a shoulder to cry on. They might need a friend to go out with and forget things with. They might need somebody to grocery shop for them, but they don’t need your judgment. They need a companion.
This is a good segue. I have a reader question that’s related to this topic that we’ve been covering. I love this idea of requesting companionship. It feels right to me. The readers wrote, “How to accept or ask for help as a solo? How do you ask for help in a world where you are the one who seems to have it all together because you’re living this remarkable, unencumbered life? Married people are always asking each other for other things. As a solo, one tends to be called on to assist.” What advice would you give this person in terms of seeking a companion as they’re grieving?
Do you want to tackle this one, Jaclyn, as a solo person?
I’m not an expert on that.
Do as I say, not as I do.
As a married person who is nested, we have separate bedrooms, or we’re non-traditional, being polyamorous. We’re non-traditional, but at the same time, I want to be transparent. I’m not solo. I don’t speak from that perspective. I want to give you space to speak on that topic.
It looks different for everybody. Back to what I was saying before about figuring out who your support system is, it’s a huge part of it. It’s like, “Who can I call on?” I have trouble asking for help. I don’t necessarily want to turn it into some big dramatic. I have friends who I can tell, “I’m struggling. I need to talk.” Sometimes, I don’t even want to go there. Sometimes, I want to be like, “Let’s hang out. If it goes there, it goes there.” I feel grateful that I have a lot of amazing people in my life who I can reach out to when I need that. It’s there, but you have to figure out who your community is. I wish I had better advice on how to do it because it’s not my specialty.
You answered the question better than you think you did. This is what ends up happening. Someone asks a question, but there’s a more important question. The more important question is, do you have someone to call in the middle of the night when you’re sick or afraid? That is an important question to be able to answer affirmatively. The people who can’t answer that question affirmatively, my heart goes out to them because it’s associated with a whole lot of other challenges in life.
I have an episode that will have already aired called Do You Have a Watcher? I talk about this idea. In these hunter-gatherer tribes, not everybody goes to sleep at the same time. There are people who watch over the tribe when everybody is sleeping. In modernity, we don’t have that necessarily. If you live alone, there’s no one watching over you. The idea is that I don’t have a watcher in my house. I don’t have someone in my bed to wake up when I’m sick or afraid. I have people whose phone numbers I have memorized, and some of them are likely to be awake.
It’s even if you don’t call and know that you can make a big difference.
I talk a lot about being the person that you would want someone to be for you. When you feel comfortable knowing that you are the person who can be called and can help, it makes it easier to ask for that in some. The language I use with friends when I say, “Do you want me there, or do you need me there? If it’s want, I may disappoint you because I’ve got a conflict. If it’s you need me there, I’ll book the plane ticket. I’ll come over now and set everything else aside.” I know that list of people I can have that conversation with. They’re worthy of a need me now. The big takeaway is to look at your social support system. You might need to do a little bit of TLC. You may need to offer the help that you would want to get. That’s my reaction.
My grandmother always said, “If you want to have a friend, be a friend.” I would argue that love is a verb. One of the things that I know that I do personally that works well for me is I work hard on my relationships. For the ones that are meaningful and valuable, I show up. I text thinking of you. I saw this meme, and I thought of you. People tease me. They’re like, “If you were an animal, you would be a magpie.” I’m like, “You are not wrong. I would fill my nest with shiny things.”
Memes are a love language.
It says, “I’m thinking of you.”
It’s like, “When you are not with me, you exist for me.” That is a love language for me. I love that. One time, not too long ago, my partner and I didn’t share a bedroom. We have separate bedrooms in our home. We are blessed to have a home that allows us to do this. I don’t want to take a moment to recognize that privilege. Because of that, he was prepping for a big job interview. I accidentally mixed some medications, absent-mindedly, that I forgot that I was not supposed to mix in a timeframe that I was not supposed to have them in. I could not tell him because he had to go to bed at a certain time because he had to get up.
One thing leads to another, and I need someone to watch over me because I can’t fall asleep. I called my friend. She’s like, “I can’t be there. I’ve had some adult beverages. I’m not fit to drive, but I’m going to text our other friend and see if she can come sit with you.” Around this time, my phone is acting fun. My thumbs were not working as to what was going on.
My friend came over and sat with me until almost 3:00 in the morning to make sure I would not fall asleep before I felt okay enough to sleep unassisted, and everything was fine. I’m fine. Everything went okay, and everything is fine. Knowing that I had people who had my back in the event that my normal, ordinary go-to person was indisposed or unavailable was crucial.
I do have some tips on how to set that support system up. There are people out there who struggle with this. They don’t necessarily know how to get this thing going. I’m going to say, “Do it scared. Be vulnerable. Be willing to be intimate. Get in the arena.” Brené Brown has this quote that she likes from FDR. Don’t quote me on that. I haven’t done the research.
Is it Teddy Roosevelt?
It might be, but it talks about getting in the arena and how people outside the arena are throwing fruit and judging. It’s a guy in the arena getting his butt handed to him. The dirt who’s having the experience gets in the arena. That’s where the action is. Be willing to be vulnerable and intimate. You will be amazed and how often you will be met by a person who is willing to get in there and get their butt kicked with you. There are many people who are waiting for an excuse to show up authentically and who are waiting for somebody to go out on a limb first and show them that that olive branch is ready and waiting.
I want to live and be alive. There’s something exciting about that perspective. I’ve been doing a series of mushroom trips. My readers are getting sick of me talking about them. I am overcome with thoughts of brotherhood on my mushroom trips. There’s something about my male friendships that rises up in some of these experiences. I feel incredibly connected to these men. These are the men who would be in the arena with me and happily so. They are not interested in being in the stands.
To seek out and find those people in your life and cultivate those relationships and people who want to be alive with you is wonderful. It’s in our losses and triumphs that we feel alive. These are the moments in life that make us who we are. Being able to have a companion as part of that is exciting. People reveal who they are when times are tough.
It’s not about who shows up to your 4th of July feast or shows up with groceries to your famine.
You are only going to find out if that person shares that connection with you when you are going to be vulnerable and ask for something that feels scary. That’s great. Other things, before we start talking breakups about best practices. That book is wonderful. That strikes me as the book you want to read now before you need it.
This is my baby book. This is my third copy. I’ve given it off way and not had it returned because people are like, “No, it’s mine now. I love it. You can’t have it.” I’ve got it on eBook and audiobook. I’ve had to buy it again. I love Understanding Your Grief by Alan D. Wolfelt because it is gentle. There’s something about the approach that it takes. It’s non-judgmental. I would recommend it to anybody who has a pulse for anybody. It’s a book for everyone because you’re going to grieve, you are grieving, or you know someone who is, whether you know they are or not, they are. It is universal. That’s a good point.
There are many good resources for grief support. I mentioned the Heartlight Center. Wherever you are locally, there are grief centers there. Hospices all have grief programs because they are mandated to provide grief support until thirteen months after a death. Another thing that’s not necessarily grief-specific but you had asked about earlier is Death Cafe.
I was going to ask about that. Thank you.
I’ve been occasionally helping co-facilitate a local Death Cafe in Denver for years now. The whole thing with Death Cafe is it’s not a grief group or a support group, but it is a place for people to talk about all aspects of death and to do something that is hugely important, which is to normalize talking about death. If you can do that, it will be easier in times of grief.
I have gotten so much from Death Cafe over the years. Every conversation is different. It goes from practical things like advanced directives. We talk about grief and loss. We talk about what people think happens after you die. We talk about all kinds of cool stuff. The most important thing is to normalize talking about death.
As a society, this is something that we shy away from. People don’t even want to say the word. I get upset when, even in the context of hospice, people say, “Use terms like passing away or all the euphemisms.” I’m like, “Please say the D word.” I’ve tried to be conscious of that myself and say death and dying on a regular basis. If that makes people uncomfortable, that’s good.
It’s time to get uncomfortable and examine why.
It seems like the person who comes to a Death Cafe is already a bit elevated, but what is it that you find most challenging for the participants?
People are there. They’re more open to talking about it. Sometimes, it’s hard to get people reeled in. It can get off-topic, which can be interesting, but it gets a little off the rails.
Is that a coping mechanism?
It can be both. I don’t find this to usually be the case, but I found some people to be firm in their beliefs of the afterlife or what near-death experiences are, which I have mixed feelings on sometimes. It’s hard. I have to step back and be like, “It’s not about me. This is what somebody else believes.”
I want to ask one last question about this, and we’ll pivot. For most people, we cope, survive, come to some acceptance, and still love this person, but we recognize that they’re not in our lives anymore. Those are not at odds. Do you disagree?
I think that they’re still in our life. Our relationship with how they appear in our lives has changed.
Let me clarify. This is my own understanding of grieving is the idea that our relationship has changed by way of their death. We accept the fact that we’ll never see them in this lifetime, depending on your beliefs about an afterlife, and you can maintain this healthy perspective that you don’t have to diminish the relationship in any way and your feelings about them.
You have to accept that it has changed, and people may grieve more or less quickly, as we already talked about. I don’t want to say well. You may regress and have challenges. For some people, they’re not able to stop grieving. It becomes a chronic challenge that can last years. If you’re not careful, it takes a lifetime.
Some people become profoundly depressed.
For those folks, if you know that person, or if you are that person, what are the resources? My feeling is they need to do something else than what they’re doing to try to address this.
In hospice, I have met many people who lost a spouse and never got over it. Have even said to me, my husband died x number of years ago, and I have been ready to die ever since. On one level, that can be a beautiful thing and also a sad thing if this person was in their entire universe for many years. What do you do with that?
I don’t know that I have an answer for that situation because that’s immediately where my head went when you said that. What I see in those situations is somebody who is what I have seen in people who lose the will to live in these situations. They grasp onto whatever makes them happy and whatever gives them meaning in their lives. It is a tough thing to have to redefine your role as a human when you’ve been so-and-so’s wife your entire life.
The older you get, the harder these things can often be.
Our culture worships two things when it comes to relationships. One of them is independence. The other is codependence. We don’t prize interdependence the way that I think we should. It’s either self-sufficiency or codependence. When you’ve been Mrs. John Doe for several years, and you got married at fifteen, and now you’re 95, and you don’t know who Mary Sue is anymore, in my personal opinion, for whatever it’s worth, you are perfectly entitled to feel any way you like. If you, on the other hand, and I do think context matters, are 46, and you have two teenage kids who need to get to school in the morning, you have to grasp onto life.
There’s a lot more living to be done.
You need intervention. If you have fallen into that place where you are so far down that you can’t see the sky, the first thing that you need to do is understand that you don’t have to get out of this on your own. Where you are is not your fault. It is okay to ask for help. You’re going to reach out for help and call your doctor, EAP, or employee assistance program. If you have one through your work, or if that’s not appropriate in your situation, you did have a hospice program that you can reach out to. If your loved one was on hospice, and you are a part of the family that has access to those benefits, perhaps you were single, and you don’t have access to those benefits.
The community can still access those benefits, but not every hospice necessarily has the resources to have big groups. There is a certain amount of community.
Sometimes, it depends on what their resources are depending on the hospitals that you went through, but there are support groups. You don’t have to do this on your own. This is not a solo hike. This is climbing Everest. It’s okay to find a Sherpa. This may be the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do.
Finding a professional companion may be another way to frame this. Peter may help, but he’s not enough.
Finding someone like myself who coaches people through grief, somebody who works in hospice, somebody who does grief counseling groups, a therapist, even talking to your friend to verbally process, or whatever it is that you feel is the right path for you, do a little introspection and figure out what it is that’s going to be your intervention. If you’re not sure what your intervention is, reaching out for any line of support and finding whatever you wrap your hand around first may not be the right thing for you, but that’s okay. You can keep reaching out until you find what works.
It strikes me as if you recognize that this has become prolonged and is starting to negatively affect your life, health, professional life, relationships, and family life. It’s not improving. The most important thing is to try something. It’s a good step. It may not work right away, but you’re taking steps in the right direction to acknowledge that this is a challenging situation and I need help.
You are still here, and you are not quitting. Those are important considerations. Contextually, some of this matters. There are times when people do follow their loved ones to death. An elderly person might even die shortly after their beloved spouse dies of a heart attack. They call it broken heart syndrome. It’s a specific heart failure or cardiac failure with certain markers. I had a friend of mine who was a cardiac care nurse, and she saw it not infrequently or commonly, but not terribly infrequently. She wrote a paper on it. She was a nurse for her BSN. That’s how it came to my awareness.
What I found interesting about that was it’s known enough that it has a name broken heart syndrome, and it’s commonly seen among elderly people who have lost a spouse within the past couple of months. It’s not preventable, but it’s not something that you can see coming. That’s why it’s not preventable. On the other hand, it’s not something that most of us are going to run into, particularly not a younger, healthier person.
Most of us, when we experience a loss, are going to have to get through it. Earlier, when you said, “We cope.” I countered and said, “We survive.” There’s a difference between shutting down and soldiering on and coping. Many of us shut down and soldier on because that’s what we’re taught to do. We can learn to cope. Much of what we’re here to talk about is how we cope. How do we not shut down and soldier on? How do we not get stuck in a freeze?
Before we pivot to breakups and other losses, I want to say something and feel free to weigh in. When I die, I don’t want the people that I love to suffer greatly for a long period of time. I want them to miss me a little bit. That would be nice, but I don’t want my loss to devastate them. I want them to continue living the remarkable lives that they’re living.
In some ways, there’s something important in that idea. The people who we love love us, and we honor them by continuing on with life, living it, enjoying it, and being the person that they fell in love with as a friend, lover, and family member. That’s a hard perspective to have. You can reframe this like, I want to honor this person and acknowledge their importance in my life, but they’re my comrade, companion, and brothers in arms.
They wouldn’t want my entire life to stop indefinitely in this way. They want, if anything, for me to grow from this experience, carry on the values that we shared, and accomplish the things that we care about in the world. That’s something that I think a little bit about. I’ve talked to my sister a little bit about what I want my arrangements to look like.
You considered your legacy.
I want it to be a celebration. I don’t want my friends sad. I want them to laugh and to share these tales.
You can have all those things together. That’s the beauty of it.
They’ll pass around the microphone and try to out-story each other.
If I have an expected death, I want to have a living wake. First of all, because I have a badass playlist, and I want to hear it one last time. I love the idea of hearing the stories and laughing and crying with people. I die, and they can do their thing. I’m with you. I don’t want that to completely crush the people that I love.
I might be giving myself too much credit that my death will crush anyone. You would get the sentiment there. Thank you for indulging that perspective. I want to talk about breakups, but we could talk about loss. I once came close to getting a job that I wanted, and it did not come through in a heartbreaking fashion. It felt unfair. There was some grieving. I was planning a new life that disappeared. Anybody who has opened their heart to someone has experienced grief.
It’s only to find that maybe they weren’t who they said they were. Maybe they were, but only for a time. You grew apart or you grew in different directions.
They did something horrible to you.
There was a betrayal.
The person who’s supposed to love you the most has done one of the most hurtful things to you. These can be devastating to the point that we were discussing. People don’t always get it. You aren’t married. It’s not a divorce. You are only dating for a short period of time.
When you are non-monogamous, there is always the added like, “You have other partners. You’ll be fine. This one didn’t count.” People have said that to me in the past, and it’s cruel.
Grieving a breakup or other major loss. Many of the same things apply. Anything special?
One of the special things is that sometimes you have to see and interact with them, especially if you’re a co-parent, they’re in the same community that you’re in, or you go to the same clubs or parties.
That’s what the block feature is for. Do yourself a favor and hit the block button, at least for a few months. Give yourself a clean break.
I’m not speaking from personal experience here. I see it.
It’s a different loss because the person isn’t dead. In some ways, that can make it harder because you may not be ready to see them. That can be difficult. It’s unavoidable, especially if you’re in a smaller town. Denver feels like a small town.
If you’re not monogamous, it’s a small town.
I listen to some weird music. Going to concerts can get awkward sometimes.
That’s because you know this person’s going to be there too.
That does add another weird layer. I’ve had many breakups. Most of those people are people that I’m still friends with, or at least I’m on good terms with, but there are a handful that are hard to see, or if it’s new and you’re not quite ready for that. That can make it hard.
Context matters when it comes to breakups. I do think that there’s a big difference between, “We’ve been out 3 or 4 times, and I don’t think that we are a good fit,” versus, “We’ve been married for several years, and we have three children, and I caught you in bed with your secretary.” That’s a huge difference in context.
There’s also a huge difference in emotional investment and entanglement. They’re incomparable in terms of what you have invested, give up, and consider when you’re thinking about disentangling. When we’re talking about grieving a breakup, we need to think about the context. Are we thinking about a person who’s been out a few times and wants to let someone down easily, or are we thinking about somebody who’s experiencing the theoretical carpet having been pulled out from under them, only to discover that there’s no floor?
I have a friend who talks about, like, “Is the person’s response commensurate with the experience?” You go out on a couple of dates, and you say to someone, “You’re nice, but I don’t think this is a good fit.” They explode. They have this provocative response. It’s not a commensurate experience. You’re suggesting that the level of connection and the level of loss end up mattering.
Jackie, what you’re saying is just because you have other companions or people who are important to you doesn’t diminish this relationship. This is not like, “There’s a substitute for this.” There’s something also that makes these losses, even one that might not be a several-year relationship, is that you lose a future that you sometimes, for better or for worse, have been planning.
Everything that you put together in your brain is gone.
You think that this is indefinite. That’s how love often feels. It feels like it’s going to feel this way forever.
You’re the only person who can make me feel this way. I’ll never feel this again.
One of the hardest breakup situations I had was finding somebody who, when I said, “I’m solo polyamorous,” was told, “Yes, me too.” I had this whole like, “I have finally found somebody who I connect with who is also solo.” I had this whole future.
It’s easy to get excited, especially if you have a non-traditional approach to relationships because it feels like a needle in a haystack for a lot of people.
That was the thing. It’s like, “I finally found this thing that I’ve wanted for so long.” Only to find out, a couple of years later, that it was all lies. Everything I said I wanted was being mirrored back to me. Finding out several years into a relationship that I was being lied to the entire time was one of the hardest breakups I’ve ever had.
It’s such a profound portrayal.
There was a time when I was in a dark place, thinking, “I am never going to find somebody who’s on the same page as me. Why am I even trying?” One of the big silver linings that have come out of that is, I always say, as a solo person, “I prioritize my relationship with myself and working on my own stuff.” That taught me to turn inward, do a lot of my own work, and not throw so much of myself into another person and all of these hopes that I had for that relationship.
I have something to say about that. First, I would like to express compassion that you went through that terrible experience. Secondly, I would like to say, “If you ever want to take a bath to his headlights, hit their headlights.” You were with me the whole time. We were having drinks in my house. Thirdly, I would like to say that I want to touch on the despair piece of that. Many people who are unpartnered or solo polyamory experience grieving.
When those three things overlap, the despair piece that hopelessness places can be deep sometimes, and it feels like no one else has ever been there before. It’s like James Joyce’s level metaphorical jungle of despair. It’s like you’re macheteing your way through it. You’re the first person that’s ever been here because there’s no path. Nobody else could possibly ever have been here before.
Even if someone had been, you feel alone in it. You’re curled up in bed in the fetal position, crying and upset. You can feel alone.
Sometimes, you are in grief. What’s important to remember is that you’re not alone in this life and experience. You’re not alone in the love you had for that person. You’re not alone in feeling betrayed. You’re not alone in the experience of having been strung along and let down. There are many songs out there. You said that you listen to some weird music. I’m like, “I’m sure there’s a playlist involved in this breakup somewhere. I’m confident of that.”
I know that there are many things that we do to mourn when we go through this. We make the playlist, get angry, break the cups, beat the pillow, and scream. We eat mushrooms and dance. The last time that happened, the solar guys showed up at my house unexpectedly. I answered the door, and I was like, “We’re sick. We can’t come outside and play.” He was like, “I need to know if there are any dogs.” I’m like, “No, you’re good. You can go out back. It’s fine.”
I don’t think I could answer the door in that scenario.
What I wanted to say was I wanted to speak to that despair piece and how not attractive it is, but how magnetic it can be.
It’s easy to get lost in.
It’s like a pull. How it can be hard to stay away from, and how it can take so much work and effort to keep yourself floating in your head above water. Some days, it feels like all you do is tread. If all you did was tread water, thank you.
There’s a parallel experience that I want to acknowledge. I had Melanie Notkin on the show. She has a book called Otherhood. It’s about women primarily who love children and support children but don’t have their own. She talks publicly and passionately about the despair that she went through, recognizing that she was not going to be a mother. She had to experience a loss in the middle of her life when she realized this was not going to happen for her. The way she describes it feels a lot like the way we’ve been talking about the loss of a loved one or the loss of a lover.
You are grieving something that you envisioned for your life.
We built a future in our mind about what is a good life, what’s going to make me happy, what I want, and what I was destined to do and be. Being unable to make that happen can be traumatic.
Losing that dream is hard.
What I would say to people is whether it’s like the loss of a child that you never had, a loss of a job that you wanted, or some missed opportunity, that feeling of loss is acceptable. There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s not just a job. It’s a different trajectory in life. It’s okay to say, “That is no longer available to me.”
We moved to Denver in 2019. Before we moved here, I had dinner with my former best friend. I sent her a text message. I didn’t hear back from her for a while. I sent her another one a few weeks later. I didn’t hear back from her. I waited a couple of months and didn’t hear back from her. She never texted me once after moving to Denver. I’ve never heard from her again.
This was your best friend.
Since September 2019, I’ve never heard from her and never on any platform. We were friends on Facebook until 2022. I discovered that she had unfriended me because I went to look at my friends list for another purpose, and she was on my people you may know. I was like, “Did she make a new profile?”
I went to look, and no, she hadn’t. She unfriended me. I thought, “I wonder why she never told me that there was an issue. What was wrong that she couldn’t communicate it to me? If this is her choice, I’m going to respect that. She doesn’t owe me an explanation. If this is what she wants, I’m going to respect that.” Am I haunted by it? Yes, to this day. I’m not going to lie.
It’s because there’s closure.
I have to live with a lack of that closure. I grieve that to this day. The way that I cope with that is to acknowledge that that grief is real. People who say to me, “You were just friends.” We were best friends for many years. Our children grew up side by side. I had a nickname for her kid. I called him pickles. It was a big deal that she stepped out of my life as cleanly as pages ripped out of a book.
I’ll scream if I hear someone say, “Just friends.”
That phrase is like a bad texture to my brain. It’s like you ever touch something, and you’re like, “Gross.” That’s what that feels like inside my head. I used it specifically for that purpose because when I hear that, that’s how it feels to me. It feels sad. I have friends now, and they’re not just friends. They feel to me like partners. I don’t live with them or engage sexually with them, but they feel to me emotionally, intimately, and vulnerably like partners. I offered to take my friend to her surgery.
We’re tribal. That is the history of humans. Most of humanity has been spent in hunter-gatherer tribes, which are made up exclusively of lovers, family, and friends. All of them are important. The tribe does not exist without friends, lovers, and family. To create this hierarchy around lovers being the most important, family being next important, and friends being third ignores our humanity. Ignores what made homo sapiens able to survive for hundreds of years. I feel strongly about this, not surprisingly.
This is now going to break a record for my longest episode. I’m not going to let my editor break it in two because that’s what he always wants to do. I want to finish on a little bit of an upbeat note if I can. People are well aware of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD. That can arise from a variety of traumatic experiences. We’re making some strides with regard to helping people with it. The plant medicine work is promising and exciting.
What’s not known as well, and there’s a small literature on this, is that some people, in response to trauma and loss, have the opposite experience of post-traumatic growth. That’s not well understood because it’s not as well researched, and it’s not the same problem. That’s a good thing. There is a possibility that when we experience a loss and when we look back on it, we see the good that comes of it. We’re not happy that the loss happened, per se. We wish we could undo it, but we can point to it and see the good in our lives and our community. I want to invite your commentary on that.
First of all, post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic growth are not mutually exclusive. It’s not always clear exactly where one kicks in. As somebody who is an existential person who thinks a lot about making my own meaning in my life and making my own meaning out of my experiences, including my grief and the negative things that happen in my life, it’s important to find growth and silver linings even in the darkest, most horrible times in my life. My trauma is the reason I became a social worker among other things, but a horrible relationship and breakup had brought me one of my best friends on earth and somebody who I never would’ve met without this person. I’m not always a positive person, but I try to see a positive in every situation.
When I was studying for my death doula certification, I took an informal poll once during my work. I had to write a paper on whether everything happens for a reason. It’s something that is commonly spoken to people who are grieving or people who are grieving. It’s said to them, and not everybody appreciates it. It’s widely used as a phrase and widely disliked by the grieving community.
I asked a person. I said, “Do you believe that everything happens for a reason?” I will never forget the profound beauty of what he said to me. He said, “I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, but I believe that everything can be turned into a purpose.” I was blown away by how beautiful that was. I was like, “I don’t need to ask anybody else because I have my answer. That resolves it for me.”
That goes back to what you were saying, Peter, about how some people can experience post-traumatic growth, and Jaclyn, I agree with you. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. There is a wide, gray, blurry line. Not separating the two is blending them together because post-traumatic stress can lead to growth. The balance is the resilience quotient in the person who is experiencing the stress. The more resilient you are, or you allow yourself to be, and resilience requires vulnerability, the more resilient you allow yourself to be, the more likely you are that you’re going to experience that growth.
One of the things that is clear from the emotions research is that negative emotions spur change. No one ever goes, “My life is great. I’m having a great time. I’m going to blow it all up and start fresh.” It’s when we experience friction in our, get angry, feel wronged, lose something, and disappointed. It causes self-reflection and change.
I’m an optimist. That has to be the case for me to have this show. To see the value of single living, you need to be an optimist. It’s hard to find growth when you’re in a moment of despair. I want to acknowledge that it’s difficult to do, but people manage to do it. Some of these are areas of growth. One of them is you develop personal strength. You often don’t know how tough you are until the chips are down.
Until you look back and think, “I did that hard thing.”
You can see, and you’re like, “I am a resilient person. I can handle hard times. I don’t have to worry about hard times ahead because I know I have what it takes.” It can strengthen relationships. We talked about this. It’s when you ask someone for help. I have a friend. She’s been on the show. We’ve been friends for many years. I attribute everything to that.
She got into a car accident. We were acquaintances. She called me and said, “I’ve been in a car accident. Are you available?” I said, “Where are you?” I was there in ten minutes. That changed the course of our relationship. Even something like that, you realize, “I have these brothers and sisters in my life who care about me.” It’s a sense of what’s truly important is this appreciation for life. Sometimes, we don’t appreciate life until it’s lost.
The last one I’ll say is it often sets you on a new path. I firmly believe that there are many good paths in life. I’m a guy who has a show that celebrates single living. Marriage can be a great path, but non-marriage can be a great path, and there are an infinite number of great paths in life. A loss may set you on a different path, but it’s not necessarily a bad path.
It doesn’t have to all be doom and gloom.
I wanted to acknowledge that this is a heavy topic. I’m sure it stirred up things in readers.
It got moved us a little bit.
I want to end with a little bit of hope and excitement about living. Jaclyn, thank you for being here, especially for your vulnerability. Tessa, thank you for participating.
Thank you for having me, Peter. The Persian poet Rumi says, “The wound is where the light enters you.” I love that because there is no growth without first bursting the seed.
- Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart
- Andrew Huberman – YouTube
- Melanie Notkin – Past Episode
About Tessa Bringer
I’m Tessa Bringer, a Certified End of Life Coach and Sacred Passage Death Doula as well as a Life Transition and Consensual Non-Monogamous Relationships Coach. I’ve been in CNM relationships for over 25 years myself, so I have first-hand lived experience with the kinds of challenges that you might be facing there. I live between Denver and Boulder and I have one grown son, two cats, and many beloved people in my life in various capacities.
About Jaclyn Foglio
Jaclyn Foglio, LSW is a hospice worker and occasional Death Cafe facilitator, also known as “The Incredible Morbid Woman.” She enjoys long walks in the cemetery and endlessly discussing Six Feet Under. You may also find her drinking craft beer while buried in a book, enjoying the latest Nicolas Cage film or trying to dance at a prog rock show.
Jaclyn has been practicing solo polyamory for over a decade, preferring to live only with felines. Jaclyn grew up in New Jersey, but has lived in Denver since 2009 and has visited 49 states. She also goes by Jackie, Jac, Jackalope and Sister Jaclyn Mary.