What applying positive psychology taught me about grief
I will begin this blog with a caveat, there is some emotional content to follow that might make for tough reading relating to cancer and death.
Now that we have that out of the way I want to share with you how applying positive psychology made the difference between a traumatic situation being unbearable, and becoming manageable.
Expressing emotional pain
My sister was diagnosed with liver cancer whilst I was studying for my Masters in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) in 2013 and many times she asked me to bear witness to her emotional pain. Despite me asking her to find a trained confidante she decided that I should hear what she needed to express. I should add here that this did not sit comfortably with me and took me to edges of my comfort zone that I didn’t yet know existed.
I call these edges my resilient fringe comfort zone now, and have since learned to recognise them as reserves to be drawn upon in times of stress or trauma. We all have them by the way, just sometimes untapped.
My sister and I were quite different as people and this became more apparent to me as she transitioned from denial to almost accepting her fate, I say almost as she never quite got there. The main difference between us was a love of food, whilst I eat to live, my sister lived to eat and that was just fine.
One of the first times we discussed her becoming aware that she was going into decline was a conversation about food when she couldn’t really eat anymore. She became tearful and said “you know I am really sad at the thought that I will never again enjoy a favourite meal in a nice restaurant, or anywhere really”.
We sat in contemplative silence after this and it saddened me so much for her but also brought me to thinking about savouring. How often do we gulp down a meal without really tasting or appreciating the flavour or even sparing a moments thought for the person who cooked it? Probably too often, so in that moment I vowed to be more grateful for my health and strength, and practice savouring more. Which then in turn brought me to thinking about practicing gratitude. When we are with gratitude we have better relationships, better health and peace of mind, and so finding things to be grateful for every day becomes a blessing not a chore when it is so close to the knuckle I guess.
Writing to heal
I began using exercises by James Pennebaker called ‘writing to heal’, which was also part of my learning experience on the MAPP course, my sister did this to an extent too. This really showed me that we are not vessels meant to store our emotions, we aren’t built that way, which is where mindfulness came in too and taught me to be at one with my emotions, to feel them, experience them, roll around in them if need be and then let them go. Writing gave me a channel for pouring these emotions onto the pages I wrote upon, and the pages went on and on. I did this as needed, following the ‘write for several days’ instructions, for twenty minutes at a time. This really did help me to stay afloat and keep both my head and body and soul together.
Positive psychology concepts and grief
She finally passed away a year ago, eleven months after her diagnosis, and I hope that the mindfulness meditations we did together, and emotional savouring as we talked about the better times helped her find some semblance of peace.
When people say positive psychology is just a lot of spouting of happy phrases and doing positive things, it makes me feel that they have never applied the science behind this great discipline punching its way into ‘psychology proper’.
I can honestly say that to me if I hadn’t had the benefit of what positive psychology brought to me in the way of what I mentioned and also buffering, resilience and strength spotting on that particular journey, I would not have emerged as a stronger person for the experience, I would have crumbled and been of no help when it was most needed. I feel it also gave much in the way of healing to a woman who needed as much resilience, strengths and savouring as it was possible to experience circumstantially for my sister.
Therefore to me, positive psychology has nothing to prove, but so much to give!