And the correct answer is... both!

A huge percentage of the people who win major lotteries all over the world, lose all the money within three years. As Yogi Berra once famously said, "You could look it up." They also wind up in therapies they didn't need before, not to mention the acquisition of scores of cousins and new best friends they'd never heard of.

The somewhat surprising fact that such a positive event can cause enormous grief may be eye-catching, but we're using it here as an example to help explain some basic facts about what grief is and what it isn't.

In order to understand how and why winning the lottery produces feelings of grief, it's helpful to apply a definition of grief we use in our books, The Grief Recovery Handbook and When Children Grieve:

"Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by a change or end in a familiar pattern of behavior."

Conflicting feelings is best explained by the experience grieving people have after someone important to them has struggled with and eventually died of a dread disease. When the death occurs, the surviving family members and friends will have a wide range of feelings, primary amongst them, a sadness that the person died. At the same time, they may have feelings of relief that the person they loved is no longer in pain. The feeling of relief is often perceived as a positive feeling which stands in conflict with the feelings of sadness.

Conflicting feelings applies equally to divorce. When the reality of the end of the relationship and ultimate divorce sets in, there's liable to be a feeling of relief that the arguing and bickering is over. At the same time there may be feelings of sadness that the hopes and dreams of going off to that famous sunset together have crashed and burned.

The key word in our definition is "change." Change is neither positive nor negative, it is simply change. But our minds resist change and want to maintain things as they were so they can recognize them. That's true even if what it knows and recognizes isn't particularly positive or helpful, which partially explains the unfathomable fact that people return over and over to abusive situations.

Resistance to change is also the basis for the inability to alter our lives for the better, even with the guidance of a good therapist or other counsel. Here's why a person, who is willing to change, often stays stuck:

"In a crisis we go back to old beliefs and old behaviors."

Even though grief is the normal and natural reaction to a loss, it is reasonable to suggest that a grief event is perceived as a crisis. Faced with the conflicting feelings caused by a loss and the changes that come with it, we usually go back to our oldest stored information-or misinformation-about dealing with those feelings.

With all that preamble out of the way, it's easier to apply the idea that grief is about change, and to understand why winning the lottery can be a grief producing event. Winning the lottery forces a change in the winners' perception of who they are.

As much as we all might think we wouldn't be changed by the sudden acquisition of wealth, the facts don't support that idea. The key to the relatively small percentage of people who are not negatively affected by winning the lottery, is that most of them were wealthy to begin with, therefore, there hasn't been as big a change for them.

It gives new meaning to the old expression, "Be careful what you pray for."

Winning the lottery and getting promotions at work go along with graduations, marriages, and even the births of our children, as some of the apparently positive events that produce conflicting feelings. Why marriage? Think about it. On that most exciting day of your wedding, you are gaining a spouse but you are also losing certain freedoms. The same kind of emotional mixture applies to the other events.

Here's one that may surprise you. The most overlooked grief-producing life event is moving. Why? Again, apply our definition-conflicting feelings caused by a change or end in a familiar pattern of behavior. Whether the move is a positive one, to a bigger house in a nicer neighborhood, or is the result of financial problems, everything familiar changes when you move.

The key to dealing with the grief caused by the major changes in our lives-negative or positive-is to learn and then apply the principles and actions of Grief Recovery. We'll be talking about those actions in future blogs. And in a future blog we'll elaborate on the long list of grief producing events, and how the word stress and other euphemisms displaced the more accurate word, grief. Stay tuned.

Russell Friedman
Sherman Oaks, CA 

About the Author

Russell Friedman

Russell Friedman is Executive Director of The Grief Recovery Institute, and co-author of The Grief Recovery Handbook, When Children Grieve, and Moving On.

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