Grieve Less

The case for moving on quickly.

Posted Dec 08, 2018

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Conventional wisdom says that, after a significant loss, whether a job or loved one through breakup or death, we must grieve fully before moving forward. So the argument goes, unless we’ve fully processed the loss, the painful feelings are more likely to linger.

But my clients and I have generally found that the longer the grieving, the more top-of-mind the loss remains. Perhaps the memory neurons associated with the loss get strengthened. Of course, we should retain the positive feelings about the person or job that was lost and keep any lessons learned in mind, but except for that, if we can muster the emotional strength, it’s wise to take that first baby step forward.

For example, if you just lost your job, it may be most helpful to think, for example, “To hell with them. I’m going to use this as an opportunity to find a better job!” Then get clear on what the job would look like, identify target employers, and reach out to your network to see if you could get an “in.”

The strategy would be the same if you just broke up with your romantic partner or even a platonic friend. For example, “It's probably for the best. At least I need to think that way. Now, what should I do to meet someone better?” (I offer ideas on that in a recent Psychology Today article.)

Of course, moving on with minimal grieving is hardest when a loved one dies. But too often, as mentioned above, the grieving, the processing, can become so protracted that the sadness becomes rather hard-wired, remaining top-of-mind. Perhaps that’s why traditional Judaism calls for “sitting shiva” when a spouse, parent, sibling, or child dies. Shiva refers to seven days of reflection at home, often with friends and family visiting. A week of intense grieving allows for significant processing but not so protracted that it mitigates against the person moving forward.  So, after as short a grieving as you're comfortable with, think about what baby step you could take to fill the emotional hole. You can never replace a lost loved one but you can find someone else to love and/or other emotionally gratifying experiences: whether it's immersing yourself more in your voluntary or paid work. And when thoughts of the lost loved one bubble up, savor the good ones, suppress the bad ones, and take that next step forward.

The takeaway

Look back on your efforts to grieve, to process your losses. Has more than a short amount of grieving served you? If so, of course, you shouldn’t be disabused—After all, we’re all different. But if your protracted grieving hasn’t helped but rather has kept you mired in unhappiness and mitigated against moving forward, you might want to question the conventional wisdom that grieving should take as long as you feel it should. Sometimes, the wise thing is, after brief grieving, to suppress backward looking thoughts and focus on that clichéd but invaluable self-help tactic: Take that baby step forward.

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