How Humor Can Delay Healing From Grief
The five stages of grief, none of them chocolate
Posted Oct 20, 2014
I learned a valuable happiness lesson thanks to a near-death experience on a moped in Mykonos. This collision of inspiration happened about 20 years ago, on vacation with my two good friends, Robyn and Art. We’d each rented mopeds to travel to a distant beach. Robyn and Art were nervous about their moped skills. I was not.
Back in New York, where I lived (and happily still do live – thanks to a miracle of sorts!) I was an avid cyclist. As soon as I slipped my toosh onto that moped seat, I felt just as home traveling the winding hills of Greece, as I did on my Trek bike in Central Park.
Robyn and Art however were more trepid riders. They preferred to go snail-pace slowly. The path we were on was highly winding – like the top of a soft serve ice cream cone – swirling round and round. The beach where we wanted to go was located where the bottom of the cone would be.
For a while I moved at the same slow and steady pace as my friends. Eventually I decided to speed ahead – just for a few minutes – to feel the wind muss up my hair. I was in the midst of my speed-ahead-jaunt, when suddenly the wind morphed from friendly and breezy into mean and mischievous. It brutally swept in – and began thrusting me to my right – where an incredibly steep cliff awaited.
I needed to make a split second decision:
(a) continue to head right – and off that steep cliff
(b) try to turn the moped left – and smoosh into a mountain side
I chose mountain side.
I tapped into all my upper arm strength and swerved the moped towards the mountain wall. Just as I was about to hit smack into the wall, I put all my might into swerving the moped again – this time, as far away from the mountain wall as I could muscle going.
I didn’t hit the mountain wall; however, I did find my various arms and legs trapped beneath and within the moped.
I quickly stood up and began wiping off evidence of the loose gravel now clinging to my arms and legs. I breathed in deeply – breathed out even more deeply. I was hoping to calm myself – fast. I wanted to appear cool and collected by the time my friends arrived.
It didn’t work.
Not even sort of.
“Karen, what happened to you?” my friend Art asked the moment he saw me.
“You’re gushing blood,” my friend Robyn added. “Look at your arms! Look at your knees! There’s blood everywhere.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked in disbelief. “I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.”
“You’re not okay,” insisted Art.
But I truly did not see or feel my injuries.
“Yes I am okay,” I insisted. “I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.”
Robyn came over – held up my right arm for me to examine more carefully. “Karen, this elbow in particular is bleeding a lot. See?”
It took a while, but eventually I could clearly see my bloody injuries. As soon as I did, I began feeling them too. Incredible pain. I became dizzy. I could barely talk.
Admittedly, I preferred to have never seen or felt the truth of my wounds. So much so, I still kept insisting to my friends I was okay – although I was now throbbing all over with pain. I refused to see a doctor, and stoically got back on that cursed moped (yikes!) and continued to the beach -where I proceded to drink lots of Ouzo! At the time, I was highly proud of my inner strength.
Thankfully since this Mykonos Episode, I haven’t experienced other near death experiences – at least in the physical sense.
However, I have had a few “emotional-near-death-experiences” – where I felt like my life had come to an end.
During these tough times, I wanted to be strong – which is good.
However I wanted to feel strong immediately – which is problematic.
“How are you doing?” friends would ask during bigtime break ups, post-sexual-assault, the death of my father, the shock of business betrayals – and other challenging events.
“I’m okay!” I’d answer. “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay.”
Just like on that mountain in Mykonos, I’d plead okay-ness. For some reason, I felt that it was not okay to be not okay. I didn’t want my friends to see my spirit entangled within the wheels of life’s challenges. I didn’t want my friends to potentially judge my foolishness in having crashed my heart into that giant wall of shame called “What Were You Thinking?”
Some of this was due to the belief that as a self help author I should be held to a higher standard of pain avoidance and pain threshold. Although truth be told, I’ve always felt more comfy as helper than helpee. All my life my immediate response to emotional pain has been to make jokes. Lots of jokes. Plus I’d eat chocolate. Far too much chocolate. One of my go-to jokes was saying how I believed “chocolate” was one of the 5 stages of grief.
I’d joke so much about my gut-wrenching pain that I came up with a word for this: “enterpaining.” Ohhhh how I loved to “enterpain” people!
I even made dark-humored jokes after my sexual assault – quipping how I was extra surprised by the event stages of grief- because didn’t think I was wearing such an attractive outfit that day! Plus, my bellows humor came into bigtime play after a devastating break up. “It seems my fiance went from jackpot to jack*ss,” was a favorite joke at the time.
I’d do whatever I could to put my tragedy into a quick spin-cycle of humor and try to re-tell it all as a comedic story – laughing my canned, highly hollow laugh-track of one.
I thought I was covering up my pain in a nice pretty party-friendly dress of “enterpainment” – but alas, this cover-up seemed to be slightly see-through.
“Are you okay?” friends would continue to ask – holding my gaze – searching for tear precipitation ahead.
“I’m okay,” I’d insist. “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay – OKAY?!”
But I was far from okay.
Sometimes when I was alone I could feel a surge of uncontrollable tears about to surface. I’d run to the kitchen – gobble down some chocolate – then set my oven alarm to go off in five minutes. I’d return to the living room, throw myself onto my sofa – and cry, cry, cry, cry, cry – until that oven alarm went off five minutes later. I’d then command my tears to stop. True story! I was even afraid to reveal my vulnerability alone to myself!
I was anorexic in my approach to indulging in tears, miserly in my vulnerability allowance. I thought I was healing faster, smarter, better.
Unfortunately my personally plotted pain avoidance tools of humor, chocolate and oven timers were not much faster, smarter or better than those more famous strategies of alcohol, drugs, shopping, sex, gambling, sleeping pills, overly-busying yourself with work, etc.
All of these techniques share in common the same mission: A hope that denial will remove our pain – but meanwhile it simply delays our healing process – because we’re not tending to our emotional wounds with the appropriate salves of awareness, compassion and honest connections with others.
Share honest connection with others? That last one was a real doozy to do.
I feared vulnerability more than my actual emotional pain itself!
I worried if I showed people this slightly-damaged Karen they’d demand an immediate exchange – request to swap this Imperfect Me in for The Original-Flavored Karen they’d ordered – the strong, “enterpaining,” light and bouncy Karen.
But then one day I was working out at the gym – and I was unable to do a variety of free weight maneuvers – due to old injuries to my elbow from my Mykonos moped collision. I could feel – and even hear – an uncomfortable clicking sound. Soon after my elbow began to bug me regularly – getting dressed, doing yoga, carrying anything heavy.
I thought back to the accident – how I’d stoically refused to confess my pain and see a doctor. It was now obvious. Because I never faced the truth of my wounds – I didn’t wisely take the time to re-set what was apparently a fractured elbow – thereby some bones had permanently settled into misalignment.
In that moment I experienced a Large Aha! I realized how pleading “okayness” was not only detrimental to my physical healing, but my emotional healing!
By insisting “okayness” during personal challenges (break ups, my sexual assault, my father’s passing, that shocking business betrayal etc…) I was not tending properly to the healing of my inner self.
I started to do some research on resiliency psychology. The info I discovered not only personally helped me, the tools inspired both the Bounce Back Book and Prince Harming Syndrome. One consistent finding: There’s a kind of magic which happens when you speak your truth about pain. A science-based magic, actually!
Recent research by Matthew Lieberman at UCLA shows that simply being able to name a distressing emotion out loud halves your “amygdala activation”—otherwise known as your “emotionality.” So, by simply sharing how you feel you can calm yourself by 50%.
Plus, many research studies support how when you begin talking about your emotions, you leave the “fight and flight” animal instinct part of your brain – and begin to tap into your neocortex – where rational thinking and helpful insights can be found. I call this “adding insight to injury” – and it’s a powerful healing agent.
Insight enables you make sure you don’t allow negative beliefs to get permanently set in your thinking – just the same way you wouldn’t want fractured bones to be permanently set into place.
It’s so essential to happiness to speak your truth out loud – because this sharing of your core pain is what creates a necessary healing shift – from negative beliefs about the world – to positive beliefs – and frees you up to be able to fully view life with meaning, purpose and connection with others. Emile Zola said it well when he said: “If you ask me what I came into this life to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud.”
My son Ari is now 4 years old. When he’s upset about something he likes to kick and punch whoever is nearest to him – which is often me. I tell him: “Don’t kick me – say how you feel! Use your words! Use your words!”
As soon my son begins to express how he feels, the kicks and punches stop. His body becomes less tense, his breathing less rapid. I suppose brain scientists would say it’s because my son is leaving his “fight or flight” brain zone (which is what inspired those kicks and punches in the first place) and tapping into his neocortex – allowing him to formulate his mayhem thoughts into relatable feelings and sentences.
Whatever the scientific reason for my son’s shift from chaotic to calm, I’ve witnessed the magic which happens when my my son takes the time to share his truth out loud.
Here’s another interesting research study on the power of speaking your truth – from Dr. Dina Carbonell of Simmons College. Dr. Carbonell tracked 400 people – from ages 5 to 30 for 25 years – seeking the main characteristics of those who did best in difficult circumstances.
Her most important finding?
“Resilient people identify those who are available, trustworthy and helpful. Then they go toward this light.”
I know for many years I didn’t feel safe going towards this light – fearing it would burn me. I hid behind the mask of “okay-ness” – blocking this nourishing light from coming in.
Truth be told – I wasn’t sure who to trust with knowing my big secret: I am not perfect!
Yes, for many years I felt I needed to hide my flaws and vulnerabilities – fearful people would like me less if I didn’t keep presenting myself as more!
One day I made a list of my friends – then got quiet. I asked myself: Who is 100% rooting for me to live my happiest life — not competing or jealous? Who do I always feel happier after visiting – not more stressed or depressed? I recognized these were my “Safe People.” I began revealing the truth of my pain – slowly at first – with those on the “The Safe List.”
Some people I soon discovered weren’t as safe as I thought. I could feel their discomfort around my imperfect self. However, with other friends I wound up developing far stronger relationships! Indeed, one of the indirectly good things about bad times: It can bring you closer to people, because sharing intimate conversation bonds you in a far deeper, more meaningful way than mere shoe shopping will ever do.
The people to truly treasure in life are those who have seen you at your worst – and still think you are the best. The folks who are happy for your happiness – and sad for your sadness – and make it crystal clear they are there for you – no matter what.
I’ve also happily discovered that when your friendship circle decreases in number it’s actually increasing in value!
In my research for Bounce Back Book, I wrote about the 5 real stages of grief – which Elizabeth Kübler-Ross famously outlined. Although Elizabeth does not include chocolate, she does call the first stage “Denial and Isolation” -which indirectly refers to pigging out!
Here’s the full 5 Stages Of Grief:
STAGE #1: DENIAL AND ISOLATION: “This is not happening to me.”
STAGE #2: ANGER: “How dare this happen to me.”
STAGE #3: BARGAINING: “Just let me get X and I won’t care about Y,” or “If this doesn’t happen, I promise to . . .”
STAGE #4: DEPRESSION: “I can’t bear to face going through this.”
STAGE #5: ACCEPTANCE: “I’m ready; I don’t want to struggle anymore.”
When I look with new eyes at these 5 stages I can clearly see how pleading okay-ness showed a complete disregard for accepting the full 5 stages of the healing process. I wanted to zoom from stage 1 to stage 5 in an instant. However just as pregnancy is a process which cannot be rushed, the same goes for the process of recovery from pain – both the physical and emotional kinds. You must fearlessly face up to the truth of your wounds to heal fully. You must give time time – and be patient and gentle with yourself.
It’s interesting this word “fearless.” It’s composed of “fear” and “less. But when you are “fearless” it doesn’t mean you experience less fear. Indeed courageous people feel just as much fear. It’s just that they choose to keep moving through their fear. In a way this word “fearless” should be renamed “fearthrough.”
If you’re dealing with a personal challenge right now – and tempted to stay in denial and isolation – my hope for you is that you move through your pain! Please allow yourself to be “fearthrough” – and face up to the truth of your core pain – not only while alone with yourself – but in the company of Safe Friends.
As I repeatedly remind my son – and now myself: “Say how you feel! Use your words! Use your words!”