“Death is Inevitable – Grief is Not” TEDx Talk
I am so grateful to have had this opportunity to share my ideas and experiences on the TEDx Ashland stage. I would love to hear your thoughts and perspectives after you watch my talk. You can leave comments directly on YouTube below the video. Thanks!
What if I told you that the love of my life died, and I was devastated? You wouldn’t be surprised, right?
But what if I told you … that I wasn’t? What if I told you that – in the days, months and years following the death of my favorite person on the planet – I actually felt connected and grateful and even joyful?
Would you wonder if I was in denial, maybe avoiding my feelings? If grief would catch up with me eventually? Or maybe you’d just think I was an unemotional person?
Well, these are the same questions I asked myself: Why am I not heartbroken? Is something wrong with me? Am I not doing this grief thing right? Maybe some of you can relate.
In July of 2011, my life-partner Kate and I had just moved into a beautiful new home, and life was good! We were involved in creative projects, community work, spiritual practice . . . and we both adored one another. We had known each other for about 10 years, and figured we had decades ahead of us.
That September, at the age of 41, Kate was diagnosed with advanced cancer. A tumor, the size of a grapefruit, consumed her stomach and pancreas. What can I say? When we found out, we both held one another and sobbed. Somehow we both knew her body wouldn’t survive this. (Pause). The next morning, Kate said “it’s another beautiful day,” just like she usually did, rain or shine. (Pause). She died 12 weeks later . . . peacefully at home. (Pause). The moment of her death was so powerful for me that all I could do was say thank you . . . thank you thank you thank you thank you. (Pause).
In the town of Mt. Shasta, California where we lived, we were known as “the laughing girls.” We were both Certified Laughter Teachers (it’s a thing, it is!) and we taught people across the country how to laugh more freely and more easily … by choice. So I’d love it is you’d just have a taste of this, so if you’re willing, please give yourself a nice deep breath, and laugh it out – ha ha ha (Laughter from audience). Awesome! Now just so we relax into it a little bit more, I invite you all to pour yourselves a huge glass of laughter – just like this (Gesture of pouring into an invisible cup in one hand) – pour yourself a big glass of laughter, and let’s drink it and laugh – ha ha ha! (Laughter from audience). See, you can laugh without jokes and without humor. It’s really that simple.
So this was my life! Having this laughter lifestyle and being an optimistic person added extra layers for me. I really wondered: Am I just trying to be positive for other people’s sake? How can I still be happy? Am I not giving myself permission to grieve?
I spent the next 5 or so years completely obsessed with this dilemma. Years of constant self-inquiry, books, workshops, retreats, research, and many, many conversations. And what I discovered is this (pause): We are told, and we accept, there are many ways to grieve. But the truth is there are many ways to respond to death. And grief is only one of them.
Grief is defined as “deep sadness” or “intense sorrow” we experience after loss.
But we’ve also come to use grief as an umbrella term to mean the set of experiences we have after someone we love dies. We come to have an expectation that grief is the only natural, legitimate and appropriate way to respond to death.
So, when did this idea gain momentum in Western culture? Well, 100 years ago, Sigmund Freud was the first to refer to grief as “work.” Then 50 years ago Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and her five stages of grief became wildly popular. And you’re probably familiar with these – these stages would be denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Now this theory was actually based on those who were diagnosed with terminal illness, not on those who lost someone they loved.
By the early 1970s, the phrase “grieving process” surfaced, and this perspective – that grief is a process we must go through – became normalized. It was something that, over time, we shifted our focus from those who had the journey after they died to the people who were left behind in the wake of death, the grievers or the bereaved. This shaped our language about how we respond to death.
This grief-centric framework actually was not challenged for most of these years. And it was based on “either/or” thinking. Either you’re in grief, OR you’re in denial. So someone may say to you “you really just, you gotta get over it.” Someone else may say “oh, you’ve got to dive into it.” I actually watched a well-known grief counselor look directly into the camera once and say “If you’re not grieving, then you need therapy.” So, you know, the cultural expectation is pretty clear.
But what if grief is not the only authentic way to respond to the death of someone we love? (Pause). What if some people, like me, respond differently?
I’d like to share with you some ways I’ve been my own case study as well as some exciting, though lesser known, research over the past 15 years.
Just a few days after Kate died – after all the phone calls I made, writing the obituary, doing the memorial – I was resting on the sofa, and feeling really good. I think I was still in some kind of awe from her really graceful exit.
And then I started wondering if someday I’d be completely overwhelmed with grief. And I started to doubt myself. “I loved her so much. I should feel horrible that she’s gone.” And, just like that, I started talking myself into feeling miserable. “I’ll never get to look into her eyes again. No one, no one will understand me the way she did.” (Pause).
And then, to my surprise, I started simply witnessing this inner conversation, and I realized I could choose to stop following those thoughts. So I did an experiment. First, I focused intentionally on the unfulfilled dreams, all the things Kate and would never get to do together. And sure enough, tears formed in my eyes. Then I chose to stop following the thoughts that focused on Kate’s physical absence . . . and the sadness disappeared almost instantly.
Through this simple experiment, I discovered that my thoughts affect my emotions so much. And because of this, I can choose about how I feel.
Now I totally get, of course, that this is not some original new idea. But when it comes to death, we tend to exempt death from this option. In fact, when someone we love dies, we’re taught to ignore most of the tools we already have for wellbeing because we believe we’re supposed to grieve instead.
So this idea, when I miss Kate, I ask myself “Where is my focus? On her absence? Or on her presence?” And then I choose which thoughts I follow. The cultural norm is to focus on someone’s absence. But when I focus on Kate’s presence– on the essence of who she was, on the presence in my life and the impact she’s made – I feel connection and gratitude. So my #1 tool is asking myself “Where is my focus? On absence or on presence?”
A few months after Kate died, I was driving home from the grocery store, and I remembered that Kate wouldn’t be home when I got there. Have any of you ever done that? You go to call your mother or friend and then you remember, right, they died; it could be years ago, but it’s kind of an awkward moment. So I caught myself remembering that I was focusing on her physical absence. And I asked myself “Jen, do you want to have a good cry?” OR “Do you want to shift your focus?” Either way, it’s totally fine.
In that moment, this is what I did. Even though I didn’t feel happy, I chose to smile. And then: (Motion of pouring a glass of laughter, drinking it, and laughing ha ha ha), I did exactly what Kate and I taught people how to do. I used laughter to come back to the present moment. For me, laughing by choice interrupts and resets my thoughts and my emotions faster than anything else.
And as you experienced earlier too, all it takes is to be willing to laugh, to choose to laugh, and then to laugh. It’s all based on willingness and choice. Not on bypassing sadness, but on transforming it before it picks up speed. You know, joy is not a luxury; joy is a courageous act in a world of pain and suffering. Death challenges us to find inner peace and inner joy, regardless of external circumstances. So for me, if I can do that after the death of my beloved, I can do that anytime. So another tool is the willingness to choose my emotional experience.
One year after Kate died, I bought a candle to light on the anniversary of what she called her “rebirth.” Now this wasn’t just any candle. This was a local beeswax candle of a frog, in lotus meditation position – as frogs do – with its little frog legs crossed and its frog fingers touching in a mudra. To me, this was the perfect way to honor Kate. Not just because of our shared spiritual experience and sense of humor, but because of what I overheard her saying on the phone with friends and family.
In these conversations, she would say something like “well, you know, since I’m going to croak soon.” Her way of inviting people to accept what was happening was with lightness, and some irreverence. I totally understood this, but still I felt the need to say to her “you know, ummm, that might be a little bit too much for people.” To which she replied, “What?! We’re ALL gonna croak.” She wouldn’t let terminal cancer dampen her playful spirit or her zest for life.
So sitting alone in my living room, I lit the wick on top of the beeswax frog’s head. I watched the wax melt and the frog slowly disappear. (Long pause). “Everybody croaks!” That’s exactly what I thought! How could I be sad when celebrating the essence of my sweet love?
So another tool is perspective. Remembering that death itself is neutral. Sure, there are many factors that shape how we experience a loss – including who, what, where, when, why and how. All of that. And these details do, of course, influence whether we believe or consider someone’s death to be tragic or graceful, premature or timely. But all of our bodies are temporary homes that we’ll leave someday. It’s true, everybody croaks.
Some people may say that I just “grieve differently” – that my grieving process is about connection, gratitude and joy. But that is not grief. That is connection, gratitude and joy! I don’t have a different grieving process. I have a different response to death altogether. By spending my life cultivating connection, gratitude and joy, doesn’t it make sense that I would feel connected, grateful and joyful even after the death of the woman that I adored?
As it turns out, some research over the past 15 years actually supports my experience. The perspective, temperaments, and tools we have BEFORE someone we love dies do influence how we cope and how much we grieve.
According to George Bonanno of Columbia University, the “five stages of grief” and the expectation to grieve may be unfounded. A significant number of people do remarkably well after the death of a loved one, experiencing little grief or moving through it really quickly. And they don’t have delayed grief out in the future either.
These studies by Bonanno and others asked: What specific factors contribute to being emotionally healthy and well-adjusted after someone we love dies? Well, here’s what they found: The ability to adapt and be resilient. Being more optimistic and finding the silver lining even in hard times. Having a positive worldview and broader perspective. Laughing and smiling more often. Having more tools in our toolbox for wellbeing. And accepting death as a part of life.
I believe that adjusting to the physical loss of someone we love is different than a grieving process. It’s not necessarilythat we’ll feel sadness and heartache. For some people it is. Which is fine. But for other people, like me, it might not be. Which is also fine.
As you can see, calling the experiences we have after someone dies a “grieving process” is a misnomer at best. At worst, it’s a major societal limitation that defines and even dictates how we respond. It’s important for us to see how that boxes us in, and doesn’t allow us to have personally authentic responses to death.
Now don’t get me wrong. My hope is not to discourage the cultural permission to grieve. My hope is to encourage a cultural shift to expand our permission to respond to death however we’re inclined.
Imagine what it would be like if counselors and heathcare providers, family members and friends stopped assuming someone was in a “grieving process” and just asked how they are, without expectations. (Pause).
I invite you to reconsider what you believe about grief. To go beyond the idea that there are many ways to grieve. And to acknowledge that there are many ways to respond to death. And grief is only one of them.
By embracing this simple shift in language, we can better reflect the truth of our diverse human experience. And in doing so, we can be free to be who we are, and fully embrace and support one another in our lives. Cheers!! (Raises a pretend glass, toasts with upward motion).