Good Grief! It’s Relief!

The PM Blog is happy to report that Practical Mindfulness is now available at bookstores and online at your favorite click n’ buy site, or at this very website.   Zooming up the charts from Amazon sales rank #1.3M to 300K in 3 days means…. I’m not sure, yet.  When it challenges Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Spongebob”, or whoever he’s rhetorically murdering lately, well, won’t that truly be something?  


This week’s prevailing discernment in my observation of folks in and out of my practice has been… relief. Some peace in the the public discourse, or at least a pause in the ominous discord, has had the effect of a lightening, an unburdening.  A hint of release from a contracted sense of tension around the specifics of violence and a broader sense of civil fracture has been palpable like a big deep breath, exhaled.  No sensible person would mistake this for being out of the metaphoric woods; a virus menaces and mutates, economic woes follow, and lots of us don’t get along.

But, some relief.  A few mindful ideas about that concept come to mind.  I floated in a recent blog post my affinity for the sequential steps in experience that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross famously framed in describing the process of grieving.  To me, that sequence can be both sharpened in understanding and extrapolated to all experiences of change – not just the ones we associate with dying or losing a loved one.  In changes of all sorts, the world outside of one’s mind has shifted and is thus initially at odds with our inner, now obsolete understanding of that changed world.  A prior state of understanding dies, is lost. The inside of the head does not match the outside of the head.  

How we make that adjustment,  so “inside = outside,” that’s the process, the experiential sausage-making of grief, whether it’s a loved one passing or “I wanted chocolate,  but all they have is pistachio.”   “Change metabolism” may be a clever spin on the thing.

Briefly, the sequence runs (per EKR):  shock/denial -> anger -> “bargaining” -> depression -> acceptance.

My own nicknaming:  OMG-> WTF-> W/C/S -> THUD -> OK.

(A quick explanation: an initial anxious/survival reaction leads to grievous judgment, leads to rationalizing “woulda/coulda/shoulda’s”, leads to really landing in the disappointment of a loss, leads to coming to an accepting new steady state: inside = outside.)

So, long story, um, longer – what of relief?  How do we process “good” change?  I propose that we still must move from in ≠ out to in = out; and that it’s still a process with steps, and some pitfalls to those steps.  

Step one, OMG, often remains “OMG” – the initial apprehension of the new still can generate energy, even a sense of threat, regardless of a kiss or a shove.  Brainstems run this first phase.

Step two is about judgement – if it’s not a threat, we move to “how do I feel about it?”  Here’s where WTF gets swapped out for something more peak-positive – joy, or relief if the change represents an ending of a state of suffering or uncertainty.  Limbic emotion is predominant here.

The “bargaining” step still happens – often around a kind of testing regimen:  is this too good to be true?  Is it really different?  Cortex gets revved up in scenario-building here.

The THUD of disappointment gets a makeover in step four – a settling into the beneficial change and its associations: gratitude,  a sense of relaxing and energy shifting.  

The bookend “OK” seems anodyne here – why would anyone not accept a good change?  But it can nevertheless represent a challenge for many.  Especially for those of us with deep experience in disappointment or even trauma, buying into truly accepting a new steady state can feel like a fool’s game.  This is sometimes an especially complex spot for folks I work with who won’t quite allow for joyful acceptance to break out, lest it turns into a humiliating trick or a too-brief respite from the “usual”.  

Grief, and relief, are complex processes that generate not just one state of experience but a cascade of them.  It can get more complicated from there (what happens when one of those steps is an individual obstacle or a trigger?) – but that’s another blog.  For all of that (wait for it….)  mindful practice in knowing well our inner states and tendencies makes these processes more transparent to us, knowable, even anticipated.

Stay safe and take care.  And exhale.  GCS