Grief comes in many shapes and sizes. When most hear someone is grieving they assume the person is reacting to the death of a loved one or friend. But, as family caregivers know all too well, when faced with the responsibility of providing care for a loved one in poor health, “grief” can be a very common day-to-day emotion that comes with additional feelings of sorrow, pain, distress, despair, sadness, and general heartache. For some, these emotions can last for months or even years—unless there is a deliberate effort to move through the grief and enter a healthier emotional place.
No matter what kind of grief a person feels, there are always lessons to be learned from the experience. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, recently went public about the grief she felt after losing her husband in 2015. In her best-selling book Option B, which she co-authored with psychologist Dr. Adam Grant, she writes about the grief she experienced after her husband, Dave Goldberg, died suddenly at the young age of 47. Being deeply in love and the mother of two young daughters, this immediate and tragic loss turned her life upside down. Overnight, she experienced loss, grief, fear, and emotional loneliness. Her self-confidence as a person was shaken to the core.
I should mention that because Ms. Sandberg is an incredibly accomplished professional, she has significant access to resources, both financial and emotional, that many people don’t have. That said, regardless of who you are or how much money you have, heartfelt grief can take a deep emotional toll on anyone.
When I read Option B, which I highly recommend to you, I read it through the lens of a family caregiver and found many valuable insights (which I share in detail below) including how to better address feelings of grief, create more positivity in your life, and build greater personal resiliency during difficult times.
One thing I learned working with family caregivers for 15 years it that when family caregivers are immersed in their caregiving responsibilities, they become increasingly emotionally burdened, and that can make it very difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
When Option A—not ever having had a tragedy or personal set back to begin with—is not an option, we need to march forward so we can eventually find our cadence and joy. As Ms. Sandberg writes, this is Option B.
I believe the following information will not only help you see the light, but it will also provide basic information and tools to help you better control the dimmer switch and achieve as bright a light as you choose.
Here are three great lessons I learned from the book, Option B:
1. Acceptance is key.
You basically have no control over what has happened or is happening to your loved one. Acceptance of “what is,”, albeit at times that are tough to swallow, is important if you are going to move forward. The hardest part may be quieting the negative voice in your head that can easily amplify an already challenging situation into a full-blown, self-created catastrophe. The key to acceptance is to be realistic about what is happening NOW and not project beyond what the actual facts and conditions are. In other words, don’t be afraid to challenge the negative voice you are hearing!
2. Your belief system matters.
There is a wonderful saying: “Believe it and you will see it.” Now please understand, I am not trying to say that you can will your loved one to better health. However, I am saying you actually do have control over the meaning you are giving to the situation you are immersed in. Controlling the meaning and reaction to situations you encounter is an important step in not allowing your internal anxiety to escalate.
Most of us are victims of our self-limiting beliefs—those that constrain us in some way. Option B uses a new term called self-freeing beliefs, which refers to beliefs that actually empower you. I love this because it truly addresses a mindset that can make a powerful difference in how you view and evaluate your situation.
For instance, as a family caregiver, a self-limiting belief may be your inner voice telling you that in order to be a good caregiver, you need to always be there for your mother or else her health will deteriorate. Conversely, the voice of a self-freeing belief can tell you that your mother’s well-being is an important priority, but you also need to pay attention to your personal priorities in order to live the balanced life you desire.
3. Perception is everything.
When trying to better understand why some people are more resilient (meaning they recover more quickly from difficult situations than others), Sandberg and Grant reference the work of Dr. Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, who believes it has to do with the perceptions we have about the events we are experiencing. These perceptions are similar to the notions of self-limiting versus self-freeing beliefs I discuss above.
Seligman, who is considered the founding father of positive psychology, suggests that our ability to deal with setbacks is determined by 3 P’s: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence (see explanations below). To better frame the conditions you are dealing with, Dr. Seligman’s 3P’s create a wonderful pause button that helps illuminate how you may be falsely thinking about the situation and your feelings when dealing with the health difficulties of a loved one. Here are the 3 P’s:
Personalization: The belief that we are at fault.
Pervasiveness: The belief that an event will affect all areas of our life.
Permanence: The belief that the aftershocks of the event will last forever.
When reading these three perceptions, it’s easy to see how hard it is to see any light if you do not test these perceptions against your situation.
Research shows the people who can take a step back and be clear-eyed about their circumstances and respond versus react to them are more resilient during difficult times. However, if you believe how you feel in this moment is how you will always feel, you will get trapped in a dark place, making hope for a better tomorrow very hard to see.
The truth is tomorrow is a new day, and even if there is a storm, you can rest assured that there will be a day in the future with plenty of sun and blue skies. Life rolls on, and you can either stay seeded in your belief that the situation you are experiencing and the feelings you have will be there the rest of your life, or you can hit the “pause button” and really challenge your self-limiting beliefs!
Is this an easy undertaking? Absolutely not! Is it imperative for your emotional well-being? Absolutely yes!
As you are going through difficult emotional times, try these practices recommended by Dr. Grant and Ms. Sandberg. I guarantee that if you include them in your daily routine for a few weeks, they will elevate your daily quality of life and help you better see the light.
Count Your Blessings: Every day, write down three things that you are grateful for. They do not have to be monumental. The point is to simply acknowledge the things big and small that you appreciate in your life.
Pat Yourself on the Back: In an effort to appreciate yourself, write down three things you did “well” each day. Research shows doing this for three weeks decreases stress levels.
Identify Your Joy: Each day write down three things that brought you joy. This can be anything. For instance, yesterday I was in Manhattan walking behind a mom and her little son. On a busy street with horns blaring and crowds all over the place, this little guy was swinging his arms and singing at the top of his lungs, having an absolute ball. His expression of pure joy ended up on the top of my joy list for the day.
As family caregivers, if we had our wish, we would all prefer Option A where everything is fine with our loved one, life has limited health surprises, and our lives are just the way we like them. However, when Option A isn’t on the immediate horizon, Option B is the life and solution we have to work with. It is not good or bad, it just is.
Hopefully, you see there are tangible steps you can take to help you thrive within Option B and not allow your caregiving responsibilities define who you are and your day-to-day emotional state.
Maybe taking a lesson from the Frank Sinatra of two-year olds is a good thing. We have to be true to ourselves and sing the song that makes us happy and sing it to our hearts content. Don’t just listen to the music—know that you have the power to create it.
I’ll be listening for you!
Help yourself. Help others.