Rarely would we ever describe our dreams and nightmares as ‘gifts of grief’. Imagining the idea of a ‘gift’ that can arise from our most painful and horrendous losses can sound patronizing, offensive and ridiculous. Yet, I couldn’t shake the nagging question: Does ‘good grief’ actually exist in this haunting night of my soul?
It took a weird nightmare to answer this question.
When I was around 5 or 6 years old, I woke up one night and saw the “boogey man” through my bedroom window.
Composed of fiery blue stone, silver-grey rock, and muddy gravel, his body loomed three times my size. Hands pressed against my window, he stared at me with his soul-less green eyes, hollow gaze, and cryptic features. And he just kept staring. So I dove back under my sheets and just waited. Seconds or minutes later, I took another peek.
Thankfully, he was gone. Of course, this was just a nightmare.
But the silliest thing is this: that same monster happened to be my favourite toy to play with.
His name was Rokkon, a heroic warrior of the Rock People–a cartoon character I loved from the 1980’s television series, “He-Man: Masters of the Universe”.
But with Rokkon, what I once loved most…became what I most dreaded.
Funny enough, I’ve been thinking back on that quirky, odd nightmare with Rock Man recently while reflecting on my own real-life nightmare–a shocking betrayal and a difficult divorce.
I know, I know. It’s a bizarre logic jump, but that’s honestly just how my mind works.
If you peek into my mind, you’ll notice how I tend to create uncommon connections through the feelings experienced from my memories.
What’s important here is how the meaning of the Rokkon nightmare most emotionally connects me with recent reflections about my ex-wife. Specifically, it was about the devastatingly painful circumstances behind our divorce.
The gift of grief wasn’t in this dream. But I think it began here. (Memories are also weird during grief).
Foremost, this dream presented me with an invitation to reflect on this message: “How the experiences you once loved most can so swiftly turn into the memories you most dread to face.
On the surface, that just sounds grim.
But for me, this message didn’t suggest a linear deterioration of a pleasant memory.
Instead, it challenged me with the question: what do I want to do with my memories, when remembering the best ones is so emotionally difficult?
If I so choose, how would I empower myself to create meaning or “make sense” of my dread, suffering and most traumatic experiences? 1
And if I believe it helps me, what would it look like to choose to authentically re-write my story—one that could positively impact my well-being and how I choose to live my life now? 2
When Grief Becomes Real: From Nightmare to Reality
These are powerful questions. But first, let’s start again with that horrible dread.
Now, I’m not sure what your dreams or nightmares are like, but mine can be surreal, disturbingly cute, occasionally exciting, or incredibly mundane.
Whether you dreamt of an evening out with an entourage of talking cats, riding a spaceship through a futuristic city, ran through a building as surreal as the art of Salvador Dali, or imagined reciting your grocery list, what we experience in our sleep can be unpredictable.
On the worst nights, dreams born from our grief can also bring deeply haunting nightmares that simply remind us, in a different language, how genuinely hellish our real-life experiences of grief have felt for us.
Whether through the death of a loved one, a tough divorce, shattered career, or any other type of meaningful loss, hearing or reading about the idea of ‘good grief’ or a gift in our lament, can feel incredibly strange and jarring.
It can feel as difficult as enduring your first quiet birthday with 1 or 2 close friends after the death of someone you love. Or it can feel as stressful as that gigantic Christmas party, work soiree or wedding banquet after having picked up–just a few weeks ago–that strangely and morbidly elegant divorce certificate.
It can sound insensitive to advise a grieving person about the idea of good grief. As if we could so easily “turn that frown upside down”, like we used far too easily say in our younger days.
Yet, you still might hear similar sentiments from your enlightened or awakened manager (who moonlights as a meditation instructor) and his well-meaning but ill-advised attempts at consolation. Your well-intentioned church friends might say unhelpful things like “God will somehow use this for good” . It can even sound somewhat patronizing to read insensitive advice columns using phrases like “move on” and “opportunity for life lessons” in a poor self-help magazine at the convenience store.
A Gift of Grief? Why Would We Want This?
The phrase, ‘good grief’ can be a divisive expression.
In hindsight, maybe you will discover someday that your enlightened manager, counsellor, yoga instructor, Super Soul Sunday video, or self-help book is indeed correct about the presence of gifts through grief.
Maybe God will also create good from your grief too, assuming you’d want that to happen. Even so, the mere notion of “gifts”, “life lessons” or good grief from the muddy terror of our pain is not something we necessarily want to hear from someone else.
Specifically, however many days, months, years or decades it takes (the ‘timing’ of grief is unique to each of us)–it’s not necessarily the type of unsolicited advice that we want to hear from others around us. I believe it’s important for each of us (including myself), to better educate ourselves on what to say and not say to a person who is grieving.
If you’re anything like me, the invitation to receive a “gift” during grief is a private and fiercely intimate conversation; it’s a heart-to-heart dialogue between you and your relationship with grief that penetrates your soul, at this present moment.
For me, this took a great deal of reflection and an active choice to believe and hope in the idea of good grief. Learning how to embrace hope, and figuring out how to believe in the idea of good grief felt very important for me. Especially so, given my history with a moderate form of depression, and my story of how I’ve learned to live with and through it.
So when I was ready, I began to learn how I could personally embrace these gifts that this so-called ‘good grief’ might offer me.
But there’s one more important point: making this choice was always up to me.
I was always given a choice to receive, postpone or reject the idea of a gift from grief, or the notion of good grief, in the moments it appeared. Sometimes I’d reject it, and life would graciously offer it again later.
Other times, I would proactively look for the gifts in grief, if I needed to. And surely enough, good grief would find me.
Such is the nature of genuine gifts–they are never imposed upon us, but always given.
Philosophical musings aside, strangely enough, for me, those gifts were often offered to me and discovered during the oddest circumstances: e.g. an urgent trip to the washroom; being stuck in traffic for an hour on the highway; or while indulging my inner nerd and watching an episode of The Flash.
Keeping Your Memories Beautiful
I’ve learned that the beautiful memories I had of my ex-wife also became those very memories I really didn’t want to experience. Since I began healing from her hurtful choices to stay with her affair partner no matter what (versus rebuilding our marriage relationship), any memory of her became just far too intense and emotionally exhausting.
That’s when those memories of the person I so loved, deformed into thoughts I dreaded to remember, especially on those darkest nights of my soul.3
For example, I still fondly remember that perfect beginning we shared during our first week together in-person. You can probably picture the cheesy and sweet romance. You can see our dinner table set on a beach in Bali, with fresh seafood and serenading guitarists playing Hotel California, and the brisk scent of the sea breeze in harmony with the soothing sounds of the waves.
Like such moments tend to do, this experience became forever carved in my memory, when every word spoken and silence cherished, simply brought both of us, sheer delight.
Of course, all the pain, resentment, anger and sorrow that spawned from the injustice of her acts of betrayal and rejection began tainting the purity of those wonderful memories.
That’s not a surprising reality. But, surely there’s a better way, isn’t there?
After all, isn’t that lovely memory itself, innocent? A memory that’s child-like in its sweet thoughts, hopeful dreams, magical wishes, beautifully vulnerable feelings and candour?
Can our beautiful memories be blamed, or at fault for neither possessing the gift of prophecy nor the omniscience of my present hindsight?
Should our past beautiful memories be left victimized by the emotional crimes committed against us? Surely, aren’t they mere bystanders to all that unfolded years later?
In my opinion, I’d say that indeed memory is innocent.
Even so, I confess—those wonderful memories are definitely unbearably difficult to protect (assuming you’d even want to).
But, hypothetically speaking, let’s imagine that we think somewhat alike, and we do want to protect those good memories.
The first thing we’ll discover is that it’s not something we can force. It’s not easy to guard our once-most-cherished memories as a couple, especially once ill forces like contempt and acts of betrayal crash into our story.
Indeed, those ill forces do whatever it takes to shatter your world, even crossing time and space to corrupt your beautiful memories with a vicious rot…
Honestly, eventually, I really hated how that reality became true for me.
And of course, like some of us overly conscientious and empathic folks do, we start to hate and judge ourselves because we have such trouble stopping our feelings of bitterness, begrudging or resentment.
But whether you’re still seething with anger, resentment, hatred or genuinely ready to create a new life for yourself—no matter how many days, months, or years it’s been—I’d encourage you with this following word: Compassion.
Your Well-Being Starts with Compassion
Through the emotional whirlwinds, the journey of practising compassion is exactly what I’ve been working on in recent months.
Professor Kristin Neff, a groundbreaking pioneer in the empirical research of self-compassion and “mindful self-compassion” practice, understands “compassion” like this: Compassion “involves an understanding of the shared human condition, fragile and imperfect as it is, as well as a willingness to extend that understanding to others when they fail or make mistakes.” 4/
In fact, Neff cites various research about its important links to psychological well-being, including a reduction in anxiety and depression.5 Compared to swimming in our resentment and bitterness, even research points to self-compassion as a healthier response to our traumas. 6
Self-compassion is not the same as self-esteem. The rise of self-esteem is dependent on perceived success, and the loss of self-esteem coincides with failure.
But self-compassion doesn’t disappear when challenges find us.
In fact, self-compassion is exactly what has the opportunity to shine and thrive during our most painful failures. By boldly connecting with you negative emotions but abandoning self-judgment, it can produce healthier psychological functioning and well-being.
So if Neff’s definition of compassion rings true, then self-compassion is simply directing this inward.
For example, I’ve been learning to extend this compassion to my ex-wife, whether she’s aware of it or isn’t (she is now). In particular, I’ve been learning how to separate the person themselves from the person’s actions. So I do my best to write down, tell myself (and others) that my ex-wife is neither a villain nor a bad person. In fact, just like you and me, she is intrinsically good and valued as a child of God / Divine Reality.
Instead, it’s the series of actions and choices she made that were terrible, hurtful, and destructive to me and our bond.
In essence, I’m taking responsibility to “choose” how I want to author my own memories, present story, and future narrative. I could easily choose a downward spiral full of resentment, bitterness, cynicism, and hating humanity.
But I’ve been there, done that in other stories of mine…and it’s not pleasant.
Instead, I choose to embrace my growth and evolution.
In moments of deep pain, this often means embracing the paradoxes of life, and steering away from diamond absolutes and dualistic thinking (e.g. good vs. bad, black vs. white etc).
Our ability to dance through the paradoxes is one of the most important lessons we’ll learn along our journey of growth and transformation.
In many ways, it’s simply learning to see your story in a different way.
On a deeply human level, it’s setting an intention that not only brings you healing but powerfully transforms the innermost regions of your soul for the better, regardless of your spiritual or religious lineage.
Choosing Compassion: A Gift of Grief?
As hard as it might sometimes seem to practice compassion, it simply begins with an intention.
And that intention is this: a choice to grant yourself compassion.
Granting yourself compassion means this:
- Choosing to create an empowering story for yourself.
- Deciding to author, narrate, and cast yourself in a life story of your own design.
- Empowering yourself to boldly embrace the actions and behaviours within your own control and responsibility, while letting go of everything else that is completely outside of your control
And that, through mistakes, failures, troubles, or impossible decisions—you’re still choosing to be kind to yourself.
Sometimes, this choice is one you’ll need to make every day, hour, or even minute.
But no matter what you’re experiencing, this is a choice of self-compassion is consciously chosen.
It’s a choice that’s bathed in awareness, mindfulness, stillness and courage.
This choice opens the door to embracing life’s paradoxes.
It’s a choice that dares you to heal, grow, and create the most profound life you can, during an otherwise impossibly challenging season of changes.
Ultimately, the choice of self-compassion opens the doors for you to live a meaningful and fulfilling life, free from your resentment, bitterness, and the weight of your wounds.
Practising Your Art of Compassion
After all, compassion is, like most beautiful yet challenging things, both an art and a practice.
On my own journey of transformation in response to my ex-wife and our divorce, I’ve begun to see how my life story breathes with:
- the ability to embrace the intrinsic beauty and goodness of a human person alongside the shadow of their horrendous choices and behaviours
- the capacity to taste the “bittersweet” flavours of both joy and sorrow through our most cherished memories together
- the co-existence of “dark” and “light”, happiness and sadness, pain from growth, courage through fear, grit from grief, and miraculous transformation through the most impossibly difficult circumstances
Specifically, with the precious past memories of my early relationship with my ex-wife, I started learning about self-compassion by setting out to learn how to embrace both the sadness and beauty of my own memories.
Then, I began understanding those memories as “bittersweet” if you wish, even visualizing a glorious rose with its thorns.
Learning to acknowledge both the pain and beauty of those memories in their “bittersweet” flavour helps me honour the beauty of the past while accepting the reality of the present sorrow.
This is an act of compassion for myself because I’m respecting my own lovely history while similarly respecting my need to continue grieving. This compassion can also be extended to others, especially to any who have hurt us.
Thus, I’ve learned that daring to carry my heavy dread–this impossible, strangely good grief–can lead to a most unexpected invitation: to listen for the life-giving breath of compassion that, if I wish, can indeed transform me.
Turn Towards the Pain
Still, you might wonder whether you’d even want to think about something like compassion.
Maybe the words, good grief, are endlessly grating on your ears.
Perhaps you’re against the idea right now, because the pain is still too much to handle.
Please remember: it’s okay to not feel okay.
After all, it’s incredibly important, as Megan Devine suggests, to “carry what cannot be fixed”.7
How do we embrace the paradox of honouring and carrying our deep pain and soul wounds, while choosing to meaningfully “move onwards or forwards” (which is very different from the words, “moving on”–these sound like swear words to people who are grieving).
While my own default and unhelpful reflex is to “fix” and “solve” this pain, I’ve been learning that true healing doesn’t work that way.
It’s important to carry the pain, and not shoo-shoo it away or forcibly try to move on from it.
As Robert Augustus Masters also suggests, “Turning toward our pain…is a gradual process to be handled compassionately, gently, with great respect”. 8
True healing begins with turning towards the pain, gently carrying it, and compassionately holding yourself during your pain in–perhaps quite literally–an act of kind touch, self-embrace and lovingly taking care of yourself.
Grief is Unpredictable
As you might have figured out by now, there are no clear-cut, definitive, or easily digestible understandings of grief (or even good grief). In fact, how the grief happens is not predictable whatsoever.
Grief isn’t the type of beast that we can so easily tame. Maybe it’s one of the rare stories in our lives that is, indeed absolutely untameable.
But if you’ve heard of Elizabeth Kübler Ross and David Kessler’s stages of grief model (e.g. the stages of denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance) then you might wonder if grief can be easily captured in its cage. Unfortunately, this model has been widely misunderstood and misused in popular culture. Even the original authors themselves would caution you from defining grief in cosy little packages. On one hand, it’s certainly useful to understand how we might navigate all the different emotions of grief, and how we learn to live with our losses. On the other hand, let’s not misunderstand the healing potential within Kübler Ross and Kessler’s model.
While originally developed in the context of dying and death, this model has empowered many grieving people for decades across various fields.9 The model has been adapted and expanded upon in settings inclusive of relationships and dating, divorce and breakups, moving homes and/or moving abroad, career change and transition, finance industries, business and change management, and international relations and politics. For example, business world applications like the Kübler Ross Change Curve empowers business leaders and managers to strengthen workplace culture by better helping their employees adapt to both personal and company changes in organizational contexts.
The point I’m trying to make is this: it’s important to remember that Kübler Ross and Kessler aren’t prescribing the 5 stages of grief this as a linear process or simple labels for you to follow (in any kind of context). That’s a commonly misunderstood idea (that they would be the first to tell you). There’s no predictable order to those stages, and your grief is not limited to those labels either. In your experience of loss, or in mine, there can certainly be additional stages, sub-stages and so forth within our grief. And any number of stages can be repeated in any given hour, and on any given day, month, year, or decade.
That’s because of our individual experiences of grief and our wholly unique to our own contexts and life experiences. Whether you decide to believe that there is a gift of grief or not in your context is also wholly in your power to decide. Even our perspectives of what counts as a gift of grief and what doesn’t can be wholly unique to our own respective situations.
Of course, the same caveat of grief’s unpredictability applies to my own reflections. Again, your experience of grief and healing may not necessarily follow the whims of my own writing and personal experience, either. If you decide to look for good grief or any gifts of grief, that’s totally up to you. If that’s not you right now, that’s also totally okay.
For me, in my personal healing journey so far, it’s been super important for me to set a very specific intention every day (literally)…to make a very particular choice: to grow (as I’m able), learn hope, and find small moments of gratitude. It was important to me based on my own unique contexts, experiences and life stories. That’s not easy though because most days don’t start out very well at all because of all the emotions swirling around.
It can honestly take me 2-3 hours every morning to apply my own self-care routines and engage the rest of my day.
One of my toughest challenges has been learning how to simultaneously turn towards this pain…while making the daily choice of walking the winding path of hope, growth, gratitude and compassion for myself and others.
On better days, I’m able to do both well, and I surely see what good grief means for me, with all of its gifts…and I feel super-aligned and in sync with who I am, and how I envision the best version of myself.
But on many days, I’m quite good at doing one of those things, and rather lousy at trying the other.
On bad days, well, I just can’t do any of them…and those days just suck.
…And that’s okay.
Because it’s especially in times of suffering when you want to offer yourself the greatest amount of compassion.
…Well, that’s how it’s played out in my own story. Maybe it’ll play out differently in yours. Whatever way you wish to choose the next steps in your journey, I believe that there’s always space for you to welcome compassion for yourself, especially in times of suffering.
Reflection Question: What might it look like to give yourself kindness or compassion?
References: Frankl, V. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.  Epston, D. & White, M. 1992: Experience, Contradiction, Narrative and Imagination: Selected papers of David Epston and Michael White, 1989-1991. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications; Mirabai Starr, Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross, (Riverhead Books: 2002)  Gerald May, The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth (HarperOne: 2005); John of the Cross  Neff, K. D. & Germer, C. (2017). Self-Compassion and Psychological Wellbeing. In J.
Doty (Ed.) Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science, Chap. 27. Oxford University Press, p. 371- 381)  ibid., p. 380-381  Germer, C. & Neff, K. D. (2015). Cultivating self-compassion in trauma survivors. In V. M. Follette, J. Briere, D. Rozelle, J. W. Hopper, D. I. Rome, V. M. Follette, … D. I. Rome (Eds.), Mindfulness-oriented interventions for trauma: Integrating contemplative practices (pp. 43-58). New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.  Devine, M. (2017). It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand. Boulder: CO. Soundstrue Inc. . Masters, Robert Augustus. Psychotherapy & Spirituality Summit. 2017. Sounds True. www.soundstrue.com