As December falls upon us, Ugly Ducklings Inc wanted to kick off the holiday season with a series called “Surviving the Holidays”. We are going to cover a variety of topics in this series. As co-founders of Ugly Ducklings, we’ve had the amazing opportunity to interact with, build relationships with and read the stories of so many amazing individuals. We notice a common theme of loss and trauma through many of these stories and interactions.
Loss and trauma can be perpetuated by the holiday season; people who are struggling with that might need a haven to keep themselves from becoming overwhelmed. Megan Devine, the founder of Refuge in Grief, is a blogger and inspiration I’ve (Erin) followed for quite some time. I knew she would have great advice for anyone who might be struggling through grief, loss and/or trauma this holiday season.
- Megan, thank you so much for agreeing to offer your expertise to Ugly Ducklings Inc. Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and Refuge in Grief?
Sure. The surface details are that I’m a traumatic grief therapist, teach creative writing with a focus on grief and loss, and host retreats and workshops for grieving folks. I never wanted to be or do these things. In 2009, I witnessed the accidental death by drowning of my partner, Matt. He was strong, fit, healthy – three months from his 40th birthday. It was a beautiful and ordinary morning: the first sunny day after three solid weeks of rain. Refuge in Grief grew out of my experience in the vast wasteland of grief support that existed when I was first widowed. It was, and is, important to me that others coming into such intense grief find love and support, rather than platitudes and encouragement to “move on.”
- We have many young readers and through our interactions with them, we’ve found that many of them are struggling with their first encounter with sudden-death or the loss of a loved one. What is the biggest myth you’ve found in traditional grief resources that might hinder these individuals and what can you say to shed some light on the truth?
Traditional grief resources are riddled with myth. The whole idea that grief is an aberration, or one of the “negative” emotions, that you should work hard to get yourself out of grief as quickly as possible – it’s all such a dis-service to a newly broken heart. Grief is part of love; we grieve because we love. Grief is not sign that you’re unwell or unhealthy – it’s a sign that you’ve connected deeply with someone, and you feel their absence to your core.
- It seems that holidays can be extremely overwhelming and triggering for people who aren’t even struggling with grief or trauma, but in your experience, how are the struggles different for someone walking through recent or historical grief/loss?
The holiday season is full of grief landmines. The first holiday season without that person there, the subsequent seasons when they still aren’t there: that empty place at the table is such a visceral reminder of what you’ve lost. That is true any time of year – they are missing every day, in every season – but the holidays are such a call to family and friends, it can seem even more brutal during that time. Seeing intact families enjoying each other, knowing you are now on the outside looking in – it can feel like repeated blows to your heart and mind.
- Can you similarly speak to the struggles that someone with historical or recent trauma may experience?
Sure. In a lot of ways, grief related to trauma is similar to grief from a sudden or out-of-order death: there’s the same sense of the world being irreparably changed, your sense of safety or control is shaken. Nothing is as it should be, and more importantly, no one else seems to notice. While the world is rejoicing and celebrating, connecting and giving, you’re on your own, inside a whole different reality. That sense of wearing a mask, your true self being invisible – it can really feel strong at this time of year, in the face of the at least pretending-to-be-happy world.
- Kindness-to-self is a really conflicting thing in our society today, I find; it sometimes seems that people are accused of being selfish if they do take time for themselves, while there is a whole other pressure to always take care of yourself first. Do you find this discourse coming into play when talking about grief/loss/trauma?
Yeah, it’s confusing, isn’t it. On one hand, we have all these self-help and self-discovery books on self-care, valuing yourself, putting yourself first – but in practice, you get called selfish when you do these things. Like, how dare you care for yourself when I need you to do something for me? Self-care is great, and I support it unless I need you to over-ride it for me. Ugh.
Grieving people are often accused of being selfish. Of course they are. And they should be. When loss or trauma erupts into your life, your main concern is for yourself and your immediate family (if you have kids). There is simply no energy left over to take care of anyone else, or worry about their hurt feelings. This is not a usual time, and the usual rules do not apply. I’m not saying you have license to be a jerk, just that putting yourself first is not only important, it’s necessary.
I think if we imagined a physical correlate for your emotional wound – translating your pain into something others could physically see – there would be less talk of how selfish you’re being, and more focus on how to love and support you through this time. And I mean that both from the perspective of your friends, and from your own internal voice.
- What tips can you give to someone who might feel torn or overwhelmed about their participation in traditions and activities related to the holiday season?
There’s a whole post on this very topic, but the biggest take-away is that you should do whatever feels right and true for you. Other people will be hurt or upset if you choose not to participate, but your own truth is what’s important. I don’t mean you should be rude or mean, just that saying “no” when no is what’s true – that’s self-care. That’s kindness. And you deserve that.
- You have many resources available on your website for those struggling with grief or loss (though, I wouldn’t say they are limited to helping only those struggling with the death of a loved one) – what resource would you most recommend for holiday struggles?
Gosh. Well, the 30 day Writing Your Grief course is a great place to be through the holiday season. It’s not just the writing, it’s the tribe that gets created in each new group. Having a place where you can tell the whole truth about your grief – and your love – being witnessed, acknowledged, and held – that’s a great place to hunker down for the season.
There’s also the audio book on my site, “when everything is not okay: practical tools to help you stay in your heart & not lose your mind.” A lot of people use that book as their anchor in tough times. Anchors are good things to have.
- Your next 30 Day Writing course begins on December 8th… can you tell us a little bit about your writing courses and the communities that come out of that?
The Writing Your Grief courses are so cool. I launched the first course in early 2014, and they’ve just grown exponentially since then. The original course is a prompt a day for 30 days, with an online community where you can share your writing. Once you’ve been through that course, you can sign up for other writing courses, and stay connected to the online community.
Every single session, people say that this is the first place they’ve felt they could tell the truth about their grief, without fear of correction or judgement. The love and respect inside these groups is just stunning. Sudden death and out-of-order death may not be statistically common, but our community is vast and deep. I love that people have really found their heart-family inside the group. It’s quite a tribe.
You don’t have to identify as a writer to join the course, in fact, many people have never really written on a regular basis before. Some have found their voice inside the group for the very first time, and have gone on to write more publically. There are some professional writers in the group, but this is a place for raw, visceral, truth-telling. You’d have a hard time separating the non-writers from the pros a lot of the time.
That said, Angela Giles Patel (of The Manifest-Station) and I are launching an advanced grief-writing course for those who want to take their work to the publication level. The original WYG course is a prerequisite for the advanced session. You’ll find information about that on the website as we get closer to launch.
- Is there anything else you’d like to say to someone who might be reading this while they are grieving?
Yes. Sweetheart. I’m so sorry you’re here. Others have come before you, but that’s not important now. What’s important is that you stay with yourself, find those places and people that companion your pain and your love. Reach out, reach in. Lean on love whenever you can.
- How can our readers find and connect with you?
You can find me on Twitter , and on Facebook. On the website, you’ll find my blog, the audio book, information about upcoming courses, and the weekly letter. You can also sign up for a free phone call with me. For real – it’s not as weird as you’d think.
Thank you so much for sharing your experience and expertise with us, Megan!