Red Flag Thoughts to Watch For in Grief
Red Flag Thoughts to Watch For in Grief

Red Flag Thoughts to Watch For in Grief

You know you are not your thoughts, but did you know your thoughts are not always telling you the whole truth? This week, we’re exploring ways to distance ourselves from the belief systems we carry in order to find our truest selves and understanding as we heal. It’s a conversation about red flag thinking in grief and challenging implicit narratives because we can’t always believe everything we think.

One of my favorite things about being a grief educator is helping grievers overcome the myths and misunderstandings about their grief process. We all come to our grief with an idea of what to expect based on what we see in movies, hear from friends, or witness in the world around us. But what we observe is limited. As you know, grievers are hesitant to share their full experience with others. A fear of judgment or rejection can lead us to keep the fullness of our hurt to ourselves, which of course can lead us to believe we’re all alone in our grief. But are we alone, or did we create a scenario out of our own expectation?

That is just one example of a cognitive distortion, which we’ve discussed many times on this show. But today, we’re not sticking with cognitive distortions. We’re going after platitudes and social norms that no longer serve us for healing.

Listen when I say this: Your brain is not broken. It’s simply pushing stories and narratives forward that once offered a sense of safety. But things have changed, and the safety once found in these thoughts or mindsets are not protecting us in the way we want anymore. So when we catch a thought (and we’ve talked about this before), we’re not judging or condemning ourselves. We’re not holding ourself to unrealistic standards, or blaming our inner voice for getting something wrong. We are simply addressing the implicit, underlying beliefs we have held about grief and life and asking what might be possible if something else is true.

A platitude is something we once believed as truth but that no longer holds the same value or impact. When you think of platitudes, I’m sure there are a handful that immediately race to the front of your brain. For me, the loudest thoughts are, “Everything happens for a reason” and “God would never give you more than you can handle.” I remember the season of life in which both of those statements resonated, made sense, and felt like comfort. I even read a book recently where these were talking points the author was trying to make and I read them with a grain of salt, because when I hear them now, they fall flat and often, bring along extra pain with them.

So why is that? Am I calling my younger self naive? Did I believe whatever I was told because I was afraid to feel discomfort or push back at all? We could spend hours overthinking platitudes and honestly, I’ve done that. But part of my work and yours is looking at cultural implications of platitudes, determining what and why something no longer fits the community I serve. Consider “Everything happens for a reason.” At a certain season of my life, that phrase meant safety. It meant that I could trust in a greater organizational framework to the world around me and the things I didn’t understand. It meant I could rest, and expect clarity at a later point in life that may or may not be easy to swallow, but would at least help me see retrospectively how my experience allowed for growth.

Now let’s slow down for a moment. If that phrase offered safety, trust, patience, clarity, and rest…how is it still a platitude? All of those things are exactly what I want when I’m grieving. And taking that statement out of its own context, I can easily make the argument that it’s not a platitude. But when I put it back into the cultural context it comes from – in this case, evangelical Christianity – then I can recognize the subtext and determine if the implicit meaning of the platitude is as helpful as the explicit statement. The explicit is exactly what is said to me: Everything happens for a reason. The implicit meaning here is that greater powers are at play, causing situations to occur without my consent in order to fulfill someone else’s plan or agenda.

And that is the least comforting thing I can think of as a griever.

If I chose to believe a platitude and bring it to my internal state, that is wholly my choice. My purpose here isn’t to shun or shame anyone who believes that everything happens for a reason. In fact, you will often hear me agree with this statement and then ask, “What reasons do you find in this situation?” When faced with a platitude from another person, I offer curiosity instead of judgment. I could easily judge their conclusion, stating they’re believing a lie and everything is chaos and life is pain. Or I could hear them out and learn about the context of their own thought process.

This matters because you are the person making statements like these, and often without curiosity. Our inner voices are well-trained with phrases and statements of protection that we repeat without consideration or curiosity. And when we repeat them often enough, they become the foundation or root of our beliefs about grief and healing.

When we choose to challenge our thoughts around grief, we are not just saying “Change your mind and change your life.” I hate that phrase. We are identifying a thought that no longer helps us and we are then going further to identify the underlying belief behind the thought. When we see the belief, we can decide if it aligns with our current self and core values, or if it’s from an old version of us and needs to be set free.

The grief work you pursue cannot be built on a contradictory foundation. If you are trying to recover from religious trauma, but are building your healing on a fatalistic belief system with no room for your own choices, consent, or self-determination, then what you build is ultimately going to circle back each time to the idea that no matter what choice you make, you’re simply fulfilling a predestined purpose. On the other hand, if you are processing religious trauma, hear the phrase “Everything happens for a reason,” and ask yourself about possible reasons, you may connect some dots and find a way to heal. What if the reason everything happened to you has nothing to do with the context of a loving god and everything to do with unhealthy leadership? The underlying belief you carry about yourself as valuable, autonomous, and free (or otherwise) is a belief you would need to wrestle with before deciding to embrace the “everything happens” thought or not.

Grievers deserve to recognize that our lack of control and influence over our external circumstances is not permanent, nor is the only response a positive attitude. Challenging the foundational narratives or underlying beliefs we’ve believed about ourselves, our grief, and our future is an important place to start as it invites the griever to look internally to spaces we can control, influence, and adjust. It is in challenging and rewriting our narratives and beliefs that we can uncover the hope we so desperately need for healing.

So recently I polled my faithful Instagram followers and asked what kind of thoughts and unhelpful beliefs they would want to warn fellow grievers to be watchful of, and there were some terrific responses! So what I would like to do is share those thoughts to be watchful of and offer a response you might consider writing down if the initial thought is one familiar to you. Some of these will resonate immediately and if that’s the case, I would invite you to pause and reconsider what your own curious response could be toward these thoughts.

The first and most commonly shared response was this: “You should be thankful for having loved in the first place.” Immediately, we can recognize the “should language” we’ve talked about before, which is a judgment of “not good enough.” How might you offer yourself curiosity if this is a thought that surfaces? What is the underlying belief that supports this line of thinking? For me, the underlying belief is that I am ungrateful for the things I have and that is why I’ve lost them. Someone I love dearly would say that this thought reminds them they can be punished for poor behavior – even cosmically – and if they had more gratitude, they wouldn’t be suffering.

The underlying belief will always be a personal thing – I can’t tell you what your response is – but I can tell you that when you identify the thought and find the underlying belief, you will feel a gut punch. It will be one of those experiences of clarity that you’ve waited for in grief work. The underlying belief will make sense because it will connect the dots between you of today and some past versions of your self that also accepted these thoughts as valid.

“Why is grieving taking you so long?” Again, we can see the “should language” even though it’s more subtle – you should feel better by now. What curiosity can you offer yourself here – especially if this is your own thought? What is the underlying belief that supports this type of a thought?

Here’s a particularly cruel but common response I received: “If you really loved them, you wouldn’t be so happy all the time because you would keep them in mind.” Honestly, I remember wrestling with this one after someone I loved from my church community died. What’s the curiosity you can offer yourself about happiness here? What might the underlying belief about happiness, or your grief experience, or you as a person be here? The should language is really sneaky with this one, but it’s present nonetheless: You should be a better griever by meeting my expectations of what grief looks like. Curiosity allows to ask the question about what we expect of a grief experience and perhaps, to redefine our belief about what grief requires of us.

Your underlying beliefs are impacting the way you think – of course – but without attending those beliefs consistently, we can get mixed up and in the mud on what we want from those beliefs in the first place. We have a set of beliefs because they help us navigate life, but when they stop being helpful, we get the opportunity to engage with ourselves in a new way. Change is not the enemy we’ve been told about. Change is the natural progression of all things, which is why grief literacy and intentional grief work are meaningful. As you continue noticing and challenging red flag thoughts, remember that you can normalize changing your beliefs and opinions when you learn new information. If your old belief structure can no longer withstand the pressure of your grief, learn something new about grief. See what foundational truths can withstand, and even though grief work stirs up secondary losses along the way, trust that you will find healing on the path, too.

Thank you for listening to episode 112 of Restorative Grief. The more time we spend offering ourselves a fresh chance to believe better for ourselves and our grief, the more intentional our grief work becomes. Intentional grief work is how we move the needle toward healing for ourselves, and that’s the whole point of doing this work. It’s not to forget. It’s never to move on. It is to deepen our connection to ourselves, our loved ones, and to learn more about the complexity of who we are, what we need, and how we can live fully alive.

If this is your first time listening to the podcast, I want to thank you for being here and hope you found something helpful in this quick chat on challenging our thoughts! It is so fascinating to witness what shakes loose when we begin to challenge our automatic thoughts. Curiosity is a powerful tool for healing! I hope you’ll subscribe to the show and if you’re interested in the workbook I mentioned earlier, you can become a Patron of the show for access to every available workbook or you can snag a copy of this month’s workbook as a standalone as well. The links for Patreon and my website are in the show notes and you can always reach out to me on social media under @ MandyCapehart. I love connecting with listeners and hearing what serves and what you want more of, too. Be gentle with yourself this month, since we’re fresh into the holidays and things can get a little sticky this time of year – whether you’re grieving or not.

And as always, one last thing. Please remember, the only solution for grief is to do the work of grieving. Thank you for listening. I’ll see you next week.

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