Healing Your Heart

We’ve all heard about the five stages of grief. But what happens when your experience doesn’t follow that model at all? Resilience researcher Lucy Hone began to question how we think about grief after a devastating loss in her own life. She shares the techniques she learned to help her cope with tragedy.

Additional Resources

Books:

Resilient Grieving: How to Find Your Way Through Devastating Loss, by Lucy Hone, 2017. 

The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us about Life after Loss, by George Bonanno, 2010.

The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles, by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte, 2003.

Research:

Destruction to Regeneration: How Community Trauma and Disruption can Precipitate Collective Transformation, by Lucy Hone, Chris P. Jansen and Denise M. Quinlan, Wellbeing and Resilience Education, 2021.

Cautioning Health-Care Professionals: Bereaved Persons are Misguided Through the Stages of Grief, by Margaret Stroebe, Henk Schut, and Kathrin Boerner, OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, 2017.

The Science of Resilience: Implications for the Prevention and Treatment of Depression, by Steven M. Southwick and Dennis S. Charney, Science, 2012.

The Dual Process of Coping with Bereavement: Rationale and Description, by Margaret Stroebe andHenk Schut, Death Studies, 1999.

Grab Bag:

Lucy Hone’s TED Talk: The Three Secrets of Resilient People

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. In the 1960s, the psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was studying patients with terminal illnesses. She noticed a pattern as they came to terms with their mortality. The patients seemed to go through different psychological phases. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross eventually classified these phases into what she called the five stages of grief, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The five stages were intuitively appealing and offered people a way to understand a complex experience. Very quickly, the simplicity of this framework began to seep into popular culture, books, TV shows, and later countless YouTube videos.

Youtube Video on Grief: Your mind is protecting you by completely denying the reality. Numbness may follow. It's nature's way of letting you deal only with your emotions that you're capable of handling.

Shankar Vedantam: As often happens, a system that was designed to be descriptive became prescriptive. The five stages, translated into popular culture, morphed into a model that told people they should expect to feel certain emotions and that their experience of grief would be a journey from one stage to the next.

Youtube Video on Grief: Finally, five is acceptance. It's the fifth stage, and this is the end game here. And it is the result of all the stages of your grief.

Shankar Vedantam: Over time, the five-stage model of grief became so ingrained in people's minds that new insights, based on rigorous research, did not get as much airtime. For decades, the popular understanding of what we feel when we grieve was largely drawn from the five stages model.

Lucy Hone: Anyone who's ever been bereaved will know that people tell you about them, they expect you to go through them. And pretty quickly I became frustrated with them, because I don't want to be told what I'm going to feel. I am desperate to know what I can do to help us all adapt to this terrible loss.

Shankar Vedantam: Today, we bring you the story of a researcher who's understanding of grief was transformed by a devastating experience in her own life. The surprisingly powerful technique she learned to cope with tragedy, this week on Hidden Brain.

Shankar Vedantam: Lucy Hone is a researcher of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, 2010. She was living near Christchurch when it was struck by a powerful earthquake. The disaster, and a series of aftershocks, killed 185 people and destroyed most of downtown Christchurch. Thousands of people lost their homes. Lucy had just returned from graduate school in the United States. She was about to embark on a PhD. Her area of study, resilience. Given the disaster unfolding around her, Lucy rolled up her sleeves and started applying what she had already learned to help the people around her. One day, during a powerful aftershock, Lucy was standing outside her home, which was perched on the cliffs, overlooking the city.

Lucy Hone: And I just stood there looking down on our village and I could see the children's school there. And I could see them all lining up, obviously, being looked after and counted. But what was so awful for me was that I could also see the cliffs on the other side of the village, really close to them, less than a mile away from them, tumbling down in front of them. So it was a pretty scary moment in my life.

Shankar Vedantam: The Christchurch earthquakes lasted for more than a year. Residents lived in a constant state of anxiety, not knowing when the next tremor would strike. At one point, Lucy was giving a talk on resilience to survivors, when a woman in the audience raised her hand and described a problem she was having.

Lucy Hone: She just said to me, "I'm startling all the time. I just am so jumpy every time someone crashes a saucepan lid, I seem to jump in the air and my heart is pounding and what do I do about that? And I said, "Firstly, does anyone else feel like that?" And the whole room lifted up their hands. So I think it was a real moment of collective resonance when we all realized that we had exactly the same startle reaction from those ever-present earthquakes. You just never knew whether you were safe and you never knew when the next one was going to come, so that kind of hypervigilance was pretty omnipresent.

Shankar Vedantam: The problem was some of this hypervigilance, it was totally justified.

Lucy Hone: Because we had over 10,000 aftershocks and five or six really major events. One of those was on Boxing Day, and I had taken my two sons and a friend visiting from England over to one of the big malls to the Boxing Day sales. And we were all just sitting there afterwards, having something to eat in one of the cafes and suddenly the whole mall started shaking. And so we got under the tables and all the cups of tea were being knocked over. But it really terrified us. And I remember locking eyes with my eldest son and that was probably the moment that we realized that these earthquakes weren't going to go away. That actually we were probably now in for a pretty rocky ride.

Shankar Vedantam: So I want to fast forward a couple of years. In the summer of 2014, this is a couple of years after the earthquakes. I think you're still working on your PhD at this point. You organized a family beach vacation. It was several hours from your home and you were planning to go with two other families. You and your husband, and two teenage sons drove together. I understand your daughter, Abi, went with another family?

Lucy Hone: Yes, that's right. So my friend Sally and I had arranged a family getaway on a long weekend in June. And at the last minute Sally's daughter, Ella, who was the same age as Abi, just 12 years old at the time, phoned up to say, "Hey, can Abi come with us in the car?" They were great girlfriends and always together. So we thought nothing of it and said, "Yeah, absolutely. You hop in with her." And we dropped Abi off and went on our way. And we had a four-hour journey ahead of us and they didn't turn up later, when they should have done, but we didn't really think anything of it at the time.

Shankar Vedantam: Lucy and her family went to a local restaurant and sat down to dinner. Abi still hadn't arrived, but they were not too worried. The family Abi was traveling with had probably just gotten stuck in traffic.

Lucy Hone: And so we just carried on having dinner without them. And then the hotel owner came and said to us, "There's a policeman on the phone for you and he'd like to speak to one of you."

Shankar Vedantam: When Lucy's husband Trevor got on the phone, the police officer didn't say why he wanted to talk. He only said he needed to drive out to meet them.

Lucy Hone: I think he said, "There's been an accident and I need to come out and talk with you in person." That was the defining moment. That was when I remember Trevor looking across at me and saying, "He's coming to see us and he wouldn't say anymore, but they don't bring you good news, do they?" And so we hunkered down in the lodge's office with the manager, who we did know through other families who knew her. And so that was reasonably comfortable being with her. But actually the whole experience, of course, was anything but comfortable. And I remember pacing the room and possibly it was about a 20 minute wait. He'd come from the local police station that just isn't very local, so we had an agonizing wait.

Shankar Vedantam: When the police officer finally arrived, he had an odd question about Abi's shoes.

Lucy Hone: He asked me what she was wearing and probably like any mother I knew exactly what my dear daughter was wearing and so I told him.

Shankar Vedantam: Abi was wearing black Converse, Chuck Taylor high tops.

Lucy Hone: And he said to me, "In that case, I'm sorry to tell you that was your daughter in the accident. And I tragically have to tell you that she has died." And he also told us that Sally, my friend, had been killed and Sally's beautiful daughter, Ella, who was such dear friends with our Abi, had also died. So all of them had been hit by a car who drove through a stop sign and plowed into them.

Shankar Vedantam: It's hard to even imagine what you were going through at this point, Lucy. This is, literally, every parent's worst nightmare, but this nightmare was actually happening to you. Did you have a sense of being able to process what was going on and were you in shock?

Lucy Hone: I was definitely in shock. I think it is a bit of an outer-body experience. You can almost observe yourself going through the process. I remember the physical sensations of feeling sick and sweating and we drank so much water. I remember that. And I remember pacing. I couldn't stay anywhere. I remember getting on the floor, getting up, walking around. You don't know what to do in that moment. I remember calling my sister and not being able to get through to her and then calling every member of her family and it turned out they were all together in a bar and they suddenly realized that something awful had happened, because they'd all had these missed calls. And I remember the other people in the lodge and feeling sorry for them thinking, "Oh, this is such an awful thing for you to watch." So you have, I think, odd thoughts, but actually what I remember Shankar, most of all is this feeling that was our new life story and that her death would be part of our life story for the remainder of our days.

Shankar Vedantam: That night, the police drove Lucy and her family to a hospital in Christchurch.

Lucy Hone: Where we then met my sister and her family, which was just a terrible moment. You can imagine family collective grief. And we were asked to go and identify the body and my dear son, Paddy, said to his dad, "Come on, dad, we've got to go and do it." Just awful moments. We went home at 5:00 or 6:00 AM and all just walked back into the house and sat there in disbelief. I do remember in those first hours and days, to be honest, feeling like I was on autopilot and that people were moving me around, standing behind me, pointing my shoulders in the direction I had to go. It was just staggering, really numb. And you're just in disbelief. I think that is the thing, isn't it? That when it comes out of the blue, your world has been smashed apart. Nothing makes sense. And you're just struggling and grappling to get through each hour. And, honestly, I remember those awful grief sweats and not sleeping. It was just awful.

Shankar Vedantam: I understand that at one point soon after Abi's death, a couple of grief counselors came to your home. Do you remember what they told you?

Lucy Hone: I do. We had a few people come and give us well-meaning advice. And really what stands out for me is that I remember them saying to me, "You're going to need to write five years of your life off to this grief. You're really not going to be able to function for the next five years." And that we were now prime candidates for divorce, family, estrangement and mental illness. And, honestly, I remember thinking, "Wow. I thought my life was already truly terrible. I can't believe that people are dumping all this on us as well." And I was horrified. So I remember someone talking to me about the fact that they'd lost a brother who had died and then he said, "And, to be honest, I don't really speak to my other brother any longer. His death tore our family apart." And I remember thinking, "Okay, right. That's something else I'm going to have to watch out for."

Shankar Vedantam: The friends and counselors, obviously, meant well, but after they left, Lucy felt worse. It wasn't just that they were telling her that her life was terrible. They also seemed to be telling her that there was nothing she could do about it. When we come back, Lucy started to wonder if that was true. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden, Brain I'm Shankar Vedantam. Lucy Hone is a public health researcher at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. She studies resilience. In the summer of 2014, Lucy experienced every parent's greatest nightmare. Her 12-year-old daughter was killed in a car crash. Before the accident, Lucy had been helping survivors of the Christchurch earthquakes. Suddenly she needed help, herself. Lucy, you've described a moment soon after the accident when you found yourself standing in your bedroom asking yourself a question and the question was, "Can I go on?" Can you describe that moment to me?

Lucy Hone: Yes. It was my darkest, bleakest moment, I think, where I did have a sense that it all felt just too hard. Every day it felt like we were climbing a mountain and we never got to the top. Every day you'd be put down to the bottom and have to start the whole thing again. It was exhausting and I lost hope. And I'm a pretty hopeful person, and so I think that is a moment that really stands out for me.

Shankar Vedantam: So something that many people don't realize is that grief isn't just in the mind, as you say, it's physically exhausting.

Lucy Hone: It certainly is honestly physically exhausting. I did a lot of sleeping. And, of course, sleep gives you a temporary break as well from the thinking, because it just goes round and round in your head. And I was lucky that I could sleep and that our boys were of an age where I could go to bed at any time of day, if it was all too much. And I knew, because of my training, the importance of sleep as well.

Shankar Vedantam: I understand that you had conversations at this time with your husband where you were running through what-if scenarios regarding Abi? Do you remember what they were about, Lucy?

Lucy Hone: We once sat down on the rocks, we live by the beach, and we sat there and, yes, having those kinds of what if we hadn't arranged that weekend to go away? And what if we hadn't let her in the car, but then we also said to each other, she didn't suffer. We didn't have to sit, like so many parents, at her bedside for weeks and months and watch the life drain out of her. We took some comfort from the fact that she died instantly and wouldn't have known what was happening to her. And so, in that sense, we were just trying to help each other focus on the bits that weren't so terrible.

Shankar Vedantam: At the same time, I think this is really revealing about people's grief journeys, in general, which is that very often when grief strikes a family, the people whom you would normally turn to for help are also suffering and that can really make it difficult to find your way out, because everyone around you is also being weighed down by this thing.

Lucy Hone: It's so true Shankar and everybody grieves differently. And my mother had died when I was 30 and Trevor lost his father when he was 12, so we had both experienced grief before, but we were very aware that we have two 14- and 15-year-old beautiful boys who were, obviously, processing it in a different way to their parents. And then we had all Abi's friends. We live in a small family community and so we had all of them. And we weren't just one family, but two families. And so there was a real sense of collective grief. They lost two girls from the local primary and one of the moms. And particularly so soon after the earthquakes.

Shankar Vedantam: You say that grief had a way of sneaking up on you. You call these grief ambushes. What do you mean by that term?

Lucy Hone: Honestly, the awful aspect of grief is that you just can't control the emotions and in the least likely moments, they seem to absolutely take hold of you. And so whether it was sitting at the traffic lights, or once I write about how I went to the supermarket, which, because it had fallen down in the earthquakes, we didn't have a local supermarket for some time five or six years. So it wasn't until after Abi died that they reopened the local supermarket. And I swanned in there thinking, "Fabulous. It's back, how good is this?!" And I just got to the aisle that had her favorite snacks in it and just stood there and dissolved. And it just took me back to so many times when her little kindergarten was across the road and we'd come there after kindy and she'd buy her favorite bits and we were always together. And I just stood there and thought, "Oh, seriously." This is literally that grief ambush that overwhelms you and we're almost powerless to do anything about it. And it was okay for me, because I was in a quiet supermarket aisle at the time. But when it happens at work, that's just, it's a really tough, challenging aspect of grief.

Shankar Vedantam: So the grief counselor and others told you that the next five years of your life are going to be consumed by grief, that you were prime candidates for divorce and estrangement, mental illness. You also heard about the five stages of grief. What was the conventional wisdom about the five stages of grief, Lucy?

Lucy Hone: So I think, to be fair, like most people, I was aware of those five stages. Like most people, I could probably name three of them, but when people started telling me about them and, boy, anyone who's ever been bereaved will know that people tell you about them. They expect you to go through them. And pretty quickly I became frustrated with them, because I didn't feel anger and animosity towards the driver. I knew that that was a terrible mistake, but he didn't do it intentionally. And I wasn't in denial. From the very first moment, as I've said, I remember thinking, "Okay, this is my job now. My mission is to survive this." And so they didn't fit with my experience. But the other aspect that quickly frustrated me about the five stages is that I just found them too passive. It's reasonably helpful to be told that you might feel depression and acceptance, or anger and denial and all of these different things. But actually it was like, "I don't want to be told what I'm going to feel. I am desperate to know what I can do to help us all adapt to this terrible loss."

Shankar Vedantam: I'm struck by the fact that at a certain point in your journey of grief over Abi's death, you were thinking like a researcher or starting to ask yourself whether you, yourself, could be almost a research subject, that you're studying yourself. You're observing yourself. You're thinking of your own experience, not just as a person going through the experience, but like a scientist. Did you have a moment of epiphany when you realized, in some ways, that you could become your own research subject on this topic?

Lucy Hone: I think I did. I think it's fair to say that, yes, it was kind of an epiphany, "Aha moment." And it is also who I am. I am a researcher and I'm a mom and a wife. And so you're always... We all wear multiple hats, don't we? It's just that mine happened to be that I was experiencing this devastating loss and curious about my experiences, simultaneously. And that was the kind of aha moment that I was doing this internally, kind of observing my loss and my reaction to it. And then I thought, "Well, what I'm really curious about is we have all these tools from resilience psychology, which have been shown to help people cope with potentially traumatic events. Well, how useful are they when they are brought to the context of bereavement?" And so that's been the question that I've been really exploring ever since Abi died.

Shankar Vedantam: Pondering this question gave her the space to analyze how her own mind was responding to grief. When she noticed something about how she was coping, she reserved judgment about what it meant. When she engaged in what-if scenarios? What if she hadn't allowed Abi to drive with the other family? What if she hadn't planned a beach vacation? She noticed how these thoughts made her feel. She paid attention to how she felt after getting exercise or a good night's sleep. In other words, she started behaving like a scientist. She eventually discovered there were things that made her feel better and things that made her feel worse. She came up with a series of techniques that gave her a measure of control over her grief.

Lucy Hone: I distinctly remember standing in the kitchen thinking, "Seriously, Lucy, choose life, not death. Don't lose what you have to what you have lost."

Shankar Vedantam: You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Lucy Hone is a public health researcher at the University of Canterbury. After her 12-year-old daughter was killed in a traffic crash, Lucy tracked her own bereavement process closely. She realized that she, herself, did not follow the five stages of grief. She also realized that we are wrong when we think grief is only something that happens to us. While it's true that grieving people do not feel they have much control over their emotions, there were things she could do to change the way she felt. They were active choices she could make. These choices did not erase her grief. That was neither possible nor healthy. But they did allow her to feel like she could manage it. The first step was to realize there was a difference between her reaction to grief and her response to it.

Lucy Hone: So your grief reaction, you have very little control over, and that is all those physical symptoms that occur when we are bereaved. And, for me, that was that aching right in my solar plexus and the grief sweats, those awful nighttime sweats, and then torrid roller coaster of emotions. So it's really hard to control those and we call that grief reaction. But we do also have the grief response, which is about how we choose to respond to the grief. And that is about the ways of thinking and acting and the micro-choices we make all day long, which can really help or harm our grief. And so while grief reaction, we have little control, grief response is pervaded with choice.

Shankar Vedantam: As Lucy started to analyze her own grief like a scientist, she stumbled on the work of Columbia University researcher, George Bonanno.

Lucy Hone: Well, certainly George Bonanno's work is really comforting. And what he discovered was that actually most people get through grief on their own without needing any kind of medication or clinical intervention. And so this really gave me hope. And the other great researchers in this field a§are Struber and Schut, whose oscillation theory I came across, which is a different model of grief that says that we need to approach our grief. And then it's okay to withdraw, take a break from grief. And that's not avoidance and denial, but actually a really healthy way to grieve.

Shankar Vedantam: You're talking about the researchers, Margaret Struber and Henk Schut. Describe for me, again, what they meant by this term oscillation, because you found both yourself going through this, but also in some ways deciding to pursue yourself.

Lucy Hone: Yes. I think it made sense to me. So their theory of oscillation is that we oscillate between approaching our grief and then taking a break from it. But we also oscillate between attending to these two different types of grief. One is loss-oriented and the other is restoration-oriented, meaning that you fluctuate between coping with the loss, the actual, for me, Abi and how much I missed her. And then the restoration bit is about, "And who am I now? And how will I learn to live without her and her place in the family? And how am I going to get back to work and go to the supermarket and face my friends?" So you ebb and flow between these two processes. And it's a real, dynamic process. What resonated for me was that we needed to take breaks from our grieving process. And actually that's where positive emotion can come in too.

Shankar Vedantam: When Lucy first confronted Abi's death, grief felt like an impassable mountain looming before her. When she was told she was a prime candidate for divorce or mental illness, that mountain grew larger. But when she started looking at the scientific evidence, she discovered cause for hope. While a small minority of people do get stuck in grief, the majority recover and regain healthy levels of psychological functioning. When Lucy chose to spend time away from her grief, this wasn't denial. Her brain was doing the perfectly healthy thing of oscillating between attending to grief and attending to recovery. Lucy also arrived at a third insight.

Lucy Hone: I know from resilience psychology that it's really important to choose where you focus your attention. And so I absolutely had this voice in my head that would be aware if I was bargaining. If I started to do that "What if I hadn't booked that weekend away? What if we had just left? They just left 10 minutes later that day." And then I'd think to myself, "You're only allowed to have two what ifs." So once I'd done one "What if we hadn't booked..." Actually, I booked the holiday the weekend away, so "What if I hadn't booked it? And what if we hadn't allowed her into the car that day." And then I'd do another one and I'd think, "Nope, that's your limit. Go and distract yourself, because anymore what ifs are going to be harming you and you need to survive this." And so I would distract myself by phoning somebody else or doing something that really demanded my attention.

Shankar Vedantam: This was part of a larger idea, borrowed from cognitive behavioral therapy. As thoughts went through her mind, she started to ask herself a simple question, "Is this thought good for me or bad for me?" An important fork in the road came when Lucy and her husband were asked to attend the trial of the driver who had run the stop sign and T-boned the car in which Abi was riding. Lucy asked herself, "Would going to the trial be good for me or bad for me?"

Lucy Hone: Grief is full of choices. And so when we were invited to go to the trial, I used a strategy that encourages you to ask yourself "Is doing that going to help me or harm me in my quest to survive this loss?" And so Trevor and I both agreed that we didn't want to go to the trial, that actually that wasn't going to help us. I just didn't need to be standing in the same room as the driver. At that time, I needed to focus my energy and attention elsewhere. And that was on the boys, so in fact, we went instead to their school just that day to meet with the teachers and just check in with them, because they'd just been back at school about three weeks, I think. And that felt like a much better use of my time. And I distinctly know that what I appreciated was that I was putting myself in the driver's seat and taking back a bit of control.

Shankar Vedantam: So in some ways I think what I hear you saying is that when people are experiencing grief, partly what we almost expect them to do is we expect them to follow scripts. And sometimes we provide scripts to them and say, here's what you're supposed to feel, and here's what comes next, and here's what comes before this, and here's what you're supposed to do after this. And in some ways, by taking back that narrative, you can start to make choices that in some ways craft your own journey. And it may be that the choice that you make is different than the choice that your husband makes, but it's important that each of you exercises the agency to make the choice that in some ways is the best fit for your mental makeup and your psychological well being.

Lucy Hone: Yeah. That's completely it. That we all grieve differently. Grief is as individual as your fingerprint. There's actually very little evidence that says that we go through those five stages. They have been perpetuated, because they're a tidy model and health practitioners and people, they are drawn to the fact that when people are grieving and it's such a torrid time that if they can just give them met tidy five-stage model, then maybe that makes them feel better and it's easier for the health practitioners to give this model. But actually grief's not like that. It's messy and untidy. And in our work, people rarely say that they go through those stages.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering if there are other choices you found yourself having to make, where you could ask yourself the question, "Is this going to be good for me or is this going to be bad for me?"

Lucy Hone: Absolutely. It became my go-to strategy. And I'd often find myself... Of course, I'm weak willed like everybody and I'd find myself trolling through Instagram late at night, looking at pictures of Abi and noticing the comments that her friends have put on there. And I do that for a few minutes and then think, "Seriously, Lucy, is this helping or is it harming you. Be kind to yourself. Put your phone away and go to bed." And I so often did find those things, looking at photos, even just hanging out with her friends. As I say, we're a pretty small community, so I would bump into her friends and sometimes that would be good and other times I'd think, "No, that's actually not what you need right now. That's not going to be good for you. So just walk back out of the supermarket and come back later," or whatever it was. But it was definitely my practical question that enabled me to find my own pathway through grief.

Shankar Vedantam: It's worth pointing out that I think that what you did is not easy to do. It really is easy to get angry. It does feel natural to engage in what ifs. These are human reactions. And I want to flag that while making conscious choices about what to focus on does make sense, that doesn't mean that it's always easy to do.

Lucy Hone: No, and I would totally agree with that. And I always make that point of saying to people, "This isn't easy, but it is possible." And I think it comes down to, for me, my motivation for survival was huge, because we had lived through every parent's worst nightmare and I felt like the stakes were pretty high and that almost made that easier to stick to the two what-if's rule, because I felt like if I didn't, the grief could completely consume me. And so that's not saying that I'm in denial, because I certainly did grieve. And I'm all for experiencing all kinds of emotions and I didn't want to shut them out, but I definitely wanted to find my way and wallowing in things that are beyond my control was not helpful to me. And, as I say, I felt like the fight was on for survival.

Shankar Vedantam: Lucy thought back to her days as a graduate student studying resilience at the University of Pennsylvania. At one point, her professors worked with the U.S. military to develop a resilience training program for a million soldiers. That program was based on the same underlying idea, "Pay attention to where you pay attention."

Lucy Hone: There was very much that cognitive focus that you need to be aware of the way your thoughts and actions are combining. And really question whether the ways you are thinking and acting are working for you or working against you. And so they did lots of that sort of took positive psychology, this field of being strengths-based and put that into a package so that they could train the drill sergeants, who then in turn could train all of the rest of the army.

Shankar Vedantam: And I love the phrase that they used in this training, which was "Hunt the good stuff." And I love that idea, because you're speaking to your audience in a language they can understand, but it's the same idea that's being preached in cognitive behavioral therapy.

Lucy Hone: Absolutely. So they actually created the hashtag HTGS, Hunt the good stuff. And actually somebody, after Abi died, gave us a poster that said, "Accept the good." And I think these two phrases, "Accept the good," and "Hunt the good stuff," speak to the fact that language is really important here. That’s what we're talking about is that we want to encourage people to tune into what is still good in their world, despite everything that's happened. But we are also encouraging them to find language that fits with them. So for me being told to count my blessings or asked to do random acts of kindness, it's just not language that sits well with me, but having this great big pink floral poster in our kitchen that says, "Accept the good," seemed to do the same job. So I think it's important for people to find the language that works for them.

Shankar Vedantam: Lucy also realized that language could help her. She was not just a grieving mom and a researcher, but a writer. And she found that putting her experience on the page gave her both perspective and comfort. Her writing eventually became a book titled Resilient Grieving. One of the ideas she explored in the book had to do with how many people deal with grief by asking, "Why me?" Lucy came to see that this was counterproductive. She once gave a TED Talk to illustrate the idea. She asked people in the audience to do something for her.

Lucy Hone: If you're comfortable, please stand up if any of the following have happened to you, whether it is dementia, or whether it is a physical impairment, or whether it is cancer, or divorce, or redundancy. And actually of course, within 30 seconds, we've got the whole room standing. And the point is to make people realize that adversity doesn't discriminate. As much as we don't want this to be true, terrible things happen to us all. And knowing that makes it so important to understand how you react in tough times and to understand the ways of thinking and acting that can help you navigate your darker days.

Shankar Vedantam: You say that resilient people understand that bad things happen, that suffering is a part of life and that knowing this keeps them from feeling like victims. Can you expand on this idea, Lucy? What do you mean by that?

Lucy Hone: So I think understanding that everybody suffers in parts of life, that actually very often daily, we struggle and suffer and that is absolutely part of the universal existence, stops you from feeling singled out and discriminated against when something goes wrong. But critically, it also stops you from beating yourself up when things go wrong. And so when we live in an era of perfectionism, it's so important for people to understand that "Yeah, we all stuff up and do things wrong all day long and that doesn't mean we need to be punished. It doesn't mean we are useless. It just means we are human."

Shankar Vedantam: And this idea actually goes a really long way, Lucy. Hidden Brain is a show that's primarily about science, but I can't help but make the connection with the origins of Buddhism. According to the story, the Prince Siddhartha is supposed to have seen people age and suffer and die and, as a result of seeing that, internalize the very idea that you're talking about, which is that suffering is inevitable. And so in some ways the lessons that you're talking about here might be, in some ways, confirmed or backed up by modern, empirical, scientific tools, but there really are really age-old ideas.

Lucy Hone: I couldn't agree more. And even there's elements of stoicism in there as well, isn't there?

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. We did an episode about stoicism with a philosopher, William Irvin, and he had this great line, "Do what you can with what you have, where you are." And it's the same idea, which is: We can only do what we can do, but if we pay attention to what we can do, that's not nothing.

Lucy Hone: Yeah, absolutely. And in all of our work, we always encourage people to focus on the things that matter and the things that they can control. And that's very similar.

Shankar Vedantam: As Lucy looked for ways to apply these insights in her day-to-day life, she started to seek opportunities to find serenity, pride and awe.

Lucy Hone: I do remember taking myself off into the hills to do a walk one day and standing there in the really big mountainous landscape of New Zealand. And that made me feel better, because I felt like when you're surrounded by majesty on that grand scale, it makes you feel smaller and I found that really helpful. And somebody recently in one of our courses was just saying to me, "I've done exactly the same thing by visiting a cathedral or a park." So getting out there into nature. I also used to attend my boys' rugby matches to go and be inspired and feel proud of them. And I used to listen to Desert Island Discs, which is a BBC radio podcast, because that kind of checkered life journey that people go on would give me hope. So just different little ways of bringing those positive emotions back into my everyday life.

Shankar Vedantam: Is it possible that some people resist doing those things, because they almost feel guilty about doing them. They might worry "Are other people going to say she's just lost her daughter, what is she doing at a restaurant? Or what is she doing watching a movie?" that, again, we are compelled to follow the scripts presented to us about how we're supposed to grieve and deal with loss and trauma.

Lucy Hone: Exactly. That is what people say and experience, that they feel judged and feel guilty for experiencing any form of positive emotions, for laughing with friends or wanting to go out and see a movie, or just be out enjoying themselves. Isn't it a shame that so much of what is out there and expected of grief is that you just have to be miserable for a long time. And that if you're experiencing positive experiences, there's something wrong with you, when actually we know that is so far from the truth.

Shankar Vedantam: So your work has attracted a lot of interest, Lucy, and obviously there are people who are deeply moved by your story and your insights about healthy grieving. But some people might hear you saying that you want people who are at the lowest point in their lives to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, that grieving people need to be responsible for their own emotional recovery. Is that an accurate representation of your work?

Lucy Hone: Oh, I certainly hope not. No. I think I really do make a very deliberate point in resilient grieving to say to people never am I trying to put more pressure on the bereaved. Wow. That would be further-est from my intention. All of our work is created for people who come to us saying, "Thank you for validating my desire to be an active participant in my own grief journey." And so we know that so many people now are looking for ways to support them through that adaptation to loss. And so we are not forcing people. And we always say to people, "These are all of the theoretically sound and scientifically backed strategies that we've come across. Try some of these out for yourself. See what works for you. Be your own personal experiment and find the grief journey that works for you." So I think that giving people a prescription for hope, I think, is the number one aim of our work.

Shankar Vedantam: You lost your daughter, Lucy, in 2014 and you've written about how it's a mistake to think that time shrinks grief, but time does do something else. Can you tell me your insight about the circles around your grief?

Lucy Hone: Yeah. So this came from a local grief counselor and her theory is that the bereaved often think that their grief, or they're told that, their grief will shrink over time. But yet what really happens is that your grief stays the same and your world, your life grows around it. Seven years we are on now from Abi's death and I can notice how our world has grown beyond her. As much as I'd love to have her with us, there are new experiences and new people in our world who weren't around when she was here. And so I can see that life literally has grown around her and her loss. And her, she will always be in my heart, all of our hearts. And we carry her forward. We'll never forget her, but life grows and goes on. And as long as she's with us and we have her legacy, then I don't want to say that's okay, because it's not, but I guess it's good enough.

Shankar Vedantam: Lucy Hone is a public health researcher and practitioner in New Zealand. She's the author of Resilient Grieving, Finding Strength and Embracing Life After a Loss that Changes Everything. Lucy, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Lucy Hone: Thank you so much for having me, Shankar, and for all you and your listeners' time.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our audio production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Annie Murphy Paul, Kristin Wong, Laura Kwerel, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brains executive editor. Our unsung hero today is Lisa Turner. Lisa is a content strategist at Facebook. We were recently having some problems making tweaks to the Hidden Brain Facebook page. Lisa came up with a solution, even though our request was outside her area of responsibilities. She also followed up several times to make sure the problem was solved. We are so grateful for your help, Lisa. If you like Hidden Brain, be sure to check out our sister cast. It's called My Unsung Hero. Each episode is about a time when an unsung hero came to the aid of someone in need. I promise it will renew your faith in humanity. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you soon.


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