Monday, May 1, 2023

Voices of Experience: Saying Yes to Help (Saying Yes to Everything)

Never say "there are no words" to the grieving.  ~ Colin Campbell 

In his new book, author Colin Campbell offers an honest account of his journey through profound loss and grief, while providing guidance and practical tools for others going through similar experiences. Loss and grief are universal experiences but too often shrouded in isolation and discomfort.

Finding the Words: Working Through Profound Loss with Hope and Purpose is a powerful and personal exploration of grief, as a bereft father shares his experience of losing both his children, Ruby and Hart when a drunk driver hit their car, and changed what was a pleasant family outing to the worst day imaginable. Colin Campbell addresses the fear, pain, denial, guilt, rage, despair and isolation that accompanies grief and encourages readers to find community and ritual in the face of loss. 

Special unique features include action items and journaling prompts at the end of each chapter, providing readers with a tangible way to process their grief.

The following excerpt is used with permission of the author and TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. 

In the early days of my grief, my fears urged me to say no to everything. I didn’t think I had the strength to see friends, or to go out into the world. I didn’t want to face other people or do anything but cry. I wanted to hide away with Gail in our house of sadness and block out the rest of the world. But I knew that the urge to say no came from a place of fear, and I was determined not to be afraid of my grief. So, in order to confront my terror, I overcompensated and said yes to everything. I made it a policy to accept any offer of help that came to me. This response was perhaps a little extreme, and not something everyone would want to try. And yet the clarity of saying yes to literally everything helped me in my early grief. I didn’t have to think about it. If a friend suggested a walk, I said yes. If a friend offered a grief book, I read it. If someone offered to bring over food, I ate it. Gail and I started seeing Ruby’s OCD therapist together. I started seeing my own therapist. I went skeet shooting. I tried out a fancy tea bar. I did grief yoga. I tried grief meditation. I started a grief journal. I went to a firing range and shot at targets with a Glock pistol. I met friends at the beach. I went to parks I had never been to before. I tried something new every week. I went to four different grief groups.

Every time I said yes, I really wanted to say no. No one wants to step out into the world and try new things after suffering a terrible loss. And I certainly didn’t want to go to a grief group and share my pain. But I understood instinctually that I needed help. I didn’t know how to grieve. No one had taught me anything about grief. I was lost and scared. And the stakes seemed incredibly high. It felt as though I were walking on the edge of a terrifying abyss, and I was willing to try anything to keep me from falling in.

Obviously, not everything I tried helped me. Grief yoga was frustrating. Grief meditation enraged me. (I didn’t want to clear my mind of distressing thoughts, I wanted to think about Ruby and Hart!) Skeet shooting hurt my shoulder. But firing a pistol felt good. Therapy felt good. Talking to friends felt good. The point is, I had no idea what might end up helping me in my journey through grief. By trying everything I could, I quickly weeded out what didn’t work for me, and kept doing what did. Ultimately, it wasn’t so much about finding enjoyable activities as it was about making the optimistic choice to push myself and trust that reengaging with life would eventually lead me back to meaning and purpose. It was aspirational. 


• Say yes to everything. We don’t know what is going to bring us support and solace until we try it. Our mind might tell us to say no. Fear, shame, exhaustion, and anxiety might urge us to withdraw from the world and reject offers of help or community. But taking actions and being in the world can play an essential part in our grieving process. Try saying yes.

• Try something new each week. Give yourself permission to have new experiences. It is hard to experience something novel without your loved one, but it is part of being alive.

• Attend a grief group. Get online and find a grief group near you. Some are generalized and some are for very specific losses. Try several to find one that works for you. No one wants to go to a grief group, and yet most who do keep going back. It is a safe space to share our experiences and find the words to express our pain. The others in that circle of loss understand what we are going through in a way that no one else can. As my friend Sharon said, “When you see people in the same city, in the same community, suffering like this, you feel you’re not alone. You’re not alone in the universe. It does help.”

• Find a therapist or grief counselor. There is freedom in talking to a therapist as opposed to a friend. They listen with no judgment and no personal relationship at stake. And good therapists have considerable wisdom when it comes to our issues of guilt, regret, shame, anger, and fear. Therapy doesn’t have to be unaffordable. Many therapists work on a sliding scale; it doesn’t hurt to ask. Check to see if your insurance covers counseling. Often a local university might offer low-cost or free counseling from their graduate students who are working under professional supervision. Community centers, hospitals, and places of worship sometimes offer free or heavily discounted counseling services. Your employer may have an employee assistance program that covers the cost of a limited number of sessions. Lastly, look online for nonprofit mental health networks or organizations. As my friend Eric says, “Anyone who has had a traumatic loss needs help. Professional help. For a while. It’s just a given. It should be state-supplied. It should be part of the natural course—first you go to the cemetery and then you go to the therapist.” (Important caveat—not all therapists are good. Some operate under the misconception that grief progresses in distinct stages, or that grief needs to be “resolved” according to a specific timetable, or that those in mourning are supposed to sever their emotional ties to the dead in order to move forward in life. If your therapist adheres to any of these ideas, please find a new one.)

• Get out of bed every morning. It’s not easy to get out of bed. I never feel completely ready to begin another day without Ruby and Hart. But we’re all better off facing our fears and starting the new day on our feet. Every chapter of this book has actions you can take in your grief. Some of them are about being kind to yourself, some are about honoring and remembering your loved one, and some are about building a community to support you. But all of them are going to provide more solace than staying in bed.

• Begin a journal. Ignore all the excuses and reasons not to that immediately leap to mind. Instead, just go ahead and start journaling anyway. I type my journal on my computer because my handwriting is slow and terrible. Gail journals by hand in Ruby’s favorite brand of art notebook. It’s yet another connection to our daughter. Inevitably, focusing on our feelings surrounding grief and loss will bring some tears and anguish. It’s not easy. Write through the pain. Journaling is an important way for us to process our grief and give it words. You don’t need to journal every day and you don’t need to journal for the rest of your life. Just journal when you need it.

Journaling Prompts

• Describe your fears. Put them down on paper even though they terrify you. Don’t hold back.

• List all the brave actions you’ve taken so far in grief. Write about the strength that got you through the challenging things you’ve had to do: telling friends and family the terrible news, making the burial arrangements, planning the funeral service, and so on. Just getting out of bed and facing the world each day takes incredible courage.

• Describe the feelings you are having right now, no matter how inarticulate or repetitive it may sound. Your grief will feel different to you day to day and hour to hour. What does your grief feel like today? This hour? 

© 2023 by Colin Campbell

About the Author: Colin Campbell is a writer and director for theater and film. The short film he wrote and directed with his beautiful and talented wife, Seraglio, was nominated for an Academy Award. Campbell teaches screenwriting at Chapman University and theater at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He has a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA from Columbia University. His solo performance piece titled Grief: A One Man Shit-Show premiered at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, where it won a Best of Broadwater Award. 

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