Grief Is a Change Agent

This Thanksgiving, don’t normalize your grief. Turn it into a catalyst.

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Just in time for the holidays this year, I cleared out a storage space where I had stashed a variety of inherited items I considered indispensable (but not so indispensable that they couldn’t languish in storage for six years). I was braced for some big emotions to accompany the moving van, but instead I found myself feeling not much more than a combination of bewildered (why so many linens?) and relieved (I’m so happy to have a dresser/no longer be paying for storage). The lack of any sort of obvious feeling of grief was a real surprise to me, and left me with the sense of something that I am sure the French or the Germans have a word for, a kind of “nostalgia-for-grief-as-a-galvanizing-force”.

READ: The Things We Do for Grief: Marathons, Memoirs & More

So, with Thanksgiving upon us, I am feeling especially thankful for all the fighters out there. The ones who turned their grief into something that helps us all: money to fund disease research, laws that protect our kids, campaigns that raise awareness about getting all your spots and lumps checked out, organizations that promote empathy. If you’re not feeling turned completely inside-out this year, here are some ideas for how to get started turning your grief into action:

Pick a cause, any cause.

Maybe circumstances make picking something for you to fight against obvious: disease, flawed public policy, corporate wrongdoing, a stoplight on the corner. But maybe they don’t. Because maybe your relationship with the deceased was complicated. Try to find common ground. Were sports the only topic you and your brother could discuss? Find a sports program for kids that needs volunteers. Did your mom hate all your major life choices, but share your love of animals? Focus your efforts on pet rescue or the like.

Don’t half ass it.

Channel your anger and apply some real rigor to the problem at hand. Do your research, drill down into the core of what you are looking to change, and then fully commit your time, your energy, and your money to toward changing it. Or, at least, to breaking down the problem into manageable chunks and changing the portion of it you realistically can.

Concrete goals are your friend.

Do you want to create a memorial scholarship, raise money to fund medical research, close a legal loophole, get 10 people to sign up as organ donors? Remember, you are not a high schooler looking to beef up the community service section of your college application. Going through the motions because that’s what you think you should do, isn’t going to help you, and it’s unlikely to change anything in the big picture.

READ: Ask ML: No Thanks(giving)

Accept in advance that some friends won’t be so into your crusading ways.

Don’t let this come between you! They are still your friends, but this is your fight, not theirs. Take that in stride and count on the likelihood of adding some new friends along the way.

Don’t be afraid to start something new.

The origin story of virtually every organization or movement (including Modern Loss, by the way) starts with, “we were talking about [problem] and thought what if we . . .”. If the idea you have is burning you up, fan the flames. Start talking to similar organizations/like-minded folks/professionals in the field/elected officials and follow that idea until you make something happen (or until you realize you have to go back to the drawing board – that’s ok, too).

Finally, get some rest and load up on turkey and greens, because you are going to need fuel for the fight. This Thanksgiving, don’t normalize your grief, let it change you. Let it change the world.

Meg Tansey hails from New England, where talking about your feelings is frowned upon. She has lots of life experience but is not an actual therapist. Meg has a MFA from The New School and currently lives and writes in New York City. Meg is also Modern Loss’ advice columnist; send her your questions at (subject: Ask ML).




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