We're all familiar with "conventional" grief, but what happens when you're grieving somebody who is still alive? It's a grief that feels all-consuming, yet can be totally invisible to others and doesn't carry with it any of the societal norms or customs we experience when someone dies.
Today's guest is Stephanie Sarazin, a brave soul who's traversed the labyrinth of ambiguous grief and emerged as a guiding light for others. Stephanie's world was majorly disrupted by the discovery of chronic betrayal in her marriage. The destabilizing experience sparked a quest in her to understand ambiguous grief and formulate a way to navigate it. She then went on to develop a pioneering model that defines the ambiguous grief process. Stephanie's Gold-winning book, Soul Broken, serves as a helping hand to the 96 percent of people who will experience ambiguous grief at some point in their lives.
In this episode, you will be able to:
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Jessica Fein: Welcome. I'm Jessica Fein, and this is the “I don’t know how you do it” podcast, where we talk to people whose lives seem unimaginable from the outside and dive into how they're able to do things that look undoable. I'm so glad you're joining me on this journey, and I hope you enjoy the conversation.
Welcome back to the show. Have you ever thought about what it would be like if the life you thought you were living turned out not to actually be the life you were living? If you discovered something that not only turned your life upside down. But called into question everything you'd believed to be true for the last 20 years?
That's what happened to my guest today, Stephanie Sarazin. Her experience with this midlife trauma sparked [00:01:00] an ambitious journey spiritually and around the world to understand, name, and heal from what happened to her. Stephanie's efforts revealed a first of its kind definition of the ambiguous grief process in which grief is onset by the loss of a loved one who is still living and when the experience of hope is an integral stage of the grieving process.
Stephanie's journey led her to develop new resources that reframe disruptive activating events as a gateway to discovering your highest self, in turn championing ambiguous grief as nuanced, natural, and navigable. Stephanie's book Soul Broken, a guide for your journey through ambiguous grief, is a 2023 Nautilus Book Awards gold winner.
I learned so much from my conversation with Stephanie, and I know you will, too. Welcome, Stephanie. I am so glad to have you with us today.
Stephanie Sarazin: Thank you, Jessica. I'm so happy to be with you.
Jessica Fein:[00:02:00] One of the things that's been such a bonus of doing this podcast is the people that I've been meeting along the way.
You and I were introduced by, we can't even remember who, actually. And if that person is listening, thank you, because somebody knew we needed to know each other.
Stephanie Sarazin: Just the magic of social media and the opportunity to meet you and connect in the way that we have, it has been such a gift. The world is still full of magic.
Jessica Fein: So true. And hopefully that person's listening and will identify herself. So let's just get right into it. And I'd love to go back in time a little bit and start with the activating event, to use your language, that really led you on this journey of living with, naming, studying, and ultimately writing about ambiguous grief.
Stephanie Sarazin: Sure. Yes. This certainly wasn't my plan in life, but about seven years ago, I discovered chronic infidelity in my marriage quite accidentally. And that was such a traumatic [00:03:00] event for me. It really turned my world upside down. It ended quickly in divorce. And after that, I fell into a deep depression. I felt as though my identity was in question.
My future was in question, but also my past was in question. And this was a really destabilizing period of time for me after 20 years. I absolutely loved my marriage. It's interesting. I've spoken with people who have indicated that such a discovery for them would be a gift. Like, Oh, you got a way out.
That's a no brainer way out of an unhappy situation and unhappy relationship. That was in no way my experience. I absolutely loved my marriage and the life that I'd been living. terrific family, great kids. And so this wasn't a dramatic event. It was a traumatic event and turned my world upside down. And as I worked to kind of feel better, just to be really basic about it, you know, I began to understand that this grief [00:04:00] felt different.
I knew I was grieving, but it wasn't the same kind of grief I'd experienced before in my life with family members or friends dying. I really tried to kind of intellectualize it. I was feeling all the feelings, but there was a part of my brain that kind of thought, you know, if I could just figure out why this feels different, then I can get to work feeling better.
And that sent me down a road of numerable healing modalities, really trying. everything, and also writing about my experience, talking to others about their experience, and ultimately co authoring the ambiguous grief process model based on some data that I gathered really helped to inform what it looks like and why this happens, how it happens, when it happens, that sort of thing.
And just last October, my book, Soul Broken, A guidebook for your journey through ambiguous grief was published by Balance, and I'm thrilled to hear from people all over who are finding it to be helpful. It's the book I looked for when I was [00:05:00] trying to understand it, but it's the book I couldn't find, so I wrote it in hopes that others would find benefit.
Jessica Fein: Well, thank you. And let's rewind because I have about 10 questions based on what you just shared with us. So, okay, first of all, what a different kind of thing to not only be grieving your current situation, which is, you know, something that is more conventional and grieving the future you had imagined, but also all of a sudden grieving The life you've already lived, which you learned, is not the life you thought you were living.
What's that like?
Stephanie Sarazin: It's so destabilizing. I liken it to being in a funhouse, you know, at an amusement park, where everything is distorted. The mirrors give you a different reflection than the reality, and the floorboards are constantly shifting, and you're not sure which way is out. Right? The best word I have for it is destabilizing.
We all know that we don't know our future. Even the best planners among us, [00:06:00] you know, eventually would agree, right? That, you know, we really don't know. Life happens. We get curveballs all the time, as you well know. We know that's not unusual. But when we have to look in the rearview mirror and say, oh, wait a minute, I didn't know my past actually either.
That's a different kind of experience to have. It is really something that if I let it would have taken me down an endless rabbit hole forever because you're looking at things with a different lens. You're saying, oh, well, was that true? Or, oh, what about that? Even seven years plus later, I'll have moments of, oh, Oh, okay.
That may not have been actually my reality. And so it's destabilizing, but I think there's gifts that come from just being able to acknowledge that and recognize it. And what do you do, but keep moving forward. We can't keep dwelling in what was and what has been, we have to live in what is.
Jessica Fein: That’s so hard.
And so you then embark on [00:07:00] this journey to different healing modalities because you're saying, okay, if I have to live with what is, how am I going to do that? So tell us about some of the different modalities you explored on that journey because some of them are things we might think of and some of them are a little bit more unconventional.
Stephanie Sarazin: Right. This was just rooted in my desire to feel better. And when I say feel better, Jessica, I mean, feel like myself again. Feel as though I have energy to get out of bed, that I'm able to move through my day without an absolute breakdown of emotion. And there are so many different things that I sought just in that vein.
My disclaimer is that it isn't right for everybody and to all of your listeners. you have to find what works for you. Not everything worked for me. Some were better than others, but I started with therapy. I went into fix it mode the day after discovery and I called a therapist and really didn't know what to do, but knew I needed to talk to somebody about what I [00:08:00] should be doing.
And so I sought out a modality.
Jessica Fein: Yeah. And, you know, that's really interesting because I would think two things. Number one, I would think, oh my God, the day after, like, wasn't there like some period of laying in the fetal position in bed before you got into fix it mode? And then also I wonder, because this is something that's so intensely personal, if you felt like you kind of had to keep it a secret?
Stephanie Sarazin: I did. And when you say, you know, did I stay in bed in the fetal position? I don't think I slept for a week. It was as many traumatic things are, it takes over your nervous system. And I was thinking all of the things and then not thinking anything, you know, at the same time and what it was in me that sought to reach out to a professional, I don't know, but I did.
And she could see me. She made an exception and saw me immediately, which was terrific. And she guided me so well through those early days. For me, it wasn't a matter of let me call my best friend and tell her what just happened, or my closest friends or my family. I didn't tell anybody with the [00:09:00] exception of that therapist and one dear friend.
Nobody knew the whole story for three months. And that wasn't anything I thought about, you know, I didn't think, well, let me see who I want to talk to this about, you know, or who I don't want to share this with. It was just such a natural response for me. And I later learned a little bit more about why that was, but in those early days, I thought this is so destabilizing.
I just needed to get my head around it before I shared it with anyone. As many people do in this kind of ambiguous grief experience, because it is so highly personal. Sometimes we can internalize an activating event like this, this discovery as shameful or embarrassing, and we protect the person we love, whether we're getting a medical diagnosis or we make a discovery or the list of activating events that can trigger ambiguous grief.
We're protective of our people, of our loved ones, and so had there been a physical death, I would have picked up the phone immediately and called the people that needed to know and ask them to continue calling, right? And the fact that I [00:10:00] didn't for three months really speaks to the difference in an ambiguous grieving period versus a physical death period.
Jessica Fein: For people who aren't familiar with it, can you just tell us, like, what is ambiguous grief?
Stephanie Sarazin: Sure. So for me, the experience of grieving, That is onset by the loss of a loved one, an important relationship, and they're still living, but not as they once were. This means that there's been a change in our relationship with them, or maybe the relationship has ended completely.
We often think about grief as something that happens with death. But it isn't, right? Death is not a prerequisite to grief. There's so many other activating events that can put us in this space where there are no societal norms in which we can engage, right? Like the funeral, or writing a eulogy, or inviting individuals to have the honor of being a pallbearer, or whatever it might be in our particular families or cultures.
When we suffer a loss, a meaningful loss of a [00:11:00] relationship due to a number of different variables, the process we go through is ambiguous. For me, I didn't know what to do. What I later learned is that isolating, grieving alone is very common for individuals who have this experience.
Jessica Fein: My very non-academic term for it is non hallmark card kinds of grief, right, because it isn't something that's understood.
You can't just go buy the card for the person. When we're going through quote unquote conventional grief, we know what the next steps are to a certain extent. So here you are. It's the day after. You see a therapist, and again, that's like, even that, having the presence of mind to do that is pretty amazing.
So then what, what other modalities were part of your journey?
Stephanie Sarazin: Acupuncture, which was, for me, a brand new experience. Massage, writing, exercise was really off the table. For a lot of people, that is a modality that they go to. For me, it just felt worse. It made everything worse. Eventually, slow body movement was something I [00:12:00] integrated.
It can be something that activates the nervous system in a different way for some people, and that's what it did for me. I worked with a great therapist who helped me with EMDR therapy, eye movement therapy, to kind of repackage and put our traumatic event into a different part of our brain, so we can access it differently, which was an incredible experience for me.
I also traveled to Costa Rica and worked with shamans. with ayahuasca ceremony and ayahuasca is a centuries and centuries old plant medicine with a root and a vine that is brewed and when consumed accesses a different part of the brain, the subconscious part of the brain. And that was something, you know, for me, that was so far removed from anything I would have considered in my life before the onset of my grief.
For me, it says a lot about my desperation to feel better, you know, that I would, I would do that for me again, personally, it was wildly transformative,
Jessica Fein: wildly transformative. I think I want to do it. [00:13:00] You know, I recommend you do your research and see if it is something that want to do.
Jessica Fein: you have to go all the way to Costa Rica to do it?
Stephanie Sarazin: You don't have to, but I would again, if you're doing your research, you might, you might choose to.
Jessica Fein: Okay. So later on, if we have a few, a few weeks where there's no podcast, it's because I'm in Costa Rica doing the ayahuasca ceremony. Okay. Wildly transformative. Sounds good. Would you ever do it again? Or was it like that and the EMDR, they served their purpose in the time and now they're behind you?
Stephanie Sarazin: I would do it again. Yet. I know that for me, it will be as it was the first time when it's the right time. But I'm certainly not afraid of the experience. It was a beautiful experience. And to be introduced to ways that other cultures grieve and process death and process trauma, it was an educational experience as well.
And while I was there, I was also introduced to one of my favorite modalities, which is breathwork. And it helped. spark in me yoga again, which I'd done before. [00:14:00] And again, as I mentioned it, I found the exercise I had typically been doing, you know, running and doing a circuit training was just too much on my system that, you know, yoga was a, it was a wonderful reintroduction back into yoga and connecting my body and my breath in the present, which for somebody who’s moving through this experience of ambiguous grief or any grief is a real gift to be able to find that presence.
Jessica Fein: What's so interesting is that really the therapy aside, what you're talking about with most of these things are things that address your physical body, massage, acupuncture, breathing, yoga.
That's so fascinating. Can you explain a little bit how when you're going through a traumatic event, when you're in grief, how that affects the body and why these modalities, before you can even deal with the mental piece of it, you've gotta get your body under control. Right?
Stephanie Sarazin: Right. That's so insightful that you'd see that.
What I say about that is I was looking for things that would calm and collect my nervous system because I felt like I was every day in a constant state of flight or fight, it was [00:15:00] very difficult to move through my day. As I once had, and so just trying to get back to that homeostasis and find a new natural resting point for myself, anything that would calm and collect my nervous system helped me, I did writing workshops, I started hiking, anything that was gentle, Qigong, I found was just something that helps to move the energy.
Jessica Fein: What is qigong?
Stephanie Sarazin: Am I saying that right now? I'm, now I'm seeing my instructor laughing at me because I'm saying it wrong. I'm gonna have to, let's spell it. We can spell it. How do you spell it? Yes. I'm gonna have to check that.
Jessica Fein: Okay. We'll get back to you on that.
Stephanie Sarazin: It's moving the energy and it's much like, uh, Tai Chi.
It's moving energy around the body. I had seen this practiced out in public throughout my life at different times, and I never knew what it was. But in eastern medicine like acupuncture, it's. a way to move energy. For me, it was delightful. I should be a better ambassador by knowing its name correctly. [00:16:00] Now, these
Jessica Fein: Now, these years later, do you still do some of these things?
They were so helpful for you then, but a lot of them sound pretty delightful at any time.
Stephanie Sarazin: Yeah. Meditation is something I picked up just before this activating event. I meditate. almost daily mindfulness, really just bringing myself back to that present moment. But you so astutely noted that all of the things that I mentioned were physical, but I also was doing things for my mind.
And this was, you know, for me, particularly having this experience of discovery, it left me with doubting my own intelligence. Like, if I missed this for so many years, what else am I missing in the world? How am I not observant? Or how am I not intuitive? How did I miss this? And so, listening to TED Talks, doing crossword puzzles, and word search.
They're so basic and they're accessible, you know, everywhere, but this was something that helped me, you know, as I would listen to it and understand it or beat my time in a word search or doing a puzzle. I've done [00:17:00] way more puzzles than I'll admit to, again, because it helped me calm and collect and make sense of things.
But I also did many activities that helped my mind. And when I would listen to a TED talk and say, Oh, I understand that. I get that. It restored my confidence and my, my mental ability again.
Jessica Fein: That's so interesting. You know, the first things I do every day before I get out of bed, I do the Wordle and I do the Times Mini Crossword.
I just thought that I was procrastinating getting up, but maybe there actually is, uh, maybe I'm getting myself ready for the day by knowing that I am capable and can figure these things out. Right.
Stephanie Sarazin: I think that makes sense, doesn't it? If we're repeating that, we're getting something from it. We're being rewarded somehow internally, if it's something we continue to go to.
Jessica Fein: Ultimately, you write this book, Soul Broken. What does that mean?
Stephanie Sarazin: I define it as a feeling of anguish onset by the loss of an important relationship, often a loss of ourselves, for which there is no validation. We all know what heartbreak feels like. And we're heartbroken throughout our lives in many [00:18:00] ways, whether it's our beloved childhood pet who maybe runs away or our first teenage love that ends or a grandparent's death.
You know, we have different relationships in our life that end and we feel heartbroken, but I believe there's another level, a level where it's more, where it's not just a loss, but it's also a loss in which we're inextricably linked. It's a loss that has defined who we are, whether through society's definition of who we are and the way they perceive us or the way we perceive ourselves.
And as I started hearing from more and more people about their grieving experience and not knowing there was a name for it and not feeling seen or not feeling validated, it was incredible how many people seem to have this heartbreak plus. Right? This feeling of being soul broken and individuals who have been married for decades and decades and decades, and then one dies.
The other has a loss of their own identity because they've been [00:19:00] married to this other person for 50 years. In that way, they're not heartbroken, they're soul broken. And for me, I had that experience and in finding so many others were having the experience too, it felt like a perfect term that honors what so many feel above the language we already use.
Jessica Fein: It really lands with me, and I think having lost a child, heartbroken feels too flimsy a word. It's not weighty enough. My soul is broken. So I, A, am going to start using that, and B, I think it's a word that should be part of the discourse, because you're right. When the very nature of how you define yourself disappears, right, and there isn't the right language.
Aren't words that really fully explain it. And so I think soul broken is a really good start.
Stephanie Sarazin: Thank you. And it's really interesting. I'll share that I don't take credit for thinking of the name. It wasn't this didn't occur to me in a thought. I've defined it, [00:20:00] but the term Mm. was something that I heard within a span of two weeks, one from a friend and one from a shaman in Costa Rica working with me with ayahuasca.
In the experience of the ayahuasca journey, heard, you're not heartbroken, you're soulbroken, come back tomorrow. And it's one of those things where talking to the shaman about it afterwards just really landed and to hear then my friend use the term felt like a gift.
Jessica Fein: At some point along your journey, you realize that this activating event and what it thrust you into might not actually be the first experience you've had with ambiguous grief because you grew up with a very, very core relationship to your identity, having some of the same texture as this kind of ambiguous loss.
Can you share that with us?
Stephanie Sarazin: Yeah, so growing up, I'm one of three siblings, I'm the oldest, and my brother Eric, uh, was born two years after me, and then my sister, Rachel, is the youngest. But Eric, six months after he was born, my parents noticed something about his [00:21:00] development was different than mine. And though his birth was normal, he was diagnosed within that first year as having cerebral palsy and was profoundly severely impaired.
Severely, multiply impaired. He died just five weeks ago in June at the age of 46. And it's just been an incredible life lesson for me in so many ways. His life has been such a teacher and He didn't speak. He never walked. And my parents have just been incredible caregivers his entire life. But it wasn't until I started really looking at trying to define this process.
What does it look like to go through ambiguous grief? What is ambiguous grief? There's just wonderful work that had been started in the nineties by Dr. Pauline Boss, who defined ambiguous loss. As a clinician, she's looking at her patients who are military spouses whose partners are missing in action or patients who are, for one [00:22:00] reason or another, grieving an individual whose death is unknown, right?
So maybe a kidnapping, for example, or a natural disaster. a tsunami or something, right? And again, of course, war would be the primary. When we have this absence of a physical body, but we don't know if there's a death, then she defined this as ambiguous loss. And she later went on to expand on that and say there's psychological activations as well.
Dementia, Alzheimer's, mental illness. Somebody is Not who they used to be. But for me, as I was trying to name and frame my situation, that was close, but just not quite because it wasn't that my loss was ambiguous. It was my grief that was ambiguous. I didn't know what to do with my grief. There were no casseroles coming to my door.
There were again, no social norms to engage. And so I found myself, Jessica, I'm embarrassed to admit it, but it's true. Jealous of widows. Now I say that with so much deference. Because the pain of your [00:23:00] spouse dying is profound. So I don't say that lightly, but to see a widow and think, Oh, look how everybody is encircling that person or embracing loving.
Yes. And that wasn't my experience, but my love was no different. I started putting together a questionnaire and surveys and writing about it. And that really just snowballed into this ambiguous grief process model. In seeing it in that form, I thought, wow, this is really interesting, having grown up with my brother, severely, multiply impaired, I suspect this ambiguous grief, as you said, texture, it felt so familiar, although he had never been healthy.
And then the grief, the quiet grief that served as a current through my family for the first time became noticeable to me only through this work.
Jessica Fein: I so relate. And this whole notion of feeling something and not being able to name it. And for sure, it's something we experienced as well in my family with ambiguous grief.
And in fact, I [00:24:00] was invited to speak on a panel about ambiguous grief years ago. And I was like, absolutely, because I will always step up if invited because I would like to share Dahlia's story, my daughter Dahlia's story. And then I went and I googled, what is ambiguous grief? Because now I was going to be speaking on a panel about it.
And it was so comforting to discover that this is a real thing. There's a name for what we're going through. And I think that just helps us be able to move on and integrate it, to live with it, rather than having it kind of control us or be this scary thing, because we don't know why we're feeling the way that we are feeling.
So I think language around it is so important. And that's one of the reasons why I love this term soul broken.
Stephanie Sarazin: Thank you. I think you're so right. And what I learned in my research is that it's more likely than not that we will all experience one of the activating events in our lifetime that bring on ambiguous grief.
94% of my survey respondents indicated that by the definition they had or currently were Experiencing [00:25:00] grief in this way, but didn't know it had a name. What was really just so surprising to me in those early days of looking through the data were how many activating events there are. So in your case, a diagnosis, right.
And learning what Dahlia's condition was and having that experience as that began to reveal itself. For me, it was a discovery and then later divorce. Addiction is a large activating event in terms of the number of people who have this experience.
Jessica Fein: You mean when you love somebody who becomes addicted, not when you yourself are addicted, is that right?
Stephanie Sarazin: Yes. Yes. So when the, when your loved one is addicted or there's a diagnosis for your loved one, you discover something about your loved one, you know, a secret about your loved one, Alzheimer's dementia or other, you know, traumatic brain injury, some sort of cognitive decline. mental health issues, indoctrination into, you know, think about a cult or a gang.
Your person is alive, but they're now no longer as [00:26:00] they once were. Your relationship has changed. Identity, gender identity, um, how a loved one might identify and, and how that impacts. others. Incarceration was another big one. And it was just so interesting to me as I interviewed individuals for the book and just trying to understand it better.
For many of those activating events that I just listed, there are often shame and embarrassment internalized, right? And so again, why aren't we telling others that this is happening? And I interviewed a woman who had shared with me that, uh, and this was 2021. So we were out of COVID lockdown, but Not back to normal quite yet.
And she had shared with me that her husband was incarcerated with a five year prison sentence. And she was thrilled with COVID because it gave her a cover. She had told nobody that he was incarcerated and the first year she was making excuses and busy and all of the things COVID happened. And what, what her hope was was, you know, she had kind of thought, well, if I'm able to detach for a little bit from the world.
And lay [00:27:00] low, nobody will need to know, nobody will be asking questions. And then COVID happened and it was just the perfect cover because she didn't want anybody to know. Meanwhile, she's managing this all on her own. Ambiguous grievers so often do isolate. And something that really emerged for me in these interviews, in terms of exactly why that is, really landed with me.
We don't talk about it because we don't want to be talked about. We don't talk about it because we don't want to be talked about. Who can we trust? Can we tell one person who will tell somebody who will tell, and then all of a sudden we're fodder for the community. These are very personal experiences.
They're intimate experiences with someone we love. We don't experience ambiguous grief when our barista transfers stores or, you know, our mail carrier takes a different route because there's not that intimate love there. But the reality is, the more we can understand this, the better we can understand this, the better able we'll be to stand in the truth and help one another compassionately navigate the difficulties.
Jessica Fein: I mean, grief in and of itself [00:28:00] can be isolating and make you feel so. other and so removed from what's happening in just quote unquote normal life. And now there's all of these added layers with ambiguous grief, right? We've said nobody's bringing you casseroles. You can't buy a Hallmark card. There aren't cultural events around it.
And by the way, we don't even want to share it with people. We don't want to be talked about. So when we do find out that somebody we care about or suspect that they might be going through ambiguous grief, what can we do to support them?
Stephanie Sarazin: If they're talking to you about it, I think that it's just important to be compassionate.
And we don't do any grief well in our society, in my opinion. We have a lot of opportunity to improve in that. And as I went through my grief educator certifications, I learned so much about how we can do better. And one way is to not make it about you. If somebody confides in you and shares. Oh, I'm dealing with this [00:29:00] and oh, it's been so hard and there's so much grief and whatever it may be.
Our initial response is often to make it better. I don't want to see you hurting Jessica. So I'm going to say, Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry to hear this is what you're going through. You know, my neighbor also went through this and what she found was helpful was blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. The intention is kind.
The intention is to relate, but it doesn't help. Also, when somebody says, Oh, I can't imagine. Oh, I don't know how you do it. What they've inadvertently done is just made it about them. And so now the person they're comforting in quotes, right? Now the onus is on us to say, Oh, it's okay. They're there, you know, don't feel bad.
And you know, the reality is, I don't know how you do it. Well, you, as you know, you, you do it. You do it because it's what you do. For a myriad of reasons, it's what you do. For people who are confiding, sharing their grief experience with you, I think it's just such a lovely gift to give your full [00:30:00] attention, and your listening, and your validation.
Because, again, something that ambiguous grievers don't always have is that witness. For our grief to be validated, we need that love and that grief to be witnessed, even by one person who can say, I see this. It mattered. It's important. Just bearing witness is such a gift.
Jessica Fein: In your book, you talk about the wrestling match with hope, which really struck me.
My father used to talk about being a prisoner of hope. This is different, right? What do you mean by a wrestling match?
Stephanie Sarazin: This was interesting. This was something that I was experiencing internally, but wasn't able to name until I was in a group with other ambiguous grievers with the same activating event.
I would see it in them, but again, not be able to pinpoint what it was. And it turns out that this is really a key, a differentiator in ambiguous grief. This is really a huge part of what makes [00:31:00] it what it is. Because when we lose our loved one to a physical death, we aren't hoping that they're going to ring the doorbell or send a text or call or show up.
Not really. We can hope that we are reunited with them. We can lean on faith and, um, or fantasy. Our fantasy, our beliefs, exactly, and think, okay, I'm going to see them soon in whatever way. But for an ambiguous griever without a physical death, then anything is possible. Maybe our adult child will no longer want to be estranged from us, right?
And they call and say, I'm sorry that I had you out of my life for all of these years. Or parole can happen earlier. There's a new treatment. There's a new program. There's new medication. There's, you know, we can hope. That our loved one will return to us as they once were. I am a fan of hope. We need hope in this human experience all of the time.
It's a virtue in Catholicism. It has been written about for millennia. It's important. I just want to say that up front. Hope [00:32:00] is important. Yet for an ambiguous griever, if we're spending too much time in hope, it can really hijack our healing. What I found is that hope presents in two ways. There is external hope and internal hope.
And so I think of hope as a double agent. Right, as we're grieving and we're feeling all the experiences that we identify as a part of grief and and just to for simplicity to use the Kubler Ross stages, she talks about denial, bargaining, anger, depression, acceptance, right? Some people will have all of those.
None of those. They're not stages. They're nonlinear. But these experiences that we have and, and how we navigate through grief and a myriad of other feelings that we have as well, right? For an ambiguous griever, to have hope is what makes it different. And that hope can pop up and it can be directed externally.
And we're hoping for our other. person. We're hoping for our loved one to go to addiction treatment and live sober and be again who they [00:33:00] once were, or the new medication. We're hoping for all of those different things in their direction, but none of that is in our control. What they do, or if they ever return as they once were, isn't ours.
To know or carry, but it feels really good to be problem solvers and to do research and find, well, you know, this doctor and that doctor and this treatment and this treatment center or whatever it might be. So that helps us to feel good. But what we're doing is directing our hope over there. The other hope that pops up is internal hope. And that internal hope, it's hope directed at the self. It's hope for your life, accepting that your loved one is no longer who they once were, for whatever reason. And we're accepting our life as it is, not as we wish it to be. And when we can live and practice that internal hope, we can begin to reimagine our future and make those steps toward healing.
And when I say healing, I don't mean to, you know, never feel this grief again, but to just carry it, to learn how to carry it. differently to [00:34:00] carry it as part of who we are. The problem with hope is that we cycle, we cycle in and out of internal and external hope if we're in this ambiguous grief period.
And so we can make an intentional decision to kind of put down the external hoping and move toward internal hope, because what I found was quite shocking. There's a condition that is in the DSM, and it has been previously known as complicated grief, but now it has been renamed prolonged grief disorder.
It is a diagnosable condition, and this is whereby an individual has just succumbed to their grief, to their loss, and they are defining their life by it. Life is very, very painful. in this condition, in this case. I like to think of it as a quicksand pit, where once you get into this prolonged grief disorder, you need professional help to extract you.
You can't get yourself out of it. And too much time practicing external hope. is a slide right into prolonged grief disorder. And so when I understood that through my own data, I made the [00:35:00] intentional decision to recognize external hope when I'm sucked into it and move toward internal hope. And we can do that by making a conscious decision to practice joy for ourselves, whatever that might be, instead of, you know, Googling and looking for whatever might be fixing, helping, supporting, assisting our loved one to shifting it to us and saying, what is good for me, what nourishes me. Where is hope for me in my new reality?
Jessica Fein: First of all, I just love that so much. Second of all, I must note that it has started torrential pouring here. So, if you are hearing, you know, what sounds like chipmunks dancing on the ceiling or something, I don't even know what, we're in a pretty biblical level storm here, but we will carry on because that's what we do and because this is just so juicy and so good and we need to continue talking about it.
And I'm wondering, is shifting to internal hope how we win the wrestling match?
Stephanie Sarazin: Oh, that's a great question. You know, what comes to mind for me, [00:36:00] and I, I think about this all the time, because again, hope is beloved. We love hope. There's very little about hope that we hear in kind of a negative light, if you will.
Right. And Emily Dickinson, one of her masterful poems is about hope. And she says, “hope is the thing with feathers that perches on the soul and sings a tune all day long and never stops at all.” That is so beautiful. And when I share that with people, you can, I just thought with you, you kind of, there's a relaxing, there's a calming, there's a soothing.
Yes, that is hope. That hope lives inside of us and we can access it when we need to. And it's wonderful. Yes, yes, yes. I like to say that it is often the Cinderella's little blue bird comes to mind, right? But for ambiguous grievers, when hope is misdirected, it can be as dangerous as it is good. And then that little bluebird is not so much Cinderella's sweet bluebird, but it is the Iago squawking parrot from Lion King that is just annoying and persistent and tells us [00:37:00] we can do more, we can do better.
And if you have codependency tendencies, then you're going to hear that squawking parrot all the time. And so how do we win that wrestling match? The first is by really being able to identify and discern the difference. That this feels really good because I'm being proactive and I love my loved one and I am not giving up.
I am not putting he or she by the side of the road and carrying on. I am the champion and if not me, who? Right. If not me, I will fix it. I will solve it. Right. And we need that. We need, we need champions for us. Yes, please. The key is to be able to accept when you've done all you can. And it is no longer in your control.
And then it's a sort and file. What can I control? What can't I control? It doesn't feel good when we start along the path of internal hope. When we say, okay, I'm not going to spend 30 minutes down that rabbit hole. I'm going to go do something for me. Well, if you've been the [00:38:00] caregiver or again, if you have a codependent tendency or part of your personality or it's just habit, it can feel strange to go do something for yourself.
So it's kind of a rocky path to begin. But again, when we can just discern the difference and then make the choice. Sort and file and say, okay, well, I'm going to go do this and internal hope. Again, it's whatever brings you joy. It's not living in the wish of what could be, or what was, and really looking at the present moment and looking to move yourself forward.
For me, it was hiking. Like it became just moving out, doing something for me. that I enjoyed. It can be whatever it is for you, crocheting, taking a photography class, starting a podcast, whatever is that fills you up and is pouring into you, not pouring into your loved one.
Jessica Fein: Stephanie, thank you for sharing that last bit with us because joy is something we talk about so much on this show and how it is that you can find joy even in really horrible circumstances and why it's important and [00:39:00] how joy really can be the thing that can coexist with terrible, horrible, soul broken moments and can then help you carry on.
So I'm a fan of hope, but I'm also a big fan of joy.
Stephanie Sarazin: Absolutely. We are the captains of our soul, right? There's an Invictus poem that says, I'm the master of the fate. I'm the captain of my soul by William Henley. And it's just, I think about that all the time because it is a choice. Right? Hope is a choice.
How we hope is a choice. Joy is a choice. And to be able to allow that can be hard to give ourselves permission can be hard. And I'll say to kind of, it needs a little asterisk next to it, I think, because in this, you know, go big or go home culture, and especially with social media, where we're able to see everyone's highlight reel, sometimes we can mislabel joy and think that joy has to be, you know, a huge something or a big, brilliant milestone event is [00:40:00] where we'll find the joy or, you know, I'll find the joy in five years when, or when my family member has this event, I'll have some joy and we delay joy or we defer joy.
That needn't be the case. If we're living with mindfulness and being present in our moment, we can find joy in a rainstorm. We can find joy in our cool glass of water in conversation with a friend. There are so many ways we can find joy. If we can give ourselves permission to feel joy and not worry, especially when you're a griever, what are we thinking?
You know, oftentimes it's, it's so interesting to hear from people. And I experienced this too. Well, just because I'm out. Doing this doesn't mean that I'm not grieving. It's and right. It's not either, or we live in the ampersand we live in the end. And I have a, I have an ampersand piece of art over my shoulder to remind me of that all the time.
It is, and to be grieving and to say, you know what, I am going to accept that invitation. Maybe I will go on that date or whatever the case may be is okay to do giving ourselves permission in [00:41:00] those ways, I think can help us give permission to open the door for joy.
Jessica Fein: Again, I will just thank this mysterious person who brought us into each other's lives and thank you for sharing this with us, for writing the book, and we'll have a link to the book in the show notes.
But I've just so enjoyed this conversation and I've learned so much and continue to learn so much from you. So thank you.
Stephanie Sarazin: Thank you. It's such a pleasure, Jessica. And thank you for the important work you're doing to bring these conversations to all of us, because I think when we tell our truth and do so with compassion, we empower others to do the same.
And in that way, we're building a more empathetic and compassionate world. And my goodness, do we need that today? So thank you for doing your part.
Jessica Fein: Here are my takeaways from my conversation with Stephanie. Number one, death is not a prerequisite to grief. It's more likely than not that we'll all have activating events that bring on a feeling of ambiguous grief at some point in our lives.
Number two, it's a gift to give [00:42:00] somebody your full attention and validation and not necessarily try to solve what they're going through. Number three, hope is a double agent. External hope, when we're hoping for something we can't control, can keep us stuck. Number four, Internal hope, accepting our life isn't how we wished it would be, lets us begin to reimagine our future.
Number five, we can move toward internal hope by inviting joy into our lives. And that joy doesn't need to look big. It can be small moments of hiking or reading or enjoying a cup of coffee with a friend. Number six, it's really hard to experience joy when we're consumed with things we can't control. And number seven, grief and joy are not mutually exclusive.
We live in the ampersand.
I hope you enjoyed this episode. If you want to find out more about the podcast, get book recommendations and delve more into the concept of joy, sign up for my newsletter at www.jessicafeinstories.com. If you enjoyed this episode, please take a moment to [00:43:00] rate it and review the show.
Thanks so much. Talk to you next time.