I Don't Know How You Do It

Grieving Through the Holidays: Advice from Option B's Becca Bernstein

November 14, 2023 Jessica Fein Season 1 Episode 44
I Don't Know How You Do It
Grieving Through the Holidays: Advice from Option B's Becca Bernstein
Show Notes Transcript

Are you dreading the holidays as you figure out how to  navigate your grief and loss? Are you looking for ways to find  a sense of peace and healing during this challenging time? Or maybe you want to help someone you love deal with their grief and hardship. 

Our guest, Becca Bernstein of Option B, has advice and insights that can help.

Becca has dedicated their career to transforming the way we talk about and heal from loss and hardship. With personal experiences of losing their mother to Frontotemporal Dementia and ALS, Becca understands the challenges of grief and the importance of supporting others through difficult times. They are also the founder of Collective Care Consulting and Trainings, teaching people how to connect with one another in an age of loneliness and isolation. With their expertise and passion for helping others, Becca brings a wealth of knowledge to our conversation on navigating grief and loss during the holiday season.

In this episode, you'll:

  • Discover strategies for navigating grief and finding comfort during the holiday season.
  • Learn to recognize the emotional and physical symptoms of grief 
  • Gain insights on how to support and be there for someone who is grieving during the holiday season.
  • Explore the power of intentionality and how it can make a difference in your experience of the holidays after a loss.
  • Find guidance on how to embrace healing and create new traditions while honoring the memory of your loved one during the holiday season.

Learn more about Option B here.

Learn more about Becca Bernstein here.

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Music credit: Limitless by Bells


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. One of the themes that has come up a lot in these conversations is the isolation of grief and loss. And of course, isolation can feel even more exaggerated during the holiday season. It's so strange how being with a lot of people can make us feel even more alone.

Another thing we've spoken about is how to be helpful when people you know are grieving. In today's conversation, we delve into both. How to approach the [00:01:00] holidays as someone who's grieving yourself. And how to help somebody else who may be struggling. 

My guest is Becca Bernstein, the head of Option B out of the Sandberg Goldberg Bernthal Family Foundation, which reached more than 18 million people in the last year with education and support for those who are facing loss and hardship in their own lives and or supporting others.

Becca has dedicated their career to transforming the ways we talk about and heal from loss and hardship. Before Option B, Becca served for several years as the community director of The Dinner Party, an organization that connects grievers in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s for peer community and support.

They're also the founder of Collective Care Consulting and Trainings, which teaches people the infrastructure for how to more deeply connect with one another in an age of loneliness and isolation. Becca's work has been inspired by the loss of their mom, Debra, to Frontotemporal Dementia and ALS, struggles with infertility loss, and the belief that a culture that [00:02:00] accepted loss as a normal part of being human would allow us to more deeply connect with ourselves and each other and benefit us all.

I'm so excited to bring you Becca Bernstein. Welcome Becca. I'm so glad to have you on the show. Thank you for being here today. 

Becca Bernstein: Thanks so much, Jessica. I'm so happy to be here. 

Jessica Fein: Your career has been all about transforming the ways we talk about and heal from loss and hardship. What led you to this career?

Becca Bernstein: It's a really good question and a big one. 

Jessica Fein: Well, we might as well start off big, right? 

Becca Bernstein: Yeah, let's start off big. Let's start off big. I grew up in an incredibly intellectual, heady sort of family. There is a lot of focus on the brain and on school, and then when I was 25 years old, my mom was diagnosed with early onset dementia, um, something called FTD, Frontotemporal Dementia, which from the very beginning of the disease is terminal, and [00:03:00] so all of a sudden, I'm in my mid 20s, and everyone else around me is sort of out and about in New York, and I was like, what is happening to my life?

One of my parents has a terminal illness, and I realized that everything that I had learned up until that point was important, but also was kind of irrelevant to what I was going through. It's like, I don't know anything about how to grieve, how to slow down, how to be still, how to talk about my feelings, how to acknowledge my feelings.

It felt like all of a sudden, there was this whole new world opened up, and I needed to know things that I didn't know how to do. And also, I needed to know that there isn't always a thing to do. Sometimes things happen, and it's just hard and awful, and we get through them. But I think pretty immediately, I started to feel a shift in terms of how I wanted to spend my time.

That's really common, obviously, after people experience loss. And for me, it was anticipatory grief. And then two years later, [00:04:00] the actual grief of losing her. And so I just started to care about different things and value different things and both valuing living a big, bold life, knowing my mom only got 57 years on this planet and thinking, well, I might only have 57 years, you know, or less.

How do I want to actually use this time? And then also realizing, wow, there is so much out there that I wish I had known or that I wish that people were telling me I would sort of sock away these things that people said that were really helpful that I had literally never heard before. Like it won't always feel this way.

And things that are, you know, now just come off the tip of my tongue. But at the time I was like, Oh my God, what's happening? This is so helpful. This is so useful. I don't know how to do any of this. And so, long story short, I ended up getting more involved in that world, first as a participant, needing it myself, then as a volunteer, then as a staff member in organizations that were working on grief and loss, and I didn't even know that that was a thing.

To be sort of like a professional grief [00:05:00] worker, that was not something I had ever thought about. And then that led me to where I am now, which is Overseeing Option B, the program out of Sheryl Sandberg's foundation, that really focuses on helping people navigate experiences of loss and hardship. And also, and one of the parts that I'm most passionate about, helping people support their loved ones through experiences of loss and equipping people to be able to do and say the things that, that I really needed kind of when I was, you know, 25, 27 years old.

So. Yeah. 

Jessica Fein: such important work. For the people who aren't familiar with Option B, can you tell us about the mission of Option B and also what led Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant to found this organization? 

Becca Bernstein: Yeah, Sheryl founded it. It's her organization, but the two of them wrote the book Option B together after Sheryl lost her husband, Dave, very suddenly when they were on vacation.

And I think similarly to what I said about how life sort of changed, her life really changed very instantly. It was a very, very sudden loss. She was like, how [00:06:00] do I cope, you know, and what's the research and, and what have other people said about this? And that's where Adam came in as, you know, obviously an incredible organizational psychologist and also an author.

And he was able to sort of say, well, here's what the research says about how you can navigate these experiences. And so they took Cheryl's very vulnerable personal experience. And Adam's research background and merged it to make Option B. The book was published in 2017, and the day that the book came out, the organization was also founded.

Because I think Cheryl felt really strongly that she didn't just want to have a book out in the world. She wanted to be able to help other people who are going through similar experiences. And really get education and information out to the masses. Obviously now it's 2023, uh, six years later, and the goals are very similar to when it first began.

You know, the mission is really around how do we help people navigate experiences of loss and hardship, and how do we help them to tangibly and practically support their loved [00:07:00] ones. Those are the two core pieces of the work. And again, I've worked for some other organizations, and one of the things that's unique about Option B is that I came from smaller community work.

Where you're really focused, you know, grief is really hard. And so, you know, if you're focused on a small group of people helping them to connect with each other and to move through the experience together. And I would say option B is really more about all sorts of people have their option A not work out.

We need education and information to reach as many people as possible about, you know, how do you cope with these experiences? And then if you're not going through it yourself, you probably know someone who is. So how do you show up? 

Jessica Fein: I love that dual mission because the fact is, all of us will be the person going through it at some point, and so how valuable to know how to be there, how to show up, and what's important before we're in that situation if we're so lucky, and if not, how after we're coming out of the situation to then show up for others.

You talk about really wanting to [00:08:00] transform the way we talk about and think about hardship and loss. That makes me wonder, why do we need to transform it? What's wrong with the way that we're currently doing it? 

Becca Bernstein: Also a really good question. I think as a culture, we're deeply uncomfortable with it is the first thing, right?

Like even to acknowledge loss, to acknowledge that we're not doing well, that we're not okay. To acknowledge that grief is not over in the blink of an eye, you know, like those are things that culturally we're very uncomfortable with because the dominant cultural narrative is, you know, we should be happy and healthy all the time.

Um, and then when we don't feel that way we're like what's wrong with me what's wrong with me what's wrong with me and I think actually a lot of other cultures. have a lot to teach us about loss being an inevitable part of life. There's nothing wrong with you, but losing people, we've also done things around pregnancy loss and divorce and other areas of loss that are not just loss of a loved one, but those are very normal things that happen over the human life.

And if you are feeling [00:09:00] grief, then great, that means you're human, you know? And so I think that's the starting place of when I talk about transformation, the first step is acknowledgement. just acknowledging that that's okay and it's normal. We just posted something on social media a couple days ago about the different variations of sadness.

Like, my sadness feels really big. My sadness feels like it's little sprinkles. But even to talk about sadness, I hadn't really spent very much time talking about sadness before I was hit by a truck with it. And then I was like, well, I have to learn how to talk about sadness, you know? So I think that's what I mean.

And then I think the other thing is an old mentor of mine would say grief isn't something that you can solve, but isolation is. And I think the other pieces is how do we help people feel less alone? Right? And there's lots of ways to do it. Again, there's a lot of organizations out there doing amazing work that's connecting people in person and really deep sort of community driven ways. But there's also just something about being able to see your story reflected in the world [00:10:00] and realizing like, Oh, like, I'm not the only person who feels that way. That's really helpful to know. And then I would say the third thing is, and this goes with again, what our typical instincts are, and honestly, what my typical instincts are like, Even now when there is someone in my life who's experienced loss, I feel totally frozen feel paralyzed.

I'm like, oh god I guess I'm gonna have to go back to the web page that I built about this to remember what to do But I learned time and time again about the value of listening over fixing it's It's a soft skill. It's not easy to measure or to talk about, but when someone comes to you and, you know, is going through something really difficult, we just, especially if we love them, we care about them.

We just want the problem to go away. 

Jessica Fein: I couldn't agree more. And it sounds like you and I both come from that same bent of wanting to fix it, wanting to problem solve. And it's so uncomfortable to admit. I can't solve this for you. I [00:11:00] can sit with you in your sadness. That's hard. And, you know, it's not only in grief when we've lost a person, but in so many other things along the way.

When my sister had lung cancer, I'll never forget what she taught me one evening because I was trying to cheer her up. She was a very upbeat person. She had stage four lung cancer and I was there trying to, you know, cheer lead because that felt very natural to me to say all the things we say, the platitudes that we have no right to say.

Jess, can you please not try to fix this? I just need you to sit here with me. And that was hard for me to do, but I was also so grateful that she was able to articulate that and also felt kind of bad that she had to say that, that I didn't know that already, that I couldn't have figured that out for myself.

Becca Bernstein: Yeah, exactly. And then that means we have to learn how to just sit and just be, which is really hard. Yeah. 

Jessica Fein: You mentioned that as a culture, we don't do a good [00:12:00] job and that there are other cultures that do much better at it. Are there any cultures in particular that stand out in this area?

Becca Bernstein: I think about like non Western cultures and specifically like Buddhist traditions, right?

That's where I've really seen a lot of the language around loss just being part of the natural cadence of a life. And that helps to reduce stigma in and of itself. If you're like, Oh, I'm a human being. I'll have really happy moments. I'll also have really sad moments. And in those sad moments, here, our thing was That I can turn to that would feel great, you know, 

Jessica Fein: it's interesting because you mentioned it's not only loss from death you were saying a few moments ago that this can be from pregnancy loss divorce You know other things that are not what we might think of as conventional grief these days I think there's so much going on in the world That can make us feel those same feelings of grief But it's hard to identify when it's not somebody we know.

And I mean, two things in [00:13:00] particular. One, obviously what's happening in the world, specifically, I'm thinking about the Middle East right now and with just every day, so much death there. And so many of us have a lot of passion around the underlying issues and it's just heartbreaking. And then also, on a totally different note, the death of Matthew Perry.

What's been interesting to me, I definitely grew up with Friends, and with Friends the television show. Also, I did grow up with Friends, but that's not what I had meant. But it's been interesting for me to talk to several people who said, I feel like I'm grieving this person I didn't know, but this person who brought me so much joy and who was with me.

For so many years of my life, can you talk a little bit about when we feel grief for people we don't even know? 

Becca Bernstein: Yeah, that's a really good question. And I'm going to give a really honest answer that is, you know, potentially a little bit even unflattering to me, but it's the real talk version, which is that I remember after experiencing some losses that were so close.

Not just my mom, but others as well. Then, you [00:14:00] know, the first few celebrities who died after that, I was like, Ugh, really? Like, I feel bad for their family, I feel bad for their friends, I feel bad for the people who actually knew them. I don't know Matthew Perry, you know? But, I actually have come to see the amount of comparison that happens with grief I think is actually really unhealthy.

And I don't think it serves any of us, right? It's like if you're grieving, you're grieving. Like my grief doesn't have to be bigger than yours. What does that do? What does that do for any of us? You know, to me that means you're not getting your needs met if that's sort of like your biggest reaction. I think all forms of grief are valid, and Brene Brown has a lot of great stuff about comparison, being a thief.

So, I think it actually feels important to acknowledge maybe some of the different levels of grief, and I think especially with someone like Matthew Perry, what you said is really important. The show Friends brought people joy, and it also brought people routine. It was a show that went on for a very long time.

It's a show that people binge watch and [00:15:00] watch, you know, maybe every night before they go to sleep. And then you start to feel like, mabye these are my friends, you know? 

Jessica Fein: And they're in your house, right? You're not seeing them on a huge, big screen. You're seeing them in a small screen in your living room, right?

You're like hanging out with them. But your point about grief hierarchy is so important because I, too, On the one hand can say there's no such thing as grief hierarchy. We don't compare grief. I can say all that and I can believe it and I can feel something different. Because it is really, really hard when, for example, somebody's elderly grandparent dies, and of course you feel sad for them, and they were 93 and they lived a long life, but you feel sad for them.

And then if you have, as I do, a child who's died, right, and you don't want to compare. But it's hard. It's hard not to. 

Becca Bernstein: I think that's true. And maybe it's one of those both ands. Like, grief gives so many both ands. Grief and joy. I feel sad one moment, and I feel actually relieved or okay the next. Like, what is happening?

You know? And I think maybe it's [00:16:00] one of those both ands. Like, all grief is valid. And, There are forms of grief that really transform your life in different ways that need to be honored for their own. And certainly the loss of a child would be one of those forms of grief.  

Jessica Fein: I read something once that really struck me on this topic of comparison, which said, we never say, well, that person is happier than I am, therefore I shouldn't be happy, right?

We don't compare happiness levels. So why should we then say. Well, that person's loss was worse than mine or bigger than mine or whatever, therefore I won't feel it. And that struck me because it said, you know, you're entitled to your happiness even if somebody else is way happier and you're entitled to your sadness even if somebody else is way sadder.

Becca Bernstein: Yeah. I think that that's great. I'll be thinking about that for a while. 

Jessica Fein: Excellent. Well, here we are in the holiday season and this is just such a delicate time for so many of us. What are some of the common feelings that come [00:17:00] up at the holiday time for people who have experienced loss or are going through tough times?

I mean, obviously, you know, on that day, we know that the person isn't there and that's tough. But what are some of the other feelings that swirl around us during this time? 

Becca Bernstein: There's a lot of loneliness. The holidays are a time for many of gathering. And so like you said, there's kind of like the empty chair syndrome, like who isn't here who otherwise would be.

I think for people who have gone through a miscarriage or a pregnancy loss or are going through infertility, there's ideas of who could be there, who do you want to be there, who hasn't been able to be brought into the world. For divorce or separation, there's, oh, I've done holidays this way for 10 years and now maybe, you know, my partner has the kids and I'm trying to completely create a new normal.

It's just the time that brings up all of those feelings. And another one of those grief times where there aren't necessarily right answers, right? There's not like a guidebook or a rule book of like, this is [00:18:00] exactly how you do it or how you go through it. I think so much of it is being in touch with what you need and being okay with acknowledging that it is a new normal or it is different than how it's been before. And so what do you need this year? That's sort of the biggest thing that you I think about my own experience. I think about the experiences of loved ones, just letting each year be its own chapter, its own story. My mom died in early November. We're coming up on her anniversary and the first Thanksgiving after she died, I was like, I don't even want to do this.

Like, what are we going to do? Like, we literally are just coming out of a hospice situation. What, what are we going to do three weeks later? This is so weird. To then being like, In the kitchen with my siblings making recipes that she once made years down the line. And, and that kind of transformation I think happens for a lot of people, but people are in different spots all along the journey.

And so it brings up that whole swirl of feelings and looking around you and seeing who's there and who's not, and just being acutely aware of that. Yeah. [00:19:00] 

Jessica Fein: And I think so many of us have traditions, even down to the place of like, I always sit in this seat and she always sat in that seat or that kind of thing.

So both the empty chair syndrome, as you mentioned, and also like another year without my baby here, if you're trying to have a baby, you know, or seeing other families who appear, quote unquote, more intact, all those things, right?

Becca Bernstein: Yeah. I'm curious. I mean, I know you're the host, but how have the holidays been for you in the past?

Like, how has it shown up for you?

Jessica Fein: Well, it's interesting timing as it's about to be Thanksgiving. So last year, Which was the first year without my daughter. The big thing was, we cannot sit around that same table that we've sat at every single year and see all the missing people. I couldn't do it. So we totally shook it up and we had guests who come every year and I called them and I said, We're doing things differently.

We did a total different room in the house, we did a buffet, not a sit down, we did casual, I just didn't want it to feel like we're all here and they're [00:20:00] not. This year we have another loss added to the group and it feels so flimsy in terms of the number of people who would be here, I'd say it's like Sometimes feels like the incredible shrinking family, you know, and so this year we're actually not going to host and I said, maybe we'll go back to hosting next year and maybe I better tell everybody who thinks they're coming before this airs that we're not going to host this year because I haven't fully told everybody yet, but I wanted to just do something that was so totally different.

I can't bear to feel like there's just so many absences. And again, you know, as you say, it's a transformation. Maybe next year making some of the foods or listening to some of the songs will feel good, but right now it feels like I just don't even want to be in the house. 

Becca Bernstein: Yeah, and I think all of that is so valid.

And I think it's brave to be adaptable to your own needs, right? And to then express them and say, we don't want to do like formal, we don't want to use the same table. We don't want to feel that feeling of shrinking. Like we actually want to, you know, do something different. And I think also powerful [00:21:00] to recognize that it might be different a year or two years down the line.

That's what I say to the, you know, people who are looking for how to support their loved ones is, it can be hard to be flexible. It can be hard to be flexible with our closest people because we are, you know, you're in rhythm with each other and it can be hard to let them be however they need to. be, you know, I've heard of lots of family situations, friend situations where people are offended because someone left the dinner or someone it's like, but maybe that's what they needed to do.

Like, that's okay. You know, and I think creating space for each other's yeses and for each other's nose and just continuing to be flexible is it's a lot easier said than done. And I think it's the most important thing that you can do when you're supporting someone is to just kind of like roll with the waves with them.

And let them guide.

Jessica Fein: Take their cues. Take their cues.

Becca Bernstein: Yeah. Take their cues. Ask them questions like, who do you want to spend X, Y, or Z holiday with this year? Have you thought about that? [00:22:00] What would feel good to you instead of just kind of making assumptions about what it is the person might want or need?

Jessica Fein: Another thing that I think about as we're thinking not only about people who are going through it, but supporting people we love who are going through it is to recognize that sometimes the second year. can be harder than the first. I feel like the first year, you know, everybody expects it. Everybody kind of circles around you.

Everybody is really attuned to your needs, hopefully. And then the second year, it's back to normal. And you might not feel back to normal. 

Becca Bernstein: Yeah. And you might not feel back to normal five years later, or ten years later. And normal is gonna keep changing.

Jessica Fein: Normal's gone. 

Becca Bernstein: Yeah, normal is gone. I think that's the best way to put it.

Like, normal is gone. That's part of one of the core lessons. That we talk about on our website and through our educational materials is how to provide more long term support and I think sometimes our people are worried like, Oh, I'm just going to be reminding them year after year. I'm not giving them space to develop their new normal.

I don't know what your experience of [00:23:00] this is, but it's like, it's obviously going to be on your mind. Like, how are you. I'm not going to think about your sister and your child during this period of time. Like you're already thinking about it. We tell people not to be scared of reminding because you don't need a reminder.

If you've gone through a major loss, you don't need a reminder. You're reminded every day or you're reminded often, you know. 

Jessica Fein: It's so true. People say, well, I didn't want to bring it up. You know, I didn't want to make you sad. I didn't want to remind you. It's so funny and backwards, like we've forgotten, right?

I think what is important for people to know is that we want to talk about our people, you know, we want to. That's how I get to spend time with my people is by talking about them and sharing stories. So what do you tell people who say, I'd like to show up, you know, it's the holidays and I'd like to be there for my friend who I know is hurting.

What can that person do?

Becca Bernstein: Yeah, I think being proactive with some of those questions. And also, someone really might not want to talk about it, and that's okay. But you're, you're not necessarily asking them, you know, how are you feeling about your loss today? You're asking them questions that are going to help [00:24:00] them to think through how they want to do the holiday season, right?

So who do you want to be with? What would feel good? How are traditions feeling this year? Are there things you still want to do? Are there things you maybe want to pause doing this year? You know, when you close your eyes and think about who you want to be around, who are those people? One thing we hear from our community is, well, what if the answer is no?

What if I've lost my most important people? And I think it's actually also creating space for that. And saying, well, how can I be with you? How can I show up? Can I just come up with like a movie night, whatever it is, right? It can be so many things, but the answer might be something we don't want to hear because it's sad.

It's like, actually, I don't have anyone or I don't have the people who I really want. I would encourage people to say, I know that I'm a backup, a substitute, not as good, right? I know that. You know, your A team is missing, I'm on the bench, but like, I'm here. How can I be here? What would feel good? And I think just engaging people in that conversation is probably the biggest thing.

I've seen people do this in a number of different ways, but one [00:25:00] thing we heard positive things about from people last year was like, if you don't feel like talking about it, how can you put it in an email, or how can you do a toast? How can you literally put it in the invite? Like, we are acknowledging that this is happening, you know, so that people don't Uh, it makes my skin crawl thinking about just like sitting around the table and people pushing food around their plates and just like acting like everything is exactly the same.

That's what you don't want to do. But I think in terms of what you do want to do, there's a lot of practical different things that you can do to make it different. But I think that is going to depend on the person and the situation. 

Jessica Fein: One of the things I know about Thanksgiving that a lot of people do is they go around at the beginning of the meal and they say what they're thankful for and I've heard this from a couple of grievers that, you know, I tried to go out and do something different and I went, you know, because my colleague invited me or somebody invited me and there we were and all I could do is as we're going around is think, Oh my God, what am I going to say?

What am I going to say? What can people do when they find themselves in those situations where all they want to do is, like, [00:26:00] bolt because they feel so uncomfortable given what they're struggling with inside? How can they handle that?

Becca Bernstein: I think this is one of those both and in grief moments, where gratitude can actually be a really healthy practice.

It makes me eye roll, but it's true. And there's a lot often to be grateful for in the spirits of the people that we've lost, of things that are no longer there. At the same time, the idea that there's always a silver lining to loss, I think, is one of the most insidious, unhelpful tropes that we lean on. I think there's also space, and I'm often the person in the room who will be like, Okay, you know what?

I'm making, I'm turning myself into an alien. I'm just going to be the person who says the thing that no one knows how to handle, and you get blank stares. 

Jessica Fein: I wish you could come to my house for the holidays. That sounds pretty good to me. 

Becca Bernstein: Yeah, you know, I'd be happy to, but I could also see a world where it gets to you and you say like, Well, to be honest, like, I don't know that I am really grateful for anything right now, because this has been a really hard year.

[00:27:00] But I'm glad to be with all of you, but it has been a really hard year. And listen, I feel like if I actually said that with my family, I love my family. And I think it would be quiet and a little awkward. But I would love for us to build our tolerance as a culture for awkwardness. It might just be a little awkward, but at least you said what you actually felt and you didn't feel like, oh, I'm having like, like, if it doesn't feel authentic to you, then don't do it.

Jessica Fein: I love the idea of building our tolerance for awkwardness, and I think that is one of the biggest things in grief conversation is, I don't know what to say. I'm going to say the wrong thing, I'm going to feel uncomfortable, and so therefore we clam up or we don't show up or whatever. Even saying to somebody, “I don't know what to say."

I really don't. I want to be here for you, I just, I don't know what to say. Because that's an awkward thing, right? But I still think it's appreciated. 

Becca Bernstein: Yeah. Well, and if you say, I really want to be there for you, I don't know what to say. That actually also puts the ball back in the other person's [00:28:00] court to say something else or to say, that's okay.

I don't know that I need you to say anything. But yeah, I mean, grief is awkward. 

Jessica Fein: And you know what's so weird about it being awkward? It is universal. It is pretty much a certainty that every single person is going to be grieving at some point or other in their life, right? There aren't that many things that we're all gonna go through.

So you would think we would have it a little bit more figured out. 

Becca Bernstein: Yeah, you know, in my own life, I'm someone who can often come off as too much, you know, I've heard that for much of my life, and I think I, through lots of therapy, and also through lots of experiences, and also through watching other people who I'm like, you're too much, but I love that.

I actually want to be around people. Who are too much, you know? I'm like, you know, come let's like gather together. 

Jessica Fein: I don't have any interest in somebody who's too little. That sounds really boring. 

Becca Bernstein: Really boring. Yeah. Maybe part of it is also like releasing the valve of having to have it all together.

Right. Maybe you're going to be that person who is the quote unquote messy person at the Thanksgiving [00:29:00] table. There are worse things in the world, number one, and number two, if you've gone through something really terrible, that's a really normal reaction. Go for it. 

Jessica Fein: Speaking of, again, quote unquote normal reactions, sometimes I think we are feeling these things that only in retrospect do we realize, that was grief showing up.

What are some of the things we might actually physically be feeling that turn out to be associated with grief? 

Becca Bernstein: Brain fog is the biggest one of them. Not being able to think clearly, not being able to make decisions. Obviously anxiety, anxiety that you can't quite place, but you're just feeling sort of like heaviness in your chest.

I am blown away every year. This will be the eighth year of doing my mom's anniversary week in November, the anniversary of her death. And every single freaking year around this time, I start to feel like all I want to do is sleep until 11 a. m. and like, just like lie in bed, you know, again, I keep sort of waiting for that to go away and I brought it up to my therapist and they're like, that week was [00:30:00] really traumatic and difficult.

And your body will remember and I think like even when our brains want us to move on and by the way moving forward is Important and there is so much life to live and you know, yada yada yada You know what? I mean, but at the same time I think just like yeah wanting to sleep happiness in the body If you know if you're feeling that all the time probably need some additional help But I think it is very, very normal at various times of year to just feel that, or even on a random day to feel that.

Like, ugh, just kind of having trouble getting out of bed, or I'm having trouble feeling motivated, or I'm having trouble concentrating. All of those things are actually symptoms of grief. One that I found out that sort of blew me away that then really made me think about how I did my work differently was around reading comprehension.

Grief can actually change how quickly we can read and how we, you know, take information in when we read. And it's something we thought about a lot when we redid our website a couple years ago. [00:31:00] We actually don't need to overwhelm people with information. We want a lot of really helpful education and information.

But if you're creating things for grievers, right, those are really good things to keep in mind. How much. Can our brains actually hold? 

Jessica Fein: That's a really interesting one. And I hadn't heard that, but I will say that there are some illustrations I've seen around what we might be feeling in grief that hit me so powerfully.

And that now kind of makes sense that the reading might just, you know, not be sinking in in a way that a really powerful image or illustration can. Yeah. So, here we are on the brink of the holidays. If I'm dreading the holidays because of something that I'm going through, what are a couple really tangible things you would tell me as the person going through grief or hardship, two or three things that I could do that might help a little bit? 

Becca Bernstein: I think you were the perfect model of it earlier in the conversation where you described kind of what you're planning on doing. It's actively choosing how you want to spend the day and [00:32:00] that time and knowing that there's not a wrong answer. I have heard people say, oh yeah, yep, that was the Thanksgiving I spent in my pajamas alone with ice cream.

These are important times, but there's also just a day, you know, and I think that that balance is hard sometimes to take in. But I think proactively choosing how you want to spend your time, giving yourself the gift of being intentional of how you want to do things, and also knowing that if you don't have the energy to be intentional, like again, if you've had a very, very, very recent loss, Intentionality is one of those things with the brain that, like, might not be fully on.

And I think in that case, giving yourself permission to wake up the day up and literally do whatever you feel like doing. And just keep thinking, no wrong answers, no wrong answers, no wrong answers. That would be kind of like the first thing that I would think about. And then I have a bias toward talking about things because that's how I am.

And that's, I think in many points in my life, it's saved me learning how to talk about the hard things, how to kick the elephant out of the room is what Cheryl calls it in the book and what we call it in some of our [00:33:00] education. You can either talk about it or not, you know, and if you don't want to talk about it, that's okay.

And so maybe you come up with, here's how I'm going to deflect the conversation, right? That's being intentional too. Like, if someone brings this up to me, I'm going to say, thank you so much. I don't really feel like talking about that right now. Again, the tolerance for awkward goes up. It's okay. It's okay.

Having a couple things that you know you can lean on that you would actually want to talk about. And for some people, that's going to feel totally inauthentic. For other people, that might actually feel good, and that's okay. One of the things we have in our core lessons is we talk about the three P's, including relationship to permanence.

And that actually goes back to some of the non Western ways of thinking about grief. Everything is temporary and nothing is permanent, and I think there are times where that could feel just destabilizing. But I do think remembering and giving yourself grace. This year isn't like other years, and that's okay.

And it won't be like this next year. We don't know exactly how it'll be. Maybe it'll be better. Maybe it'll be [00:34:00] worse. Maybe it'll be somewhere in between. But just giving yourself a lot of grace and understanding that nothing is permanent. This doesn't have to be how the holidays are forever. I think a lot of our best learning also happens from like, Wow, that didn't feel good.

I don't want to do that again. Okay, now you know. Right? 

Jessica Fein: What would you say would be the flip side of that? What would be two or three things if you want to show up and be there for a friend as we're getting into the holiday season? What are two or three really practical things you can do? 

Becca Bernstein: It's at least bringing it up and giving people the option of, I mentioned this a little bit earlier, like some of the questions that you can ask about traditions, what you usually do, what are you doing this year?

How can I show up for you? How can I show up for you is a little bit tricky because I think often when we ask that question and particularly to people who are in a lot of pain, they're like, I don't know. Um, you know, I don't know. 

Jessica Fein: Don't put the burden on me, you figure it out. 

Becca Bernstein: Yeah, yeah, so I think the other thing that I would say is using what you know about them and that particular person in that particular situation to show up [00:35:00] in the way that you think they would like, right, which might be different than what you would like yourself.

It's just like using your knowledge, your intimacy of someone to help you make choices about how to be there. I think part of the reason people have trouble with it is there's not one size fits all, which can feel very frustrating. But I think people feel really seen when you're able to slow down and think, well, what do we know about that person?

And if you don't know, you can always ask.

Jessica Fein: I love that and I think another thing is it's never too far past a loss to acknowledge it. I had a really huge, huge loss decades ago and I have a friend who still on the anniversary will send me a card. And so when the holidays are coming up, I think even just if you want to send a card to somebody, like we don't even get mail anymore.

That's something I really appreciate when something comes in the mail or an email or a call just to say, I'm thinking about you. I don't think you can go wrong in doing that. 

Becca Bernstein: Yeah, I don't think you can go wrong either. And this is a little bit of a shameless plug, [00:36:00] but we're working right now on a web page that will come out and have all sorts of good information about how to show up for the people that you care about over the holidays on our website, uh, option B.org. And one of the things that you can do on there is send a virtual, we call them “real talk" cards. And so I hear you. I love getting cards in the mail and I think it's super special. And if you're the kind of person who's like, man, I really intended to do that, but I forgot to. I forgot to go to the post office.

You can wake up on Thanksgiving morning or, you know, wake up, uh, a little bit before some of the other winter holidays and see a whole bunch of real talk cards. One of them is like, fa la, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. You know, like, and you can, you know, write a little note in there. And that's a super easy way.

Like you said, I love that. And I think it's so important. Not just the year after, not just the month after. I think. If you want someone to stop reaching out to you, tell them, but that would be a new one. That would be a new one. I haven't heard that one before.

Jessica Fein: Me neither. I'm so glad you mentioned the site because there are so many amazing [00:37:00] resources there.

And obviously there'll be a link in the show notes, but the work is so important that you're doing. And I'm so, so grateful for you to come on today and to share this with us and wishing you very, very peaceful holidays 

Becca Bernstein: this year. Thank you so much, Jessica. This was great. I'm very honored to be on here.

Jessica Fein: Here are my takeaways from the conversation with Becca. Number one, there isn't always something to do. Sometimes things happen that are hard and awful and we just need to get through them. Number two, grief isn't something you can solve, but isolation is. Number three, it's brave to be adaptable to your own needs.

Number four, one of the most important things you can do to support someone is to let them be the guide and take their cues. Number five, when you bring up someone's loss, you aren't reminding them. They already remember you're acknowledging them and their person. Number six, we need to build our tolerance for awkwardness.

That one is definitely my favorite. Number seven, give yourself the [00:38:00] gift of being intentional with how you want to spend the holidays. Number eight, there is no one size fits all in how to support someone. Use your knowledge of the person to help you make choices about how to be there. And number nine. It is never too late to send a card or an email to let somebody know you're thinking about them.

Thanks so much for being with me here today. I hope you got a lot out of this conversation. If you want this kind of advice, if you want highlights from the show and additional content, sign up for my newsletter at Jessicafeinstories.com That's Jessica Fein. F like Frank, EIN stories.com. Thanks so much for listening.

Have a great day. 

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