It’s OK That You’re Not OK (2017) is a radical take on grief. It deconstructs and recalibrates how we experience pain and support people who are grieving – and teaches us how to honor loss authentically.
A radical way to meaningfully live with grief.
“Everything happens for a reason. You’ll be OK again.”
Have you ever wanted to scream a relative’s head off for saying this only months after your spouse, parent, or child died? Has a friend murmured this when they saw you crying at the supermarket? You’re not crazy, and you are right to feel rage. It’s not you – it’s the society we live in. The way we collectively perceive grief is broken. We have been taught that pain from permanent loss is something to be corrected or overcome.
The thing is, grief can’t be contained by timestamps and milestones. It certainly isn’t an anomaly to move on from, but an experience to live with. Grief is a natural part of life that communities should acknowledge and support together. After all, when you love, you will inevitably face loss. And while it’s true that no one else can experience your grief for you, you don’t have to go through it alone. It’s time to see grief as a naturally painful experience to tend to rather than an uncomfortable problem to solve.
This summary to Megan Devine’s It’s OK That You’re Not OK aims to redefine grief support. It explores the ways society has misunderstood grief, the differences between inevitable pain and unnecessary suffering, the steps to relieve symptoms of stress from grief, and the two-way path to living meaningfully with grief.
Accept that grief is a natural response to great loss.
If you’ve ever experienced permanent loss firsthand, you know that platitudes and advice don’t work. It doesn’t matter if good intentions are behind them. They can come across as incredibly dismissive and impersonal.
To properly rethink grief support, let’s first look at how society fails to acknowledge grievers the right way and instead tends to reduce great pain to Hallmark quotes.
First, many people believe that every single thing happens for a reason – but this isn’t true. A healthy person could be alive this morning, only to suddenly die at noon. We are also constantly told that death is a lesson for personal or spiritual growth. But telling a grieving mother that her child’s death is something to learn from implies that her parenting is up for correction. That’s probably not the meaning people would intend, but it’s likely the hurtful statement she will hear. Isn’t it unnecessary? The truth is, death just happens; you don’t have to experience it to be a better person.
Second, people can’t help starting a grief contest when they hear news of loss. Remember that time your coworker told you he lost someone, too, after you revealed the recent death in your family? While you know he meant to empathize with you, what he said could understandably grate on you. Why do well-meaning words tend to hurt or cause rage? It’s simple: no two losses are identical. All forms of loss are valid, but the degrees of pain and lasting life changes they cause are not the same. A breakup, while painful, isn’t the same as death – the same way that losing a job isn’t the same as losing a limb.
Third, our cultural and medical definitions of grief are completely at odds with the reality of grief for those who have experienced it. Consider the five-stage grief model outlined by experts Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler. We tend to believe that grievers experience denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance in a linear sequence. While this model sheds a lot of truth on grief-adjacent emotions, not everyone’s response to immense loss will neatly fit into this order. You might dive straight into depression immediately after the loss, or struggle with acceptance for the rest of your life – and either way is OK.
True support begins when we can comfortably call grief what it is: an experience to integrate and carry together, instead of a diagnosis to overcome alone.
Discover how to honor grief freely in the next section.
To grieve freely, manage pain your way without unnecessary suffering.
Grief sucks big time. It completely changes everything – especially you.
The pain of grief deserves to be acknowledged without anyone trying to solve it, especially in its earliest phase. Left unaddressed, it can fester and trickle out of you in destructive ways.
Don’t feel like talking to other people at the funeral? You don’t have to if you don’t want to. Just delegate planning tasks where you can; then be alone. Not ready to go to memorial services held by your friends? Decline those invitations. Reluctant to wake up early or go to the supermarket in the next few weeks or months? Then stay in and have your groceries delivered to your doorstep.
You’re allowed to react to death individually.
The only thing you need to acknowledge right now is the difference between pain and suffering. The Buddha once said that pain is inevitable yet suffering is optional. It sounds cliché, but there is truth in his words. You can tend to pain, but suffering always needs fixing. Let’s put things in perspective so you can spot and dodge unnecessary suffering.
You should feel pain as it comes without having to suffer from undue social pressure. There’s no need to take off your wedding ring, clean out your child’s room, or release your parent’s ashes immediately – or ever. There are no deadlines for letting go, and no one has the right to tell you when you should do so. Doing anything you’re not ready for can cause unnecessary regrets later.
Another avenue for suffering? Dwelling on what others may think of you.
Death tends to bring out the worst in people. Many often don’t know how best to behave in the wake of death because they feel helpless. Since there’s no right way to grieve, people do what they can to cope. Quiet, distant in-laws may suddenly want to take over the funeral or bring up inheritance issues. Longtime friends may stop calling you to avoid uncomfortable silence. Acquaintances who do have something to say may express tone-deaf mantras of encouragement at the wrong time. Even spiritual communities may try to tell you that grief is a test of faith that you must face to gain points in the afterlife.
It’s OK to snarl or burst into tears of rage in these situations. You have the right to be upset – and you’re certainly not oversensitive. No matter what people do or don’t do, nothing is going to bring back the dead. The rage you feel is completely understandable because you are hurting like never before. Avoid people if you must. Peace of mind is crucial right now.
Remember, death doesn’t have to make sense – no matter where you are in your grief, but especially in the earliest days. More importantly, you should grieve however you want, for as long as you need to. Life as you’ve known it is no longer the same.
Now that you know you can grieve uniquely, it’s time for some honest, no-nonsense self-care to get you through it. The next section helps you explore how you can manage the physical and mental symptoms of stress from grief.
Relieve symptoms of stress from grief in digestible steps.
When you grieve, you experience intense stress.
We know that grief is an intensely emotional experience. However, we tend to underestimate its impact on the human mind and body.
There will be days when your pain from permanent loss is so intense that it becomes unbearable. When fainting spells or severe memory loss start to affect your life, it’s time to take some small steps to reduce unnecessary suffering. This way, you can continuously and gently tend to your emotional pain.
To give yourself some relief, start observing yourself and gathering data. Write down your experiences each day to help the process. By doing this, you can notice when you’re a little more grounded and when you feel extra off. From here, it will be easier to further identify which activity or person supports you or sucks out your energy – and to make self-care decisions from there.
The process is not about what’s right or wrong. It’s also not about testing your faith or emotional stability. It’s a simple experiment to help you reduce suffering.
Let’s start with how grief affects the mind.
Have you been grappling with guilt about your loved one’s death? Rest assured, replaying the event in your head is normal – especially in cases of unusual or sudden death. Your brain is extremely stressed out. A life-altering event just disrupted its usual routines, so it’s now seeking evidence of how things could have gone differently. However, those intrusive thoughts aren’t useful. They can hinder you from grieving your loss with the honor it deserves. Instead, channel your pain with an expressive activity such as writing or painting.
Grief can also make you question your life. You might find yourself wondering, What’s the point of living? But know that this doesn’t necessarily make you suicidal – there’s a difference between not wanting to live and wanting to die. To cope with bleak thoughts, confide in someone you trust. Don’t hold it in and let it fester.
Stress from grief can also change your attention span and focus. You may struggle to recall where your keys are, or to pay your bills on time. Don’t be hard on yourself when brain fog takes over. Leave reminders throughout the house to help you settle crucial tasks. If anxiety gets the best of you, try counting your breaths or reading packaging labels – do anything tangible to calm your brain down. Grief can also disrupt your sleep. You may have nightmares or doze off at odd hours of the day. This is OK; your mind is doing the best it can to keep you alive.
Now, let’s talk about the physical effects of grief.
Grief is an individual full-body experience. Extreme stress looks different from person to person. Some people may experience extreme tiredness from time to time. Others may experience heartburn, headaches, or any conditions that were previously not there. There are even cases where grievers inherit bodily pains that their deceased loved ones experienced while they were alive. No matter what physical symptoms show up, they are your body’s way of coping with stress. To prevent damaging breakdowns, walk around the house or do simple movements to maintain enough energy.
During this time, your appetite may also plummet or increase. Your body copes with grief by signaling you to eat less or more. There’s not much you can do about it, except to fuel yourself with nutrient-dense food whenever you can eat. Your diet will get better in time.
When you do what you can to care for your mind and body, you can tend to your pain without unnecessary suffering.
You can’t move on from grief, but you can create new meaning around it.
No matter what happens, the days, weeks, or months of early grief will eventually pass you by. At this point, you will enter the phase of later grief.
Society needs to learn that grief doesn’t always get better with time. You may feel that the second anniversary of your partner’s death is even worse than the first. You might miss your late parent more than ever as years go by. Don’t worry if you do. The fact is, we don’t move on from grief – only with it.
Grief is here to stay. How we integrate it into our lives determines how we can carry on. So whenever you’re ready, you can start creating new and meaningful ways to live with it. There are many methods of doing this, but they all begin with an honest image of recovery and honest conversations about what grief is.
What exactly is an image of recovery?
During later grief, your day-to-day life may be a little less intense. However, you might be surprised to discover that you don’t want to get better. Though they were terrifying, the early days of loss were understandably the closest you felt to the deceased. But to create meaning within grief, you need hope. Since hope is something you can’t tangibly see, it helps to have an anchoring image to hold on to and cherish.
To build the right image of your recovery, answer these questions: What does your grief look like when you imagine the future? What will you likely feel as you carry it with you? Which parts of early grief are you ready to leave behind, and which get to stay?
Take time to find the right answers. From here, it gets easier to see how your grief can evolve and carry meaning unique to you.
Now let’s get to the harder part: honest conversations about grief.
It can be hard to talk to, let alone educate, friends and family members about grief support. They might get defensive when you tell them their words of encouragement were clumsy and dismissive at best. After all, they were only trying to help. But here’s the thing: you’re not being negative or heartless by speaking up. To effectively remove the gag order on the truth about grief, you must keep telling the truth – no matter who gets offended. They need to know that it’s not about them; it’s about the griever.
While you’re doing this, be ready to accept that your address book will likely change. With the pool of responses you’ve received, you can further distinguish supportive friends and family members from those who can’t handle information about grief with grace. This way, you can eventually rally your true team of allies to support your pain. Remember, grief does not need fixing; it must be carried together.
With sovereignty and a proper support system in place, you can honor the unchangeable essence of grief: you’re in pain because you have loved and been loved.
Rethinking grief support is challenging, but it can and must be done.
When the reality of grief takes center stage, we can collectively view it as an experience to tend to instead of a problem to solve. To handle grief with authenticity, we must embrace the fact that meaningful pathways can exist inside it. There’s no need to move on from it when it’s not an issue to begin with.
We all deserve to grieve, and to give and receive honest support. At the end of the day, we need people to cry with and carry on together. It’s nature’s order.
About the author
Megan Devine is a writer, speaker, and advocate for emotional change on a cultural level. She holds a master’s in counseling psychology. Since the tragic loss of her partner in 2009, Megan has emerged as a bold new voice in the world of grief support. Her contributions via her site Refuge in Grief have helped create sanctuary for those in pain and encouragement for those who want to help. For more, visit refugeingrief.com.