Dana Greenfield on Leaning Into Grief

May 29, 2014

When we host our Quantified Self Conferences we put a lot of effort into our plenary sessions. Those sessions open and close each day and they’re the only time that all the attendees are together to listen and learn from speakers and presenters. Our opening plenary is especially important to us. It sets the stage and tone for the conference and we take special care to make sure it puts people in the frame of mind we encourage for the conference. One of being open, thoughtful, and ready to experience all the different parts of our lives that QS can touch.

Today we’re posting our first opening plenary talk, Leaning Into Grief, by Dana Greenfield. We heard about Dana’s self-tracking story just a few weeks before the conference. She mentioned that she was using different methods to help her track her grief after her mother passed away in February of this year. We knew then that this was a special project, something that would help our community understand how self-tracking can go far beyond seemingly simple things like step tracking and reach into our lives to help us understand deeper parts of ourselves. We invite you to watch Dana’s talk and read the transcript below. We hope you enjoy it and learn from it as much as we did.

Starting when I was about 14 years old, my mother began a gifting tradition, imposing upon me a collection of small Hungarian porcelain figurines: ‘So you’ll have something to remember me by’, she would say, rather darkly.

She somehow knew she’d die before she was 65 and lived pretty intensely as a result. The gestures were sort of light hearted, but also pointed to her deep discomfort with her legacy. We would have teenage quarrels with her about the gifts–that they were affected sentimentality, a false set of memories…some things you can’t force. But she tried.

These morbid birthday gifts stand less for her role in my life and more for her anxieties around mortality, remembrance, and being a good enough mother. But her fears didn’t paralyze her. Rather, she lived more in a day than most did in a week. She was a surgeon, professor, researcher, entrepreneur, blogger, tennis player, and mentor to many, including me, a medical student myself.

In September, fit and healthy, and with so much left to offer, she mysteriously fell down stairs resulting in a major head trauma. After 6 months in the hospital, her coma was upgraded to a persistent vegetative state–she would never wake up, a strong body divorced from its once formidable mind.

She ultimately passed on in February. But she was really gone the moment she fell. Then, I began to move through life differently, and I wanted to capture it. I knew that the early experiences I was having with this acute loss would change, evolve, deepen or maybe disappear.

Like when I would reach to call her about an article I read, or about a lecture I just heard. Taking a beat to remember she no longer exists. The world implodes for just an instant. I also wanted to track how I felt. Perhaps it was because I desperately hoped it would change, that I could watch myself crawl out of the despair and anxiety of the early days in the intensive care unit. But I also wanted to concretize her legacy in my life. Along with those wincing moments where her absence is acutely felt, I wanted to watch those crushing moments soften to fond memories.

So– what did I do? For a while I kept a journal with 750 words and tried to use its metadata function, to track things like anxiety or memories or place. I also dabbled with some mood tracking. But they just didn’t quite fit. Mood tracking seems to assume that you want to track away the sadness. But grief is not pathological. It’s just hard. A journal was helpful but it required setting aside a time of day–it didn’t help me catch the kinds of ephemeral moments that I encountered in the context and natural flow of my life.

Then I had a bit of a breakthrough. At one of the QS meetups, one of the presenters talked about an early spreadsheet based project where she used a google form on her phone to track on the go. Just by creating a link to a custom made Google Form, i could make my own kind of app, a dedicated place to go to log my experiences with memory and loss. “Mobilizing” my project enabled me to track these experiences as I met them. Pausing just for a moment for each one. I called it “leaning into grief” because instead of compartmentalizing, I was moving through the experience of loss, giving it more space to work itself out in my life. I keep editing the form as I go, but right now it has 4 simple questions:

1. The first I call “mom sightings” where I can choose what kind of encounter i had with her (a sight, sound, smell, memory, topic of conversation,).

2. Second, I have a comments box. Here, I thought I would just write one or two words to mark the event: new bicycle or grant writing. But it turns out that the text box became an invitation to pause, reflect, and go deeper into the memory, the feeling or experience. I end up micro-journaling for just a few sentences. Not only have I been marking the most immediate impression of the moment, but I find myself exploring it further, fleshing out the imagery or events, reminding myself of more that was past that seemed hidden.

3. Third, I mark the location– at home, in transit, in a café?

4. Last, I choose the mood or affect. Importantly, I structured the form to allow me to choose more than one at a time. Grief is strange and special in that you can experience multiple, seemingly incongruent emotions at the same time. I am often nostalgic, sad, lonely, angry, anxious, as well as happy. More so, creating my own form allowed me to name my moods myself, trying as best I could to pin point what I felt. I find I’m often “warmed,” which, for me, is like feeling fond and grateful at the same time.

Finally, while I can’t put photos in a google form, i use flickr to have a dedicated app to log places or things that accompany my sightings. And I added moves to help me with location. The idea is to both visually and viscerally capture the effects things, people, places, and conversations have on eliciting my mother’s place in my life.

Have I learned anything? I’m not sure. I know I’ve experienced life and loss differently as a result. I know that I have given myself the time and the space to hold on to a fleeting and biting memory, explore it, cherish it, and then place it away in my growing archive. There has been something therapeutic in that.

The kinds of things I’ve logged have been as silly as a q-tip (providing flashbacks to her clinic) or as serious as a holiday. I’m sure if I had my brother and sister do the same thing, they would have tracked a completely different mom.

The aim is not to capture a true facsimile of her life. It’s almost the opposite. My hope is to track her in relation to me, or perhaps it’s me in relation to her. That is, a self that is porous to others, constituted through others, and essentially vulnerable to the ways that others impress themselves in our lives and minds. Here, the other–my mother–is not a static variable. She still morphs and changes through my recollection and reflection with her. She still has a very real impact on my life. Logging it in this way just brings that very explicitly and directly to the fore.

Following the funeral, so many of our friends came to our side and promised: ‘she will live on in you’. At first it’s not really what you want to hear–it’s just not good enough. What you really want is a time machine.

Wondering how to hold tight to her memory, I would spend time in her basement office, meditating over her huge collection of books, files, multiple white boards and notebooks and calendars, awards, and gifts from patients. I thought–there must be a way to capture it all. she had already left such a profound footprint in the world—between her websites and students and patients. How could we make it last a bit longer?

I would then go to my childhood room and stare at my Herend collection–the tiny lovely animals and boxes that sat, kind of pointlessly there. I had a secret wish that I hadn’t resented these gifts, that I had catalogued each one, as if they were an accession in an archive–which birthday? was it snowing? what was my reaction? But perhaps they have more meaning as a fuzzy aggregate, standing for something she desired—to be remembered, cherished.

But her real legacy is in my daily life–when I have a hard time writing an essay or grant because she was my first and last editor. Or coming across the practice sutures she gifted me to help me become a surgeon. Wherever I go, there she is. On a daily basis she catches me off-guard, popping in and out of my life with little clues and cues. That’s the legacy that matters.


I am at the beginning of this lives-logging project. Its results are largely still unknown. Maybe I will see a trend in affect with location or affect over time. Maybe I will be able to visualize my anger and longing ripen into warmth and gratitude.

Or, perhaps I’m writing the data now but reading them never. But so far, it seems that each writing and logging is a reading and re-reading of sorts, enabling a moment of interpersonal and intergenerational exchange that remains far more fragile, malleable, full of potential and, therefore, more meaningful than the memorabilia on my shelf or the spreadsheet.

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