Leaning into Grief
mood & emotion
Dana Greenfield's mom was a surgeon, professor, researcher, entrepreneur, blogger, tennis player, and a mentor to many medical students. Unexpectedly, she passed away in February, 2014. To help her process her mother's death, Dana began tracking every time she thought of her mother by writing down what triggered the memory, the mood it inspired, etc. Watch Dana's talk as she shares her experiences of using self-tracking to better understand her own grief and the role her mother continues to play in her life.
750 Words Journal | google forms | Journal
So, 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 have something to remember me by, she would say rather darkly.
She somehow knew she would die before she was 65, and she lived pretty intensely as a result. The gifts were sort of light-hearted, but also pointed to her deep discomfort of her legacy.
I would have teenage quarrels about them, they made me quite angry that they were affected mentality, a false set of memories; some things you just can’t force by she tried. These morbid gifts stayed for the last of her role in my life, and more for her anxieties about around mortality, remembrance, and being a good enough mother.
But her fears didn’t paralyze her, rather than she lived more in a day than most people did in a week. She was a surgeon, a professor, research, an entrepreneur, a blogger, a tennis player, and a mentor or too many, including me; a medical student myself.
In September, fit and healthy and with so much left to offer, she mysteriously fell down some stairs which resulted in a major head trauma. After six months in hospital. Her coma was upgraded to a persistent agitated state. She would never wake up. Now a strong body divorced from this once formidable mind.
She ultimately passed 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 experiences I was having with this acute loss would change evolve, deepen, or even disappear, and certainly many of them have.
Like when I would reach out to call her, or an article that I read, or a lecture that I heard, or even just a movie I went to see, it would take me a beat to remember that she didn’t exist. And the world would just implode for a moment.
I wanted to track how I felt, perhaps that I desperately hoped it would change, that I could watch myself crawl out of the anxiety and despair of those first months that began in the intensive carrying it. But I also wanted to computize this legacy in my life.
Along with those wincing moments where the absence was really acutely felt, I wanted to watch those crushing moments may be softened to something more pleasant, and more fond memories.
So what did I do? For a while I kept a journal. I was using 750 words, because it was digital and I could also use the metadata function to track things like anxiety, what memories of place.
And I dabbled with a couple of mood tracking apps really quickly, but they just didn’t quite fit. Mood tracking seems to assume that you want to track with the sadness, but grief is not pathological; it’s just hard.
A journal is helpful and I still use it, I still use 750 words, but it required setting aside the time of day. It didn’t help me catch the kinds of ephemeral moments that I encountered in the context of my life.
Then I had a bit of a breakthrough. A really simple one. At one of the QS meetings, 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. And just by creating a link to a custom-made Google form on my home screen, I could make my own app, a dedicated place to go to log my experiences of memory and loss. This
So, mobilizing my project enabled me to track these experiences as I met them, pausing for just a moment for each one. I called it leaning into grief because instead of compartmentalizing it, which I think society often expects us to do. I was living through the experience of loss, giving it more space to work itself out in my life.
So I keep editing the form as I go and but right now has four simple questions. The first I call mom sightings, which I can choose what kind of encounter I had. Was it a sound, memory, a topic of conversation?
The second I have a comments box. Here I thought I would assume that I would just write one or two words to mark the event, like I got a new bicycle, but that text box became a really important invitation to pause, reflect and go deeper. So I ended up micro-journaling for just a few sentences. So now, not only marking the immediate impression of the moment, but I found myself exploring it further. Flushing out the imagery events, and reminding myself of more of the past that seemed hidden.
Third, I marked the location; where was I. Was out at home, in transit, in a cafe. And lastly, I chose the mood or effect.
Importantly, I structured the form to allow me to choose more than one at a time. Grief is perhaps a human emotion. It’s strange and special and you can experience in multiple and seemingly incongruent emotions at the same time. So I’m often nostalgic, sad, lonely, anxious, as well as happy and proud.
More so, creating my own form allowed me to name my moods opposed to an app naming them for me. And trying as best as I could to pinpoint what I felt. So I find that I’m often what I call warmed, which for me is like feeling fond and grateful at the same time.
Lastly, I can’t put photos in the Google form I used Flickr to have a dedicated space to log the place of my things to accompany my sightings. And I added moods to help me with location.
So the idea is to both visually and really capture the effect of the things, people, and places have and my mother’s current place in my life.
So what have I learned? I know experiencing life and loss differently as a result. I know that I have given myself the time and the space to hold onto fleeting or biting memory. Explore it, cherish it, and then put it away in my growing archive.
There has been some therapeutic and valuable in that, and the kinds of things that I have logged has been a silly as a Q-Tip that give me flashbacks to her clinic, or a series of a holiday. I’m sure if I had my brother and sister do the same thing, they would have tracked a completely different person.
And the aim is not to capture a true facsimile of her life; it’s really the opposite. My hope is to track her in relation to me. Or perhaps it’s me in relation to her that is as selfless to others, constitute through others, and essentially vulnerable to the ways that others impress themselves in our lives.
Here, the other mother is not static. She still morphs and changes through my recollection and reflection with her. She still has a very real impact on my life, logging this way just brings that explicitly and directly to the fore.
From the funeral so many of our friends came to us and say, she lives on in you and it’s true, or she will live on in you, but it’s not what you want to hear is just not good enough at all. We want a time machine.
So wondering how to hold tight to their memory just after the funeral wandering around my home, my childhood home, I would spend time in her basement office meditating over her huge selection of books, files, and multiple white board, notebooks, and calendars and awards and gifts from patients. And I thought there must be a way to capture this.
She had already left such a profound footprint on the world between her websites, students, and patients. How to make it last just a little bit longer.
I would then go to my childhood room and the tiny lovely animals in boxes that sat kind of pointlessly there on the shelf and I had a secret resentment of how I hated these gifts, that I catalogued each one in succession and archived. Which birthday? Was it snowing? What was my reaction? But perhaps they have more meaning as this fuzzy aggregate standing for something she desired, to be remembered, to be cherished.
But her real legacy is in my daily life. When I have a hard time writing an essay, or coming across the practice that she gave me to help me become a surgeon; wherever I go there she is. On a daily basis she captures me off guard, popping in and out of my life; that’s the legacy that matters.
So I am at the beginning of this life logging project. She passed in February, and I thought of doing this since September and I’ve done it for a few months now, and as a result, there is still largely unknown, and maybe I will see a trend and effect of location or effect over time. Maybe I will be able to visualize my anger and longing and write than in warmth and gratitude or perhaps I am writing the data now, but reading them never. But so far it seems that each writing and logging is a reading and a rereading, enabling for just a moment of interpersonal and intergenerational exchange that to me remains far more fragile, malleable, and full of potential therefore meaningful than the memorabilia on the shelf or in the spreadsheet.