On Grief, Inside Out, and Resiliency

June, 2019

The past three years, eventful with loss and change, have led me to see connections between the movie “Inside Out”, grief, OODA loops, mindfulness, system and psychological resiliency. Apologies in advance for this essay, it’s a poor attempt at outlining these connections.

Have you seen “Inside Out”? It’s a fun movie, and has something to say about resiliency. In the movie, Riley, for all appearances a healthy, happy 11 year old, experiences a disruptive change due to their family’s move to a new home. Understandably, the stress of the move causes conflict among Riley’s emotions. Her family inadvertently makes matters worst by invalidating those emotions. In one case her mom tells her to fake how she feels for her father’s sake. As a consequence, Joy and Sadness are lost in the recesses of Riley’s mind, leaving behind only Anger, Fear and Disgust to navigate the world. Riley runs away, almost leaving on a bus, to what would have likely been disastrous consequences.

Only by regaining access to the fullness of her emotions, her Sadness most importantly, is she able to be resilient and adapt to the change she’s going thru. This happens almost entirely within her heart and mind, and just in the nick of time.

Resiliency is an interesting property of both systems and people, and there are many definitions, specific to the context they are used in, see related links below. I am going to use a rather abstract definition, apologies again:

Resiliency is the ability to adapt to disruptive change, retain what is essential, and move forward.

Many have said the loss a loved one, sudden or not, is like a punch in the gut. Your body takes the blow, absorbs the shock, and instinctively prepares for the next immediate hit. You bend over, protecting your soft parts. Your breathing tightens. Your vision narrows, making things more black and white, more sharp. There’s a cost to staying this hyper vigilant though, a physical and mental toll that takes resources from you. To maybe go on the offensive, to learn, or make a change, you will need to allow yourself some vulnerability once again; to observe things clearly, to make decisions, and to act, instead of merely reacting.

United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd coined a term for this, calling it the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act). It describes the cycle you go thru to survive uncertainty in a changing environment. In order to be resilient and adapt, a crucial need is to be able to interpret your predicament, the more clearly, the better: observation. In order to adapt to change, you need to be mindful of it, to be able observe it.

OODA Loop

The sudden loss of a loved one, and its response, is like this. And yes, you do eventually learn to open up once again, arms falling at your sides. Making vulnerable the soft parts. Allowing Sadness and Joy their roles. Incorporating the joy of the person you loved into your memories. And recognizing the sadness of the loss. Otherwise, you grow unhealthy, physically and mentally. Eventually losing the ability to see clearly, no longer being able to move forward.

Moving forward doesn’t mean “snapping back”. I’ve chosen that phrase purposely. Our relationships change us. Their absence changes us. How that change carries in us, and how we are able to interpret it, makes a difference. There isn’t a “snapping back” to a previous state. That isn’t possible. But there is a going forward.

So, imagine if you were Riley, and you got off the bus, and on the way home got a text message that your aunt died (this movie just got _grimdark_). Maybe you still made it home, but then a then couple weeks later, another close aunt passes away. Then a month later, a neighbor. Then a grandfather, and then…did your eyes just blur over then? Me too.

Throw into the mix a lack of people in your life to share your grief with, like Riley, an only child, whose family, rather than meeting you where you are, and sitting in the pain with you, instead attempt to fix things, or deny the reality of things, because they too, are hurting from _their_ grief.

Well, to spell it out, our family has had a run of “Inside Out” events, one or more occurring every few months, for a stretch of three years, starting with Shell’s sister Rose passing away, and just a short while ago, my brother Al doing the same. In between there have been family members who have moved away, and we have moved to a new home. Counting upon your perspective, two uncles, two aunts, a mother, a father, a daughter, a husband, two grandfathers, and two siblings have passed away. It just sounds so unreal cataloging it, all this loss to navigate, and adapt to, during three short years.

The following is a list of pithy practices, that may not apply to anyone, that we’ve been learning how to do, more or less, in our home:

  • Keep faith, have hope, and practice love and kindness for others and yourself (Inspirations: 1 Corinthians 13 and Mr. Rogers)
  • Eat right, sleep right, and stay active
  • Practice mindfulness:
    • Listen to ourselves, uncritically, and to each other – don’t invalidate feelings. Banish shame
  • Seek out help (therapists, doctors, support groups, books, music, and friendship).
  • Drink water.
  • Express gratitude, often.
  • Laugh.
  • And take it a day at a time.

It goes without saying, most days we slip on a few of these. Some days, many of them. And if we were dealing with greater financial or health struggles, it would be all the more difficult. I believe these are skills, which we’re still learning (especially me), and they help keep our own internal OODA loops from breaking down *too* far. Everyone is hard on themselves. We can’t control the cards we are dealt. So I pray to get better every day, and that that the cards are favorable for a bit for all my loved ones.

Hopefully writing this doesn’t tempt fate.

I was originally going to translate those 10 or so pithy practices to software engineering. There are easy analogs, for example, how we instrument our systems to build in observability, how we discuss issues in blameless post-mortems, how we look for fast feedback after changes, WIP limits and more, but I have to admit, I’m emotionally exhausted writing so far, and will have to come back to it someday.

I’m thankful for the health I have, the work I have, and the people I work with. The therapists we’ve engaged with. All the friends and family who have reached out, given unexpected hugs, or a kind word. All these are privileges, without which any lessons offered probably has no weight at all. And most especially Richelle, my partner day by day, who keeps us in the here and now, and the tomorrow, in faith, hope and love.

Here’s to today, and to tomorrow.

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