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Interview with Megan Devine, Founder of Refuge in Grief

During some of the lowest points of grappling with my own personal loss, I was fortunate enough to discover the website Refuge in Grief, created by psychotherapist, writer, teacher, speaker, and grief-ally, Megan Devine.

A tremendous resource, Refuge in Grief is a website dedicated to providing grief support without attempting to rationalize away or prescribe solutions for any of the myriad ups and downs that accompany this very personal experience. Instead, the website aims to create a safe space for those who are feeling misunderstood and isolated by the profundity of their loss in a culture that believes grief is something that one can simply “get over”. In many ways, Megan is revolutionizing the ways in which our society understands and supports grief.

Refuge in Grief is home to Megan’s audio-book “When Everything is Not Okay” and a blog of Megan’s poignant and thoughtful writing about her own experiences with loss. She also offers Personal Grief Support via phone, and has created a 30-day Write Your Grief course which connects participants to an online community who share and bear witness to each other’s pain. Finding others who have experienced loss goes a long way towards validating what is often a very isolating aspect of the human condition.

I had a chance to ask Megan a few questions this week about the creation of Refuge in Grief as well as the ways in which she prioritizes self-care and wellness in order to be able to replenish her deep well of compassion.

Can you speak a bit about your career prior to creating Refuge In Grief?  

In my life before becoming widowed, I was a psychotherapist in private practice. I was slowly removing myself from that work – I was tired of sitting inside, listening all day. I wanted to be outside more. I wanted more time writing and creating. In the days before Matt died, I told him, “I don’t want to be in the pain business anymore.”

How did the creation of Refuge in Grief come about, and what were the biggest challenges that presented themselves with the creation of the website and all that you now offer?

When Matt died, people in my life kept insisting that I would turn this experience around and become an even better therapist. I found this entirely offensive: as though his death were fair trade for anything I might create. I spent the first three years after he died working on farms. I trained as a cheesemaker. I didn’t want to be a therapist. But I have a very strong sense of responsibility; I couldn’t stay away. The state of grief support, especially back then, was horrible. There was very little out there that even acknowledged that people can be widowed under age 65, and what was available was largely pathology-oriented – meaning “grief is a problem, you have to get out of it as soon as possible and move on with your life.” I couldn’t stand the thought of people entering the grief world after me finding the wasteland I’d found. I couldn’t let others feel as alone and unheard as I did in those early days.

I’m still finding ways to support grieving people. The Writing Your Grief course is great – it connects so many people who have felt alone inside their pain. Creating that community is one of the best things I’ve done. Working with people one to one is another part of my work – we really dive into finding the person’s truth, validate what’s actually going on, and create a roadmap for moving through their grief with love and intention.

The challenges are always around how to reach more people, how to expand this model of companioning grief, rather than “fixing” grief. I can be far more effective when I speak to many people at once – through books, guest posts, podcasts, and speaking tours – than I can working one to one. There aren’t many models for doing this kind of work. I’ve been largely making it up as I go along. It’s exciting, and interesting, and often very difficult. It can also be a little lonely, professionally. There are very few professional colleagues working in similar ways, with similar thoughts on grief. My small band of colleagues is fantastic. There just needs to be more time for collaboration, more time to come up with really creative ways to change the emotional culture around grief and love. Emotional literacy is a big undertaking. We need more people working towards that goal.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your career?

Hearing people say, “finally someone understands what this is really like.” Grief is such an isolating experience. Helping grieving people find connection and community inside their grief is my favorite part of this work. Helping people learn to trust themselves – trust their own hearts, trust their grief, their own sense of timing – that’s also really rewarding. There’s so much outside judgment in grief. Finding your own truth, leaning into your own truth – that’s how we survive the unsurvivable.

Is there anything about your line of work that is frustrating or disheartening?

Sure. Lots. I spend a lot of my time listening to things most people don’t want to talk about. I know far more than the average person about accidents, child death, random and sudden illnesses, and natural disasters. It’s disheartening to see so many people focused on unimportant or unfulfilling things when I know how short life can be. It’s frustrating to see myself focus on unimportant things when I know how quickly this life can change.

Are there any common misconceptions about your job or line of work in general? How do you address those misconceptions?

Well, two things. One is grief-specific: there’s an idea that the goal of grief work is to get rid of grief. That’s an outdated and seriously unhelpful model. A very large part of my work is changing how we understand the work of grief. It’s not a problem to be solved, it’s an experience to be supported. There’s a huge difference between the two.

The second misconception is business related. There’s a cultural misconception that support services should be free. That’s ridiculous. I don’t “make money off of death” any more than a doctor or rescue worker makes money off of death. My work supports people in pain. My time, my knowledge, and my experience are all valuable.

What is one piece of advice you’d give to any young woman looking to follow in your footsteps?

Hmm. In general, I’d say especially in these emotionally intense lines of work, be really clear about your boundaries. There’s a never-ending stream of people who need help, love, support. It’s easy to get burned out, working 20 hours a day, seven days a week. You can’t sustain that kind of business model. Your life outside of work allows you to do your work; it has to come first. Be fierce about protecting your start and end work-times. This is a beautiful, meaningful career – and it’s not meant to be your whole life.

In what ways do you make sure you prioritize taking the time to care for yourself while you are helping so many others?

I have a huge capacity for witnessing pain in others. I thought it was endless. It’s not. I learned this the hard way. I am much more strict with my professional boundaries now. I don’t answer emails immediately, and I don’t read emails on weekends. I don’t spend as much time on social media. I try to stay off the computer altogether in the morning hours so I can focus on writing. It’s a work in progress, but I’m getting better at actually stopping my work day before dinner, not poking around here and there all evening. I take frequent bike-breaks. I’m actively building more play into my life – with so much of my time focused on heartbreak and loss, I need to fill my joy-tanks on a regular basis.

What motivates you most in your day to day life?

Honestly, freedom. The more efficient I become in my work, the more personal freedom I have to write, connect, and play. The more efficient I am, the more service and support I’m able to offer my readers and students. I am far more useful when I use my time well. It’s a win-win: being efficient creates better support for my audience, and more personal freedom for me.

If you are searching for support for your loss or if you are committed to finding productive ways to support someone you know who may be navigating the unpredictability of the grieving process, check out Refuge in Grief.

You can also follow Megan on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and read some of her awesome writing featured in The Huffington Post.

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