133. Lessons I’ve Learned About Grief (Tori Story)

January 11, 2024

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TW: This episode discusses themes of depression, suicide, loss.

In this intimate episode, host Tori Dunlap takes to the mic solo to share her deeply personal journey through grief. Straying from the usual financial focus, Tori explores the complex and challenging emotions she faced during a period of loss and transformation in her life, and invites listeners into a raw and honest conversation about the human experience no one can avoid.

“I realized I was so focused on getting to the good parts. So focused on trying to process, so set on moving forward that it, in fact, stalled me and broke me.”

Tori unfolds her story of grappling with a profound loss that occurred in 2020. Without going into detail about the specifics, she shares how the experience impacted her, challenging her sense of self and understanding of the world. Tori addresses the misconception of grieving only in the context of death, emphasizing that grief can manifest in various forms, from the end of relationships to the loss of identity or routine. Throughout the episode, she reveals pivotal lessons and insights gained during her journey through grief, including:

  • The ebbs and flows of the grieving process
  • Distinguishing between performative happiness & actual moments of joy 
  • How grief can show up physically in your body, and more

If you or someone you know is struggling with grief, consider seeking support from friends, family, or mental health professionals.

Journaling prompt

If you are experiencing any form of grief in your life right now, ask yourself the following question — How can I support myself during this time (or in future times of grief)?

Resources mentioned:

Brené Brown and David Kessler on Grief and Finding Meaning 

Heal with Jas – Energy Healer

Suicide and Crisis Lifeline

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Tori Dunlap:

Hi. Hi, team. I am alone in the metaphorical studio today, and we’re going to get a little vulnerable today. We are going to get a little touchy-feely and we’re going to do something that we haven’t done on this show yet, which is go hashtag deep. But yeah, today’s episode is going to be a little bit different. I’m recording this. I don’t even know if we’ll use it, I don’t even know if we’ll actually ever publish it. Kristen, our podcast producer, is out this week. And I just thought I’d hop on the mic and tell you about something that I wrote about a little bit ago, and that I just feel like was really helpful. It was really helpful for me to unpack it. And it’s something that I have dealt with over the past couple of years more seriously in 2020 to 2022, and that completely altered and changed my life in a really soul impacting personality changing, life as I know it is over kind of way. And if you are at that space in your life, well, welcome. Strap in.

I should probably do a nice little trigger warning that we are going to talk about grief today. We are going to talk about loss and depression and suicide. And if that’s not what you’re about, you can skip this one. Don’t you worry. It’ll be here if you’re ready. And also, you never have to listen to it, if you don’t want to.

I first need to start this episode by saying that I am very lucky in the loss apartment. No one significantly close to me in my family has died, knock on wood. So, I am not the grief expert. I am not the, I was going to say, the voice of grief. I am not a psychologist, first of all, and I’m also not someone who has had thankfully, a lot of capital T tragedy in their life.

However, without revealing too much and keeping my privacy and those who were involved, privacy, there it is, I went through something in my life that felt absolutely devastating in 2020, at the end of 2020. And of course, this is on top of a global pandemic and everything else that entailed. But this was a loss that my brain and body did not really know what to do with. I couldn’t understand it, I couldn’t fully compute it, and I did not understand how I was going to move forward. And as someone who is incredibly ambitious, knows who they are, knows what they want, knows generally and trusts the universe generally in the path ahead, this was incredibly, incredibly terrifying for me. For the first time in my life, I was pretty significantly depressed and significantly numb.

October to December of 2020 was probably the worst of it, and I just felt fucking awful. It was just not good. It was not a good time. I wasn’t suicidal, I didn’t want to die, but I also didn’t want to feel anymore. I didn’t want to feel anything anymore. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt this way in your life, but when you are feeling feelings that are so deep and so big and they feel just never ending, you think to yourself, “I don’t know how much more this I can take. I don’t know how much more I have in my tank.” And my superpower is the ability to feel really deeply and really big, and that’s also often my kryptonite.

And I just had gotten to a place that just felt so dark and so numb that I literally remember, and I can read my journal entries about this, I remember not knowing if I would feel joy again. I remember wondering, as a relatively consistently joyful and happy person, I had the thought repeatedly of maybe that’s just over. Gosh, I think back to her and I just want to give her a massive hug ’cause she was not doing well. 2020 Tori was not doing well. Yeah, I just felt like I just haven’t felt happy for so long that maybe I’ll never feel that way again. Maybe this is just the new normal. This is how I’m going to feel all the time.

And it was also terrifying. As someone with control issues, it was terrifying to have this thought that, “Wow, maybe I’m not going to feel happy again. Maybe I’m not going to feel joyful again. Maybe I’ll have a flicker of it, but it won’t sustain itself. It won’t be here for a consistent amount of time.”

And I came to realize that this is what grief is. This is what grief is. It pulls you under, it ebbs and flows, it’s constant. It fully convinces you that this dark place that you found yourself in is just going to be where you live now. And at some point, yeah, I just got tired of feeling. I got tired of feeling, I got tired of just being numb. I got tired of feeling, and so then I was numb, and then I got tired of feeling numb.

Grief in general can take many, many forms. I think we stereotypically believe that grief is for someone dying or something like maybe a pet, but something dying, someone dying, your partner or your friend or a family member or someone in your community. Grief is also a million other things. Right? We grieve the loss of a relationship when it ends, whether that’s a romantic partnership or a friendship. We grieve losing our job, we grieve the loss of an identity. We grieve the loss of a routine or a consistency in that. We grieve for other people when we learn of their tragedies. We grieve opportunities that pass us by. We also can grieve the person that we were or if we thought we were or thought we quote, unquote, should be.

I think in 2020 we were all collectively grieving something, whether that was someone we lost in COVID, whether that was the loss again of our lives and our routines and normalcy. For me, there was a lot of that that was going on. And then on top, this moment in my life where I was grieving so many things, grieving a relationship ending and also grieving the comfortability of what I knew before. Because this had completely rocked my world and changed my life, I did not know the path forward. And that was terrifying and very scary.

And so, I learned a lot about grief in those years. I learned a lot about my feelings and our relationships with grief and pain mentally and how that shows up in our bodies. And I just learned a lot that I wish somebody had told me. Now, I don’t know if I would’ve listened or could have listened. I was just not in the space to do that. But now, as someone who is largely on the other side of it and has spent, oh my God, so much time doing the work to process what happened and to accept and to also look back on that time with a lot of care and affection for myself, I wanted to share with you what I learned.

Hopefully these learnings, in me sharing them with you, I hope that they help you, if you’re currently grieving, whatever gut grief looks like or for whatever you’re grieving. Or maybe this will help you in the future, or help you support somebody else who’s grieving. Grief comes for all of us, so I hope this will be helpful.

Okay, first thing is that it’s going to suck. Yeah, you knew that. You’re like, “Obviously, Tori. I grief is not known for being fun.” But here, stay with me. The biggest mistake that I made when trying to move through grief was, I tried to move through it. The biggest mistake I made when trying to move through grief was trying to move through it. I was processing my feelings and oh boy, were there a lot of feelings. And I was talking to friends and I was taking breaks and I was journaling and I was crying on the bathroom floor. I wasn’t holding it in. No, definitely not. And so, I thought I was grieving correctly. I thought I was grieving the way I should grieve.

And here’s what was actually happening. What was actually happening was, I was so uncomfortable for such a long time and I was so fucking tired of grieving, so fucking tired of being a mess, that I was putting myself on a timeline. I was giving parameters and restrictions and time limits on my grief. And I wrote about it in my journal, and I’m going to read it for you. This is from my journal.

This was probably 10 months after I thought I was over it. Quote, “I’m realizing that I was so focused on getting to the good part, so focused on trying to process, so set on moving forward that it in fact stalled me and broke me. Even though I allowed myself to feel, even though I felt emotional and thought I was giving myself space, I kept the score in the back of my mind. The good part will come, you just got to move forward. It’ll happen. I thought I was processing correctly, but instead I was putting myself on a timeline. I had a goal I was working towards, forcing myself towards instead of just being. I forced myself to play what if, masochistically thinking I had to be okay with the what if in order to heal. I didn’t have the tools, the time, the closure, the comfort in order to handle it. By trying to force myself to be okay instead of getting there naturally, instead of handling the scary and hurtful when it was time and when I was actually ready. I thought I was doing the right thing by muscling through it.

I can’t tell you how comforting it was to tell myself and to also hear people in my life tell me, ‘This takes as long as this takes. This takes as long as this takes.’ I had convinced myself, ‘Okay, when this happens, that’s when everything’s fine again. Oh, when you go three days without crying, when you go three days, 10 days without thinking about it, you’ll be fine. And then you get to bring this person back into your life or you get to have your old life back and everything’s going to be fine.'”

Yeah, I put myself on a timeline and then I also was masochistically forcing myself to picture the thing I did not want to happen in order for me, this was the logic, in order for me to shore myself up to handle it. I thought, “Oh, if I picture the thing I don’t want to happen, and I picture it over and over and over again, then I’ll be tough enough to handle it. And it’ll be like exposure therapy and I’ll just get over it, and then I’ll be fine.” I just want to give her so much love and then also shake her and just be like, “That doesn’t work. 2020, Tori, that doesn’t work. That just makes you feel awful.” Right?

It’s like touching a stove and keeping your hand on it for as long as possible and thinking, “Well, if I just burn myself over and over and over and over again, the callous will form and then I won’t feel it.” Nah, nah. That’s not how this goes. Not with grief, at least not for me. That’s not how that goes. It was just torture. I was just masochistically torturing myself because I thought, “You have to face it and you have to think about what could happen. And then when you finally get to the point, the 700th time when you’ve thought about it and you can handle it, cool. That means your grieving’s over.” No, not a thing.

So, this takes as long as this takes. Don’t try to move through your grief. Your grief will move through you. You will get to the quote, unquote, other side, but you won’t get there by forcing yourself to get there. And you won’t get there by thinking, “Yeah, I’m not forcing myself to get there, but I am going to put timelines and restrictions and parameters around all of this.” It’s going to take as long as it’s going to take. And you sitting in the middle of the storm calmly and allowing it to wash over you, is going to be a lot better than trying to open an umbrella and having it flip on you over and over and over again.

My second thing I want to tell you is that grief comes and goes. You probably know this, but it’s really important to remind yourself of, because some days you’re going to feel completely fine. Some days you’re going to feel maybe even great. And then maybe you feel guilty for feeling fine, but that’s a whole other thing. Sometimes you’re going to have a great day or a great hour or a great week even. And then other times are going to feel as painful as open heart surgery without medication. And that sounds dramatic, but grief fucking feels that way sometimes.

Grief also slows the passage of time. Suddenly your hours are days and your days are weeks and your weeks are months and your months are years. I look back again, especially during that 2020 time, oh my God, November of 2020 was an entire year. You can’t convince me I didn’t live an entire year in that one month. I don’t know if my life has ever moved that slowly, or at least how it felt to me. With this grief slowing the passage of time, your feelings and your mindset can also literally change minute to minute. Again, you can be fine one moment and then devastated the next.

And then it makes you feel fucking insane because you were ying yanging all the time. You feel crazy, you feel insane because you’re just like, “I was fine before, and what set me off?” And then you have this whole spiral of like, “Oh, that thing set me off. Okay, why did it set me off?” And then it’s just terrible. But you have to know that this is totally normal. Grief coming and going is totally normal. It is totally, totally normal to have moments where you’re fine, and please don’t feel guilty for those. And it’s also totally normal to have moments or seasons or weeks or years, even way after the thing has happened where you don’t feel fine. And that’s okay. That’s normal.

Number three is going to be a short one. However you grieve is acceptable, unless you’re harming yourself or somebody else. But however you end up grieving is acceptable. It’ll probably be messy. I would argue you’re probably not doing grief correctly if it’s not messy. But also no judgment, right? There’s no judgment about it. However you grieve is acceptable. However you grieve is acceptable.

Let’s talk about number four. This one, your grief is going to manifest physically. After, oh gosh, about two years after I went through my shit, I went to see a massage therapist. And she was kneading out my knots and we were breathing in sync, which was so cool. If you get a massage therapist that’s also good with breath work and understands that, you end up becoming almost one person, and that’s just cool. But when she got to the top of my left arm, she could tell I was in pain. There was literally for me, like a tingly sensation shooting up and down my arm. And she stopped massaging me and she turned to me and she goes, “You don’t have to tell me specifics, but are you grieving something?” And I immediately started crying and I was like, “Lord, don’t I know it?” Like, “Okay, yes I am. You got it.”

And I asked her how she knew, and she said that this right here on the top of your left arm, is the acupuncture point for grief. This is one of the places that grief is held in your body. Your body keeps score. It keeps track of everything. And it holds onto it, and sometimes for years, it’ll hold onto it. You will gain or lose weight. Certain foods are going to start fucking with your stomach in a way that maybe they didn’t before. Your muscles are going to tense up. You might feel completely exhausted just walking from your couch to the kitchen. Your body knows, and grief will manifest itself physically. It’ll show up in ways that you didn’t expect. Your body knows. It knows you are struggling, and it’s doing everything it possibly can to support you. It’s doing everything it possibly can to keep you alive. And that’s a really fucking incredible thing.

But it’s important that we remember that this is not just a game of mental gymnastics that we’re playing, but also that this grief will manifest. For me, it manifested as a lot of pain in my body that I still have, back pain, shoulder, neck pain, arm pain. It manifested as me gaining weight. Gained a significant amount of weight in a short period of time, literally that November, December 2020. And as much grace as you can give yourself and give your body, your body’s doing the best it can. It’s a fucking amazing thing it’s doing, which is literally keeping you alive.

Oh, number five, performing happiness. After months and months of so much shit, I then found myself questioning the moments when I was happy. Can you tell I’m an overthinker? I can fucking tell I’m an overthinker. I then started asking myself, “Are you actually happy or you just performing happiness? Are you trying to perform that you’re joyful in order to make yourself feel better, and in order to get back to normalcy?” Was I smiling and laughing in the hopes that maybe it would turn to real joy? You know that game where you fake laugh with your friends, and then they start laughing and it makes you laugh and then you can’t stop? I didn’t know whether I was actually fine and actually felt happy, because I hadn’t been for so long. Or was I trying to fake laugh my way into actual laughter? Was I trying to fake happy my way into real happiness?

And it was the craziest thing, and it caused me to question myself, and then the authenticity of my own emotions for the first time. I had never really questioned whether my own emotions that I was feeling, question if those were authentic or not, question if those were true to how I was actually feeling or not. I almost felt betrayed by my own emotions. And then I was like, “Well, if I can’t fucking trust my own emotions and trust myself, then what the fuck do I have?”

And at the end of the day, I just needed to stop fucking analyzing it, ’cause that was not helpful. I needed to stop trying to figure out, was I happy or was I fake happy? At that point, it did not matter. I just needed to get the fuck out of my own head. And just like if it was fake happiness for that time, like great, fine. That’s fine. Better than either nothing and numb or not feeling happy. And basically because again, control issues and overthinking, I was driving myself crazy trying to figure it out, when it didn’t need to be figured out. Again, it just needed to exist for what it was.

Oh, this one’s probably going to make me cry. We’re going to see if we can get through this one. So when I was on Friend Moon 2020, which if you’re new to the show, is a honeymoon style trip that my best friend Christine and I take every year. Because it was still COVID, of course, we had canceled our international trip and we were going on a national park road trip.

And when I was driving through Montana with Christine, I had this realization. It was our first day into the trip and I was about eight hours into driving. I was the person on driving duty that day. And it was right about 5, 5:30, it was in October. I’m actually recording this probably very close to the exact day it happened a couple of years ago. And the sun was setting and I was driving along this river. And we were the only car for miles. We haven’t seen anybody in a long time. And the sun, the rays were bouncing off the river and we had this music on that I’ve always loved. And it was just absolutely gorgeous.

And I just had this realization. It just hit me out of nowhere. That feeling of euphoric joy, I’m talking like capital J Joy, that I had felt so many times driving at 2:00 AM with friends in college, staring at a gorgeous sunset, telling the person that I’m dating that I love them for the first time, and my heart’s hammering in my chest. The times where you feel fully, completely alive and just like you’re on top of the world and just main character moment. And you just feel so beautifully, deeply, completely alive. This pain that I was feeling was the same confirmation. This pain I was feeling was the same confirmation that I was deeply, fully, completely alive.

The fact that I could feel this deeply, the fact that I had loved someone so deeply, and that it hadn’t gone the way I hoped and that I was in so much pain, meant that I was beautifully human. It meant that I was beautifully human and I was getting the full fucking human experience. Even if it was so shitty and I was not happy it was happening, I was beautifully alive. I was beautifully, beautifully alive. If I could feel this deeply, if I could care this much, if I could have this seemingly unfathomably, you get what I’m trying to say, deep hole inside my chest where all of my feelings were, and if I was in this much pain and I felt this because I cared that much, that is confirmation that I’m alive. And that I’m doing this whole human thing correctly.

To feel deeply and boldly and truthfully and unabashedly is to be human. That’s why we’re all here. And all of those moments of euphoric joy I had felt in my life were bringing me to the same conclusion that all of these moments of deep, deep pain and sorrow and grief were bringing me to as well.

Grief is hard. There’s no other way around. Grief is hard, grief is so fucking hard. And it will continue to be hard, and that’s okay. I need you to offer yourself so much grace and understanding. And without trying to muscle through it, I also need you to know, just like everybody’s told you, it will get better. And you’re in it and you don’t think it’s ever going to get better. You’re like, “That’s what you’re just telling me to make me feel better right now.” But it does. It gets better. If you let time do what it’s supposed to do and you release that need for control and that need to make sense of and that need to determine your own outcome, it’s going to get better. I promise you it will. I promise you it will.

You lost something important to you, that was deeply, deeply important to you. Of course, you’re upset. Again, it means that you’re alive. It means that you’re human, it means that you have the ability to care and to feel, and to want the best for yourself and for others. And it means that you’re just so full of love. It means that you’re so incredibly human.

I would love to give you some resources that helped me. I would not have processed what happened and the loss of that part of my life as fully as I did. I would not have learned as much about myself and my body and my emotions, if I hadn’t worked with an energy coach. Her name is Jazz. She truly impacted my life. Oop, Jazz might go by they, them pronouns now. We can keep this in. Jazz, if I miss pronouns, you, I’m sorry. So I’m going to be safe and say they. Jazz completely changed my life. I cannot recommend them enough. We will put a link down in the show notes if you’re interested in their work.

An episode of Brené Brown’s podcast about grief was incredibly helpful for me. Brené Brown is my queen. She’s fantastic. Brené, please come on the show. We’ll link that below as well.

And finally, from my all time favorite movie, Call Me by Your Name, the monologue at the end. I’m not going to spoil it for you if you have not seen it. I kept this monologue like an oath. And if you have not watched the whole movie, please do not watch the monologue without watching the whole movie. It will mean so much more and you’ll understand it so much better. And it will hit you in a good way so much deeper, if you have seen the entire movie. It is an Oscar award-winning movie. I highly recommend it. And yes, of course it has Timothy Chalamet.

If you’re willing, I would love to assign you a journaling prompt. You might know me, you might know that I’m a big journaler. I need you to journal about the following, how can I support myself during this time or during future times of grief? How can I support myself during this time of grief? That’s all I’m asking you to do, is just ask yourself how you can show up for yourself today.

Team, I don’t really know how to end this episode, but I hope it felt like a warm hug and a chocolate chip cookie all tied up together. And this is obviously different than our normal content, and if you loved it, I would love to hear from you. If it made an impact, I would love to hear from you. And if you’d like me to do more of this, please tell me.

This is more vulnerable, I think, than I’ve been on any of our platforms, and I hope that you can respect and honor and hold space for that vulnerability. And I also trust that we can be there in this virtual way to support one another. Know that I am virtually giving you, again, the biggest hug, the biggest chocolate chip cookie all rolled up into one. And I hope whatever you’re going through, please know that I see you. And I just want you to really, really shore yourself up and give yourself all of the love and the credit and the grace that you deserve. Thanks. Thanks for being here.

Tori Dunlap

Tori Dunlap is an internationally-recognized money and career expert. After saving $100,000 at age 25, Tori quit her corporate job in marketing and founded Her First $100K to fight financial inequality by giving women actionable resources to better their money. She has helped over one million women negotiate salary, pay off debt, build savings, and invest.

Tori’s work has been featured on Good Morning America, the New York Times, BBC, TIME, PEOPLE, CNN, New York Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, BuzzFeed, and more.

With a dedicated following of almost 250,000 on Instagram and more than 1.6 million on TikTok —and multiple instances of her story going viral—Tori’s unique take on financial advice has made her the go-to voice for ambitious millennial women. CNBC called Tori “the voice of financial confidence for women.”

An honors graduate of the University of Portland, Tori currently lives in Seattle, where she enjoys eating fried chicken, going to barre classes, and attempting to naturally work John Mulaney bits into conversation.

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