I read an article about a grief support group being held in an all boys high school. At a time of life when their greatest worry should be acne, girlfriends and homework, these boys all were struggling with the death of a parent. The very people we take for granted will be there for us when we get home from school or across the dinner table at night, had tragically left this world too soon. These young men who had to hold it together all day, were able to be vulnerable and show their sorrow, their fears and their anger at what had happened to them in their life. Instead of turning to alcohol, drugs or other unhealthy crutches to handle the pain, they turned to one another. Teachers would come each month to the group and share their own stories of loss. Many of their stories mirrored what their students were dealing with, and the students saw their teachers as vulnerable – parentless children now grown up. They saw them as human beings with wounded hearts like their own. Over pizza and chocolate chip cookies, these young men journeyed together through their grief. Over shared understanding of pain, they healed. They also were challenged to do one thing every day: use three cents.
Three pennies was the cost of this valuable lesson and it is one we can all incorporate into our own lives. The boys were instructed to take three pennies and put them in their pocket. Throughout the day they were challenged to make a difference to someone, to help another person in some way. Each time they completed an act of kindness, they were to move one penny to their other pocket. The goal was to have all three cents safely harbored in the opposite pocket by the end of the day. The next morning, the challenge began all over again.
Transforming pain into purpose. Grief can be isolating; how we are feeling is not easily understood by others. By reaching out of our own pain, we connect with other people and begin to heal. The loss becomes a little more bearable when the experience of grief transforms into a way to reach out to others with a new understanding, a more compassionate outlook and a desire to help another person in some small way.
Life is about balance and being a good “receiver” is just as important as being a good “giver.” Throw out the old adage, "‘tis better to give than to receive." You must do both. How good are you at receiving? Can you ask for help when you need it? Many people struggle with asking for help and labor through a hard task alone rather than reach out for assistance – not unlike a two-year-old in the “me do myself” stage.
Why ask for help? Here's one reason that may surprise you: research has shown that when a person receives a kindness, their serotonin levels rise, making them feel good. Meanwhile, the person who offers the kindness also experiences a rise in serotonin. There is even evidence that anyone who witnesses that act of kindness also has an upswing in their serotonin levels. Furthermore, the people receiving or witnessing a kindness are more likely to offer one to someone else that day – it's “pay it forward” in action with one small act of kindness creating a ripple effect. In a sense, if you don’t allow someone to help you, you are depriving so many – yourself and others – of the benefits of the kind action. For this chain reaction to begin, you must give and take, offer and receive.
So use three pennies to measure your acts of kindness and another set of three to mark the times you allow someone to help you. From pocket to pocket, person to person, the pennies are touchstones to remind us that our lives are enriched when we make “cents” out of each day.
Nancy Weil is a leading authority on humor and grief. She serves as Director of Grief Support for eleven cemeteries and is a Certified Funeral Celebrant and Grief Management Specialist. Through her company, The Laugh Academy, she offers products to ease the stress and pain that grief can bring. Bandages for Your Heart on DVD or CD, Laugh for the Health of It on CD and her new book, If Stress Doesn’t Kill You, Your Family Might, can be ordered by clicking here.
Image via Flickr Creative Commons / agahran