No matter the circumstances when someone dies, we tend to haul out the same old clichés. Part of it is probably our fear of hurting someone by saying “the wrong thing.” Part of it is that we are so overwhelmed by emotions that we don’t know what we really think. But a good part of it is also our general discomfort with grief.
For most of us, the raw reality of losing someone (or seeing someone else suffer such a loss) is too much for us to address honestly and fully. It demands vulnerability – the admission of weakness, dependence, and the fear that we’ve come to the end of our rope – and because of this we try to brush it off, or skirt it by means of pat phrases. And when that doesn’t work we treat it like a speed bump: slowing down because we have to, but then hurrying on as quickly as possible.
Sometimes we do this for ourselves, in the hope that if we can pick ourselves up again and “move on,” we can limit our pain. Sometimes, worried what others will think about us if we don’t pull ourselves together soon, we mask our pain by bottling it up silently.
Common as it is to try to deal with grief in this way, it does not work. Hide it, talk around it, postpone it, pretend it isn’t there – in the long run, grief will never go away until it is met head on and allowed to run its course. Given the unique circumstances that shape every loss, the time this takes will vary with every person. Tragically, time isn’t always granted, as Gina, a young woman I know, found out.
When Tom, Gina’s sixteen-year-old brother, died of an overdose several years ago, she was devastated. “In a way, I’m still not through dealing with it,” she says. Friends and acquaintances were sympathetic at first, but after a while they grew tired of her inability to “move on” and made her feel guilty that she was still struggling:
I tried to explain, but they never really understood me. It seemed like they expected my life to be “normal” again. I often went through times of sadness, bitterness, and other painful emotions, but people were uncomfortable with this. I was so alone.
Six months after Tom’s death, a good friend of his died. I felt so much pain. But when I told one of my friends how I was feeling, he said he was worried for me. He thought I should have been over “all of that” by now – which pressured me to feel the same.
I feel like I mourned my brother and his friend in isolation and confusion. I tried to gain meaning from their deaths, but it was very hard. Everyone just kept talking about how they shouldn’t have died.
In Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a book of interviews on death and dying, author Studs Terkel recounts a conversation he had with Myra, a woman who experienced the same lack of empathy after her mother’s death. She felt she had a right to grieve, but that other people’s expectations kept taking it away from her. Saying she felt “disenfranchised,” Myra explained:
It means you’re not supposed to feel grief, and not supposed to show it. I was in my late fifties when my mother died. She was eighty-one. People came up with the usual platitudes. “After all, she lived a good life.” “You shouldn’t feel so full of grief.” But that’s bullshit. That’s why we can’t handle death very well. We want a sort of drive-by grieving. Nobody wants you to carry on about it. They want you to deposit it like you do in a bank.
No wonder so many people feel they need to get over their grief quickly – and nobly to boot. Most will find this impossible to do; and in my experience, even those who succeed in hardening themselves so as to emerge intact will find out sooner or later that they cannot truly heal without allowing themselves time to grieve. After all, grief is the innate urge to go on loving someone who is no longer there, and to be loved back. And insofar as we hold ourselves back (or allow someone else to hold us back) from bringing this urge to expression, we will remain frustrated, and we will never heal. In other words, grief is the soul’s natural response to loss, and should not be repressed. Writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh, whose son was kidnapped and killed when he was a baby, advises:
One must grieve, and one must go through periods of numbness that are harder to bear than grief. One must refuse the easy escapes offered by habit and human tradition. The first and most common offerings of family and friends are always distractions (“Take her out” – “Get her away” – “Change the scene” – “Bring in people to cheer her up” – “Don’t let her sit and mourn”) when it is mourning one needs.
Courage is a first step, but simply to bear the blow bravely is not enough. Stoicism is courageous, but it is only a halfway house on the long road. It is a shield, permissible for a short time only. In the end one has to discard shields and remain open and vulnerable. Otherwise, scar tissue will seal off the wound and no growth will follow.
It may sound cruel to advise a grieving person, as Lindbergh does, to remain open to further pain. After all, most of us instinctively protect ourselves, once wounded, by retreating from the fray. And it isn’t easy to resist that temptation. Yet I have seen that when a person willingly submits to grief, it may act as a crucible that transforms. There is a catch, of course: the need for humility. Accepted only grudgingly, grief ends in resentment, bitterness, loneliness, and rebellion. Borne with humility, however, it empties the soul of its own agendas for healing, cleanses it of self-sufficiency, and allows room for something new.