Yesterday I spoke with a group of about 30 women and 2 men about how writing has helped me grieve. Then I asked them to think about how they learned about grief.
The stories they shared were heartbreaking. One woman’s first child died at 6 months. When she told her father, he replied, “That’s water over the dam. Just have another one.” Another woman admitted, “I stuffed my pain; I simply couldn’t face it.” A few of us recounted how a grandparent’s suicide was kept a secret for years, as if not talking about the loss would somehow make grief go away. Many shared platitudes they’d heard, like “we shouldn’t be sad because our loved one was in heaven,” that became excuses not to take time to honor the pain of loss.
Most of us admitted that these former models reflect a different, unhelpful attitude about death. Now our generation has been left the hard work of trying to dismantle these lessons in order to arrive at a healthier way of grieving.
When poet Gregory Orr was 12 years old, he went hunting with his father and younger brother. Orr accidentally shot and killed his brother. He became a writer in large part because language gave him a way to grieve. “Words don’t change the disorder,” he said, “but hold the chaos.”
Like Orr, I’ve discovered that when I write about loss, I bring my chaos to words and language meets me with a container to help reorder the chaos. Talking with a grief counselor—or anyone who understands grief as necessary—can serve the same purpose. Those conversations can be the vessel into which we pour the emotions, the tears, whatever we can’t make sense of about our loss.
The loss of a loved one touches us all, so why do we have so few examples from our own lives of healthy grieving? “Death is scary, ” says writer Meghan O’Rourke, “and people don’t know what to say.”
I agree with O’Rourke, but I also think her response is too often used as an excuse, not an opportunity to change how we view death and our response to it. We need to learn a new vocabulary for loss and grief.
Each of us faces loss differently. Any feeling we might have is legitimate, not “abnormal” as we may be inclined to think when the world is moving to 4:4 time and our tempo keeps changing as we stumble through grief. We desperately want to fall into step with everyone else, to prove that we’re coping and will soon be fine. But what about the questions and anguish that haunt us at night? Aren’t they worth our attention?
Death is part of life, and nature is our best teacher. The seasons cycle through birth, growth, and dying year after year. Why, then, is it so hard to grieve?
I think it’s fear that stops us. Fear that if we unlock our heart, our pain and vulnerability, our own mortality, will stare us in the face. Fear that our faith is insufficient for the sorrow we feel. Fear that this natural cycle will stop with us and the end will be THE END.
We avoid grief at our own peril. And that peril is this: if we can’t confront our own pain, we can’t be present for others. We perpetuate the sense of being all alone with grief, instead of recognizing that honestly facing the inevitability of loss in our life connects us as humans.
Writer Gail Caldwell may have made the best case for why we should grieve. Near the end of her memoir Let’s Take the Long Way Home, about losing a dear friend, she writes, “I know now that we never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder, creatures.”
Grieving is a holy way to feel the ongoing presence of a loved one who has died. Who doesn’t want that for themselves?