Getting help with grief never occurred to me
My father died by accidental drowning six months before my wedding. The idea of seeking counseling or attending a grief group was never suggested. I couldn’t process the loss at the time, or what it meant for my mother. I was 28 years old, absorbed in my own life and plans for my future. I vividly remember, my mother calling me at my office, and first asking me if I was sitting down. The way she said it, I knew something bad was to follow, but my
healthy and loving father’s death took me completely by surprise.
I have very few memories of the next several days or weeks. I felt alone, and somehow even embarrassed. I didn’t want the burden of having to answer the questions of how and why he drowned. I didn’t want to have to picture it, but at the same time, I couldn’t help picturing it and trying to answer the unanswerable questions for myself. I could barely speak of it. It was hard to face my
mother’s pain too. I tried to cheer her up and change the subject whenever she brought it up. My British upbringing had taught me to “keep a stiff upper lip”. It’s an expression from the 1800’s, meaning to not show your feelings when you’re upset, which was considered a valuable character trait in my
All there is
Recently, I discovered the podcast, “All There Is”, with Anderson Cooper. Anderson’s father died when he was ten, and his older brother, Carter, committed suicide at the age of 23. Anderson was 21 at the time. His mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, witnessed her son’s death. Since his mother’s recent death, he is coming to terms with his grief. As he goes through all of his mother’s (and some of his brother’s) belongings, grief he has stored away for over 30 years has resurfaced. In one episode, he has a touching conversation with Stephen Colbert. Colbert’s father and two brothers died in a plane crash when Steven was 10 years old. They talk about how they got “stuck” at that time of their profound loss. “It’s like falling off a cliff, and nothing is ever the same”, he says. Hearing this had a tremendous effect on me.
I fell off a virtual cliff after my father died, and I think I’ve been climbing back up ever since. We don’t have a good way to talk about grief and loss in American society. It doesn’t make sense because the feeling is so universal. I didn’t seek out support, because my narrative was always that “I am so fortunate in every way, that I can’t complain.” One of my closest friends said, “at least you had a loving father”, which is true, and she did not. So, I turned away from the sadness. I told myself that I was being “strong”. But it takes a lot more strength to cry, and expose your sadness, than to close oneself off from pain, and pretend you are fine. At least it does for me.
It’s all gift
Stephen Colbert says that he has learned to love the thing that he wished most had not happened. It is a gift to exist. With life comes suffering, there’s no escaping it. Jon Kabat-Zinn says in Full Catastrophe Living, Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, “as with physical pain, our emotional pain is also trying to tell us something.” That means turning toward the pain and knowing and accepting that it is there for
good reason. Grief is part of what it means to be fully alive, and life is a gift, so we must be grateful for all of it. There comes an understanding that all of us are suffering, and to connect deeply, we must be able to face it. We want to be the most human we can be.
In the last few years, I have come to see the pain as something that warms me and lights my knowledge of what other people are going through. BJ Miller, in A Beginner’s Guide to the End, says that grief
is something we all go through. It’s not the enemy. You don’t get life without death. Most of us know what loss feels like, so why don’t we share what can bond us? If we do, it won’t hurt so much. It’s feeling alone that compounds the grief and turns it into suffering. It’s isolating oneself from the rest of humanity that keeps us stuck.
Making Meaning of Grief
I am still making meaning of my grief. It’s a journey. Here are some of the things I’ve learned over 40 years:
- In the immediate wake of a tragedy, most of us cannot speak about it, and often feel victimized or misunderstood.
- It’s a natural tendency is to avoid feelings of pain whenever possible. It’s easier to deny it, or keep busy, or take care of others who may be suffering.
- We need to be patient and allow ourselves time to process, however long it takes. You can’t jump ahead of your own, or the person whom you’re supporting’s timeline.
- Eventually, the person you’ve lost becomes internalized in some way.
- Happiness and sadness can coexist.
- Allowing the experience of grief can make one appreciate and experience joy even more deeply.
- When you eventually allow it, grief can teach you to be a more compassionate, grateful, and fully alive human being.
- The best medicine for loss is to share your loved one’s story with others.
If you‘ve experienced loss, reach out to a counselor, or join a support group. Give yourself the gift of being available to share your human suffering. We have a lot in common, and it will help you on your grief journey.