We do not do grief well. We are without a map for coping with the excruciating grief that we are currently experiencing as a culture. Grief that swamps us when we are shocked with intense loss. What to do, where to go with our pain? The pain of not being allowed to visit a loved one in the hospital dying of Covid. No funeral held for the elderly family member we want to honor for the difference they made in our lives. No opportunity to make peace with our child or spouse or sibling who dies alone from a drug overdose. No resources left to stave off eviction.
Not a moment to draw close around us the memories of our sheltering home before we need to flee the raging fires threatening it, the rising waters engulfing it. The grief of not being able to mark the shining achievement of a child graduating, or dance at the wedding of two people pledging themselves to each other, or sing at the birthday party of a first grader.
Even anticipatory grief creeps in on those of us who have not lost, but who are surrounded by others who have; we anxiously anticipate that it is just a matter of time until we are them.
We do not do grief well. Grief such as we are experiencing is not healed in a few days off from work. It is not healed by taking up a new hobby, joining a gym, or having a few drinks every evening. It is not healed by someone reminding us that “it could have been worse,” or “she wouldn’t want you to be so sad,” or “isn’t it time move on?”
We lack a collective map for companioning each other through our grief. We are uncomfortable around those who are beside themselves with loss, and so we wish to help them “feel better.” We are like the character Joy in the animated Pixar movie “Inside Out,” an imaginative depiction of how our internal emotions compete to gain supremacy in our brains. Inside eleven-year-old Riley, Joy is constantly trying to shush Sadness and keep Sadness away from Riley. Joy believes if Riley allows Sadness in, Riley will feel worse about the loss of her friends after her family’s move across the country. Yet Joy realizes at the end it is when Riley acknowledges Sadness and lets her in that Riley starts to see how she might make her way toward “feeling better.”
Sitting with our pain, our sadness, simply BEING in our loss, before we do anything to FIX it, is not what we are told will help. The messages we hear instead are: Try a new hobby! Get busy! You are still crying? Still not sleeping? Try this medication, try this pill. We do not do grief well.
Healing from our grief is a journey that takes time and cannot be rushed, covered up, or buried. Paradoxically, the more we try those strategies, the longer it may take to heal. But that is the American Way—get going, get back to work, distract oneself. I know, I did it myself after the death of my son Ethan. In my book Spirit Son--A Mother’s Journey to Reconnect with Her Son After His Death From Heroin Overdose I describe the juncture at which I finally gave in to being completely stilled. Quiet. I stopped trying to distract myself from the pain of losing my son. I sat with myself in the groundlessness of my grief and stopped trying to move away from it. I sought out others who helped me simply sit in my sorrow and overwhelming pain and not try to lift me up out of any of it.
Grieving is an exhausting endeavor physically, emotionally, and spiritually. There are no shortcuts. The journey is too important, too valuable, too sacred to rush. The magnitude of loss in 2020 is unprecedented. The fact that we’ve been forced to weather innumerable, unexpected losses while isolating, without the support of family and friends, in a culture that doesn’t encourage a healthy grief journey is a recipe for a mental health crisis.
What if we were a culture that encouraged those who were grieving to wear black as our grandparents did for as long as they needed, to signify that they were in active mourning? What if this was our collective signal to invite them to speak of their loss and listen without giving advice; to be gentle with them while we hold their hand, to be patient with our own discomfort while we sit with them… murmuring soft words of compassion and sympathy. What if we knew how to do grief?