Friday, November 20, 2009

The Myth of Managing Grief

Here come the holidays. You know, "the most wonderful time of the year."

Alright, can we just say what everyone knows anyway? For a lot of people--many more than any of us will ever know--the holidays are horrible, a season in which the grief they carry around with them all of the time becomes that much more painful.

If that sounds autobiographical, that's because it is. But like so many people who hurt, I don't want to talk about it. Not here anyway. And not now.

The main reason I'm bringing this up at all is because not too long ago I was digging around in this wasteland called the Web when I came across the article that follows. It has a very specific context. It was first published on April 7, 2002, less than a year after the attacks of September 11, 2001. But its message is timeless.

And even though it appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, a secular newspaper located on the left coast no less, it contains a lot of insight and even a good bit of what might be called pastoral wisdom. I copy it here for what it's worth:

The myth of managing grief
by Stephanie Salter

Not long ago, a friend in New York said that she often feels cut off from the rest of the country because Sept. 11 is still so much with most New Yorkers.

"We've all gotten on with our lives, and if you don't go down to the (World Trade Center) site, there are no visible traces," she said. "But there's still so much grief and sadness hanging in the air."

People outside of New York can't really understand, said my friend.

"You talk with them and, if you didn't lose someone directly in the twin towers, it's like their tone says, 'Hey, shouldn't you be moving on?' They don't get that there's a collective grief. I actually prefer it when people don't even ask how it's going. It's easier."

Our American culture boasts many virtues and several strong suits, but grieving -- collectively or individually -- isn't one of them.

Unlike older societies, we have few formal grieving rituals in place to guide us. So, we try to tackle grief in our typical American way -- as if it's a problem to be solved, an illness to be cured, an unnatural, machine-gumming breakdown that needs to be fixed, ASAP.

Perhaps more phobic about suffering than any society in history, Americans tend to start the clock ticking early in "managing" grief. While solicitous and caring of the newly bereaved, we encourage heartbroken mates and parents to medicate themselves so they can "keep it together" through the funeral.

This ignores the fact that wailing and keening and "losing it" are a pretty accurate rendering of what humans inside feel like when someone we love dies or leaves us. But, in our culture, public wailing and keening are considered bad forms; they are seen as unwelcome reminders of pathology among "healthy" people.

Even the most devastating loss -- that of a child by a parent -- seems to carry an unwritten statute of limitations on grief, something I learned several years ago when I reported on an international organization called Compassionate Friends.

Founded in England in the late 1960s, the massive support network's chapters provide something that bereaved parents and siblings can't get from the rest of the world: "unconditional love and understanding" (as its informal credo states) with no expiration date.

As one member told me, she knew that a Compassionate Friends meeting was the one place she could go and never hear the unintentionally accusing question, "How many years ago did you say your child died?"

Grief is not like an illness, to be fought and cured with medicine or chemotherapy and radiation. Generalizations can be made about human behavioral tendencies, and time lines can be drawn for predicted "healing," but each person's grieving process is unique.

Some people never "get better." And nobody survives grief unchanged.

As Stephanie Ericsson wrote in "Companion Through the Darkness," grief is "a tidal wave that overtakes you, smashes down upon you with unimaginable force, sweeps you up into its darkness, where you tumble and crash against unidentifiable surfaces only to be thrown out on an unknown beach, bruised, reshaped."

Or, as a man who lost his 7-year-old son once confided, "I'd always thought of myself as a happy man, but that's gone now. We have moments of happiness, some of them long and filled with laughter, but the sense of what is lost is never far away."

In her book, Stephanie Ericsson also warned: "Grief makes what others think of you moot. It shears away the masks of normal life and forces brutal honesty out of your mouth before propriety can stop you. It shoves away friends and scares away so-called friends and rewrites your address book for you."


Jim said...

Good post Frank. We do much better when we just "be" with a person instead of trying to "fix" what is going on. Job's friends did well for the first seven days and I try not to lose sight of that lesson.

I am praying for you and your grief that you have someone to "be" with you.

Grace and Peace, Jim

Frank Bellizzi said...

Thanks, Jim. The good Lord has placed some good people around me.