I’ve been having several conversations lately about grief. It’s December so that means the Holidays, and winter gloom descend with depression and reminders of loss. It seems horrible. It can be. It should be talked about, and not in the usual sad, way that allows for grief to pass through the cracks in the same, “What a shame, it’s so sad and horrible” way it usually is. Mason and I seem to specialize in loss so we tend to be the recipients of texts and phone calls from our friends. Not so much checking in on us as much as others reaching out because they know that we can relate to their circumstances. We have several friends that have lost sisters, brothers, parents, friends, and children.
I’d like to veer off and say I hate the term loss. We use it because it has become our popular, go to term for death. Our culture has glassed over death and the reality of it by using such diplomatic terms to ease the pain the word death brings us. Why? We are really bad at coping with death. The term loss doesn’t make sense to my literal brain. I haven’t lost anyone. They aren’t coming back. I know where they are located; I can visit their graves. I even talk to them, out loud. This all makes me insensitive, and not literal. Let me get back on track.
Most of our friends know that they can’t really count on us for sensitivity. They can count on us for honesty, to bring them out of a crying fit, validate them, use logic, proof read a headstone for spelling errors, or tell them what flower arrangements they need, and so on. We have a comprehensive list of funeral homes if you ever need it.
I started racking up dead friends in the fourth grade (cancer), then high school (suicide, car accidents), and it continued into my 20’s and 30’s (suicide, murder, cancer, and war). I’d lost so many friends my Nana once quipped that I was “winning” because she surmised she should have been going to more funerals than I was. I’ve since lost my Nana, other grandparents, miscarried, and lost my husband, even though I haven’t technically lost him, I know exactly where he is, Arlington National Cemetery.
Mason’s list is very similar, almost identical, but with the addition of both his parents. We could easily go into the business of funeral planning the way some do wedding planning. We joke that we should play Ouija on family game night (the kids came up with that one). We talk about death frequently because it’s our reality. Just in this house alone, the death list is so long because Mason has both his parents, his spouse, I have my spouse, and the kids each have a parent on that list, all to any number of tragic circumstances at a young age.
It’s not a competition. My point isn’t, “I am the master of dead people, I know everything about them.” If that were the case I’d have a TV show. I’m going to make a point and it’s not about how many dead people I know. My point is: Death is universal. We all experience it. Grief is normal. So normal that Shrinks have given it a term, and it’s so original it’s shocking; it’s called Normal Grief. It lasts about 2-4 months before you regain your desire to return to your normal routine, kind of like mono.
When you have people that live in your house, and they die, you get these magazines that have articles about how everyone grieves differently. They do. Everyone does things their own way; some of it is really weird. Sometimes people knock and your door and “grieve differently” and you wish they’d go “grieve differently” somewhere else. Someone came to my house once and asked for my late husband’s truck because they could really use it. Her husband was Trent’s best friend once (not that I could recall), they fell on hard times, blablabla. I really wished they would “grieve differently” elsewhere.
Let me get back on track..again…
Death is universal. The way we die is not. Not all people die tragically, or violently. Not everyone prepares for death. All of that will complicate the grieving process. What complicates it more, and unnerves me to no end, is the endless stream of writers who all say, “We all grieve differently, words words words, it’s part of the process. The End.” That helps no one! It also gives those who are grieving excuses to be an asshole. These articles will tell the story of a tragic war loss and will find anyone to quote that says, “Tell me his/her death was worth it!” with a valiant commander saying, “Yes! It was!” Or a “renowned psychologist” quoting the grief stricken as saying, “It’s been a decade and I have days on end when I can’t move. The grief has taken over. It’s unbearable.” With the psychologist saying, “It’s all part of the process.” Or maybe it’s the blogger who holds the trademark on grief and writes about how they no longer want their friends to send Christmas cards. This is not Normal Grief and not one person, not one article, not one magazine on grief, ever says it. This is Pathological, or Complicated Grief. It’s treatable. We should talk about it. No one talks about how to treat Complicated Grief!
Complicated or Pathological Grief, grief that has been compounded by trauma, is persistent and debilitating. 10-15% of the population suffer from Complicated Grief, but I never see it addressed in the tens of magazines I am mailed about grief, loss, or “coping” (please note my air quotes in actual quotes). Every article I see, even the ones from “renowned psychologists” and “doctor so and so” all quote these professionals as saying something along the lines of “everyone grieves differently,” and, “it’s all part of the process.” When the process is extended to years, I question the motive, or the process. Not one of these professionals address’ what they know and treat people for diagnostically. It pains me to see them pacifying the grief stricken with the same comments over and over again and not once saying, “Something bigger is going on here!”
I wish, for once, I would read an article in a mediocre, local newspaper that quoted someone saying, “Tell me their life was worth it.” When you say someone’s sacrifice was worth it, it has to have a measurable result for moral judgment. The anecdotal, “It was worth it” is a poor statement made by commanders with nothing else to say, or not enough time to say it. They have to believe the loss was worth it, because they never focus on a life lived. Our lives should be meaningful. Lives should carry purpose, not deaths. People need to stop asking someone to validate a death. It’s not a fair question. Stop putting that burden on other people.
As for these “renowned psychologists” that all of these magazines find, they are all hacks, I swear. They put these feel good pieces for the sake of validating feelings because we like cookies (yes, cookies!). But nobody is feeling good, or even better. They aren’t helping anyone heal!
Something magical happens when your spouse dies (or insert other person close to you here _____). You get attention, and that attention takes the place of your spouse. That black hole of grief swirls around in front of you, daring you to step into it, it beckons you, “Come in, it’s warm, cozy, we have cookies!” And I’m not shitting you, there are delicious cookies in that hole! They are brought over by the Casserole Patrol and you eat them, all of them. Everything loses its flavor when your spouse dies except cookies! It is a fact! I am going to do some research to prove it.
I have seen so many people wrap themselves in the warm comfy blanket of Normal Grief and stay there, with their cookies, because the public encourages it, and the attention you receive addictive. The public is afraid to say anything that will get them away from it because of the eventual asshole you become. No one says, “Brush the dust off, your loved one didn’t want this for you. You smell like a goat, take a shower!” I was lucky enough to have those friends, the ones that said, “You smell! Go take a shower! Think about shaving, you look like a Wookie.”
There is a certain point where we don’t need any more cookies. They are unhealthy. We need fruit. The grieving process should take a turn BUT people keep offering cookies, and cookies are good. It’s easy to fall back and say, “Have a cookie.” Because grief is profound and sad, there are tears involved. Nobody likes tears. If you get a good friend that says, “Here is a banana, no more cookies” the widow replies, “I want cookies though.” (Complete with tears, and frowny face). The friend bravely says, “Here’s a delicious salad!” Then the widow says, without fear of judgment or reprisal “Did I mention my fucking husband died!?” (All crazy, and teary eyed!) And here come the cookies. I know because I did it.
Grieving is good for the soul, like a donut. But there is a certain point when grief is unhealthy. Nobody wants to tell you grieving is unhealthy because it’s unkind, and hurtful and honestly, sometimes it’s wrong (I say sometimes because we all know someone who just hangs on because of the attention). Grieving must occur, but it also must abate. We love the phrase “Everyone grieves differently”. Sure they do! They really do! But there are factors that need to be considered. The period of grief is different for everyone. You will think about your loved one everyday, but at some point you have to stop feeding the beast, and switch gears. Your brain needs a break.
Switching off the negative and focusing on something else-the mechanics of your brain at work in another environment different from that of all consuming grief- gives the brain a chance to turn off the grief switch and take a break. It gives the brain a chance to heal. When the brain heals, we can start to get back to life, the life that your loved one would have wanted you to live.
When you have tried all of this, when you have put the cookies down, you’ve gone back to work, you have taken a shower, when you are STILL a mess, go see someone. Stop reading hack articles about how debilitating grief is normal and ask for help (not from anyone who writes for grief magazines, please).
People don’t usually like to admit that they need to see a therapist or a psychiatrist. I’ve heard people say they don’t need help. You can’t always do this yourself. If you are experiencing anything beyond Normal Grief, you need help. There is no shame in getting it. If you had a heart problem, you’d seek help. This is not much different. If you know someone that is having difficulty, don’t encourage them with cookies. Ok, maybe bring them some bananas and some phone numbers. Relate some experiences of your own, or direct them to someone who can relate to them so they can get help. People never know the right things to say to the grief stricken. Be brave. The grief-stricken have a way of alienating others with, “You don’t know what I’m going through!” Maybe that’s true; likely, it’s not. The dead are many, the living are few.