Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Good Grief! Bad Grief!

Grieving has been on my mind (for a reason). And so has an article last month from a series on grief in Slate, "How To Help Friends in Mourning."

It's good, it's useful, people should read it. I vouch for this because I, too, have paid the dues to be a member of the "grief club" (referred to in the piece).

At the same time, I get that sinking feeling that the article means there is something, yet again, that I am doing wrong and I must be shamed and paranoid about getting it right. The thing is talking to people who are grieving. There's a right way to do this, and if you can't, you will be angering the last person in the world you intend to anger because what you're actually trying to do is show you care! Doh!

I think the piece comes out a bit harshly against people who mean well but don't get the words right. Yes, some people don't supply the perfect words because they are callous or selfish. But most people simply fear making things worse and say something awkward. I'm awkward by constitution, so maybe I just feel akin to these alleged sinners. They are scared, pained. As a griever, yes, I grind my teeth and my stomach lurches to hear platitudes like, 'it's all for a reason,' or 'this was fate; it was meant to be this way.' I think that's baloney. Meant to make me feel better, but doesn't; not one whit.

Yet I do not resent the people who said it. They might truly believe it. It might make them feel better when others say it to them. Maybe they've had the good fortune - more power to 'em! - not to have grieved yet and thus not to understand what many grieving people need. They are trying. Most of us are.

When grieving, we are mostly helpless. Most causes of grief are irreversible. There's no rational target at which to take out our anger. When people try to say something kind but it turns out to be kind of useless, do they deserve our anger, even if we don't know what else we can do with it (the anger)? As a self-styled expert on getting through tragedy, I say no, they don't. Let's face it, most everyone walks around with grief of their own at some point. Maybe even those very people at that very moment. Since I've been through a tragedy or two, I feel very much more tolerant than before. People are trying.

But the main part of the article that has been itching my brain was a woman who recounted what she felt was an inappropriate comment from her sister, as follows: "At my husband's wake my sister actually said to me, 'Why do bad things keep happening to me?' after her car broke down."

Granted, it's tacky to call the need for car repairs "a bad thing happening to me" after her brother-in-law died. But I'll bet one of the "bad things" she alluded to was the death of her sister's husband. If her sister's husband died, a "bad thing" did happen to her, too. I'd bet she felt intense pain and sympathy because of her sister's loss in the first place. Second, if she knew the brother-in-law and liked him and they spent time together, losing him was a blow for her, too. And if your sister's husband, whom you loved, died; and your car breaks down right when you're dealing with mourning your brother-in-law, well, to be quite fair, that would actually be quite rough. And I - a member of the grief club - give her carte blanche to feel it is so. (Still, she should have handled it better by sharing that remark with someone who was not dealing with a massive loss just then.)

Any thoughts? Anyone else grieving or engaged in anticipatory grieving at the moment?


  1. I have often felt there is nothing in this modern age that prepares us for mourning. We grieve lost loved ones silently and in private, but we can't even begin to spell mourning. People used to wear black to signify that they were mourning and usually for a year after a loved one's death. Why don't we have something like that now?

  2. Rituals are helpful, however, one needs to believe in certain frameworks for it to make sense and be soothing.
    It is a cliché, I know, but what one really needs is time, lots of it, time to wallow in self-pity, to shout in anger, to cry for the lost one, one self and all lost opportunities -- and time and time again to talk about that person, what you shared, what you miss. And that's where friends come in I believe: it is a hell of a lot better, saner to talk to a sympathetic ear (attached to a person with arms to hug and hand out tissues or prepare cups of tea) than your cat, radiator or wall... oh, and yes, lots of time you don't want to talk, want to be left alone as well.
    You're absolutely right about people wanting to do right and saying the right thing but not finding the right words (they are highly individual on both sides, aren't they). I am not usually at a loss for words but find it excruciatingly hard to say and even more so to write "the right thing" to friends and colleagues in morning. I always feel a compete oaf and am making things worse not better.... a I think I am better at giving hugs. And teas.

  3. Dear Ms Lady,

    In my humble opinion which may or may not be worth anything, this post has been one of your best.

    Thank you.

  4. I once said the worst thing and it was because I was grieving the loss of my marriage, I do not recommend attending funerals in a heightened emotional state. I walked up to the husband who lost his wife and I started bawling, he started to cry and I said "I don't know who is worse, me or you" and that would put me spot center as the most insensitive person on the planet. What I meant was that I felt terrible for being SO emotional and distressed and causing him to cry when he was trying so hard to keep it together, but that isn't how it came out. I spent the rest of the service at the back of the room chastising myself for my awful comment and knowing that he probably wouldn't remember it and any attempt to make it better might only make it worse. So I slinked out at the end, which is really sad because I cared very deeply but in all my well meaning and desire to help I silently knew there was nothing for me to do to ease his pain :(

    I am grieving the loss of my cousin and I too take to judging people who do not say or do the right thing, guilty. For my own sanity, what helped me the most was to be a part of all of it, to involve myself with as many people as I could and to create the poster boards of pictures, arrange the powerpoint slideshow and to speak at the ceremony. It doesn't give closure but I know it made me feel closer to him, as much flack as facebook gets it is still a great forum to grieve. Initially I thought it was creepy and sometimes I think people go overboard, but overall it is nice to have that "place" even virtually, to post thoughts and have other grieving people "like" or correspond similar experiences or stories.

    You have paid your dues and a few other cities full of people's dues. I wish I could take grief and put it in a box, tie it up and put it on a shelf to incinerate at a date when it is all withered to nothingness and replace the box with nothing but joy and happiness. Maybe that makes me shallow but I am a caretaker at heart. If I were there I would hug you forever, in my place let that little shadow you have give you a big hug from me please - I mean a BIIIIIIG HUG.

  5. Mrs. Crocodile, good question. Maybe because wearing the same black clothes for a year would not stimulate the consumer-driven economy. Or depending on your employer, you might only be granted a few days for mourning. And people generally prefer someone who's upbeat, and get tired of someone who's sad all the time, so we mostly feel compelled to keep it in as much as we can, I guess. Why do you think?

    Uh, you are right: Sometimes we need to talk, sometimes not to talk; sometimes to be hugged, sometimes to be left alone. For me, these needs can alter in rapidfire succession. Sometimes I don't even know what I need at a given moment. No wonder it's hard for others to feel sure of how to help. I imagine your teas and hugs can be very comforting, though.

    Kooki, thank you very, very, very, very much.

    Penpal, thank you for your caring-giving love. I'm sorry for what you are going through and have gone through.

    I also judge and feel annoyed or disgusted at times. But there are times I feel pure compassion, general love and forgiveness, magnaminity and gratitude. I think that should be one of the stages of grief. I wish it could be the strongest and longest.

    My most scarring related experience was when a lame but sincere two-word comment I made to someone who had suffered an incomprehensible loss was misinterpreted as sarcastic, setting off a chain of pain and bewilderment for both of us, I think (at least for me).

    I often wish there were a manual - to life. How often I want to do the right thing but it seems much easier to get things wrong.