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?