Saturday, June 21, 2008



Literature on grief is limited. This is what I've learned.

There are cheerful books encouraging me how to grieve in a "healthy" way. We are so obsessed in this culture with proceeding through any obstacle in a way that is "healthy," which is to say, in a way that is defined by other people. There are workbooks and flowcharts (We can fix anything!). There is even a term for unhealthy grieving: complicated grief. God bless you if you have complicated grief. I feel for you. Many days I am hemorrhaging with emotion myself.

There are strange books published with hefty fonts and written in a style that I can only describe as bad poetry that might have been appropriate for a new age greeting card, but which the author refused to edit down. Supposedly these books express what it is like to grieve, and contain images of "darkness" and "waves" and fluffy, happy fragrant things in the distance. I don't have an MFA myself, but I imagine, but for the subject matter, MFA students would have a field day with the triteness. There are books which encourage me to "heal". These make me think of stern faced botoxed young female newscasters asking, after a national tragedy: "And how are they moving along on the path to healing?" It is important for people to march along the path of shock to healing. We must heal as quickly as possible in America. We do not like to take the time to feel what something is as truly and deeply as we can. We do not have time to waste on anything distracting.

Other books warn against repressed grief, assuring me that we all live with hidden hurts and that it is okay to let these hurts out because, in America, we always want to encourage people that they have the right to feel what they feel, because having rights is very important to us. It is more important to focus on our rights than it is to be present in what we are feeling. The grief might be over a lost job or a spouse who left us. We have repressed this grief and it is blocking us. Let it all out, even if it has been 20 years ago that you were meant to grieve.

I have no idea what these books are talking about. What is repressed grief? How on earth does anyone hold back a feeling, particularly when it is based on love? Do people really not know how to love so they must wait 20 years to discover that they loved a house or a divorced spouse? As someone incapable of long-term repression, I find no comfort in these books. These are for people who, in an aha like moment made for television, suddenly unearth the "reason" why life has not been filled with the happiness they think they were supposed to have. It is due to incomplete grieving.

Some encourage me to find someone to "talk to." As a person who doesn't pay for anyone to clean her house, do her laundry, work her out, pump her gas, or cook her food, I'm having difficulty with the idea that I have to pay for a conversation. Why can't we talk to each other? And if we can't, isn't art supposed to be there for all of us, reflecting back hundreds of years of experience and thoughts and feelings we can all recognize? I would rather have the company of a good book than pay for someone to tell me that what I feel is "normal." I know that what I feel is normal. I'm human.

In the past I've been afraid to read Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking (bless you, Joan Didion), but of course now I'm hungry for it. I understand it now in a way I would not have two weeks ago.

In her grief, she too turned to books for answers.
In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control. Given that grief remained the most general of afflictions its literature seemed remarkably spare. . . The poems and the dances of shades (Giselle) seemed the most exact to me. Beyond or below such abstracted representations of the pains and furies of grieiving, there was a body of sub-literature, how-to-guides for dealing with the condition, some "practical," some "inspirational," most of either useless.

We will all be bereaved. We will all grieve. I'm very sorry, but you will not escape. And then what will you do? My only advice: ground yourself in love. Do it now. There are many ways to love. Remain open to them. If you end up grieving without love--for the person or thing for whom you are grieving--then your grief will be a greater torment. When you grieve, you want to always return to a feeling of love--it's an anchor.

There is so little that explores what happens at the deepest and most profound levels. There is plenty to tell us how to indulge our shallow fantasies. Two-thousand years of Christianity, of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and I'm not sure we have developed a more sophisticated language for all that can happen when life changes in an instant, and some dormant programming in our brains wakes up to a new condition. Most of all, I'm not sure that anyone expresses the depth of grief better than a poem. Or, perhaps, better than a piece of music.

People grieve in their own way, and throw into that mix the addition of upbringing and belief. One thing is certain, life will never be the same, and there's no rushing through grief. It takes its own sweet time, some days ambling along, some days totally absent from thought. But it's present until it isn't anymore, and it's all individual.
I've always liked Thomas Lynch's essays (my Michigan's own small-town Irish-American poet/mortician) for his common sense approach to all of this. Of course death is a part of life, of course we modern Americans should not shove it aside and diminish it, and of course we have to grieve - that is what ritual and gathering the family is for. And he's had some losses, so he knows what he's talking about.

Not that any book can "fix" this, but some help more than others.

My memories of the time after losing close family members was just the wonder and confusion - my world had derailed for a time, why didn't they know that the whole world was off of its rails? Why wasn't it for them too?
Thank you both, for comments and recommendations. Obviously, I'm enormously sorry for the losses you have both suffered. Sadness is something that all people struggle with, and I appreciate that two strangers took the time to share thoughts with me. Thank you again.
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