Yesterday I spoke with a friend who had recently suffered a miscarriage. Jill and her husband were ecstatically happy with this first pregnancy, and it seemed brutally unfair when the baby’s heartbeat vanished, a few weeks before Easter. Since then, she said, it’s been a long, wild ride through grief and its entourage of feelings: sorrow at the loss of something not yet fully manifested, and therefore perplexing to wrap the mind around. Anger–-outrage, really—at the betrayal of her own body. Shock and horror at something like this happening to her, the Golden Child.
Mostly, though, she’s been struggling with the reactions of her large, wealthy, devoutly WASP family. “Absolute torture” is how she described it. “They’ve said all the wrong things—every single one of them. Like they somehow found a list of what not to say, and they manage to say it! ‘You’re young, you’ll have another child.’ Arghhh! ‘Lucky it wasn’t a full-term baby.’ Jeez! Then they get angry at me for telling them that what they’re saying hurts me! It’s been awful.”
Of all the indignities of grief, perhaps the bitterest is the discovery that our natural emotional response is unacceptable to those around us. The very people whose support we most need may be unable to give it, by virtue of their reaction to our suffering. We may even find that it’s we who end up doing the caretaking, protecting others from our grief while carrying the double burden of our pain and their fear of it.
Why is this particular emotion so firmly repudiated in our society? Grief is built into life, right there at the vibrant juxtaposition of love and death. Yet through inexperience, or ignorance, or embarrassment, we shun this inevitable experience. And our emotional aversion ends up generating pain to an even greater degree than the original emotion.
Most modern Americans grow up sheltered from death. Well into middle age, we remain willfully ignorant of it. Death is a rarity in the first half of our lives, and for a time we can delude ourselves into feeling virtually immune to it. Compare this to American life 150 years ago (or life in many countries today), when a woman bore five or six children, knowing that one or more would die before the age of five; when the average life expectancy was less than 40. Death was a regular presence in the community, and grief was respected by the mourners who came to help build the funeral pyre or dig the grave, because everyone faced these losses equally.
Though we live longer nowadays, the inevitability of death has not decreased in the slightest. The natural law of mortal gravity has not been rescinded, despite our fantasies. But our facility for dealing with it certainly has. People respond to grief with aversion (which is hurtful to the griever), with guilt at being unable to resolve the suffering (inappropriate), with embarrassment (awkward), with sentimental pity (which doesn’t jibe with the brutal reality of grief), and sometimes with outright avoidance.
All these responses are understandable, perhaps, as expressions of discomfort or awkwardness. After all, most people mean well–don’t they? “You know, good intentions are no excuse,” snaps Jill, when I clumsily try to explain away her family’s clumsiness. It still hurts, bad, and the outrage she feels adds another layer of pain.
Then there’s the best-case scenario on the part of one’s family or friends–open-hearted acceptance, and the willingness to be present. That means the willingness to say, “I don’t know what to say, but I see that you’re hurting, and I’m sorry.” Simply acknowledging your own awkwardness in the face of grief can be an enormous relief to the griever, who then understands she doesn’t have to carry the burden of your discomfort. All it takes is a few sincere words.
In addition, it can be helpful to find some concrete way of expressing your support—mowing the lawn, taking the kids bowling, or (as one friend did for us following the death of our son) stopping by with a bottle of Scotch every Tuesday evening—and continuing to do it for a good long time. Grief can continue weeks and months past the point where most people have stopped asking about it, and months and years past the point where life resumes its facade of ‘normal.’ While it softens over time, it’s never erased. Best not to have any time limits in mind, and no expectations.
Above all, don’t think there’s a solution, because there isn’t. Grief isn’t a problem to be solved. It’s a wet and muddy emotion, a down and dirty gut-level grappling. Mourners in traditional societies shave their heads and tear their garments, coming together for ceremonies of ritual wailing. What do we do to express our grief? Not much more than turn on our headlights on the drive to the cemetery. Wailing and torn clothes don’t jibe with our preferred image of self-control.
But control gets us nowhere with the emotions. We’re not supposed to control them. We’re meant to dance with them, holding them lightly, following their lead in a fused and seamless flow of grace and passion. That’s the biggest lesson grief–perhaps the biggest of all the big emotions–teaches us.