And what does it take to get better?
This article is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter, The Sunday Soother, a newsletter about clarity, intention, and useful tips for creating more meaning in your life that goes out every Sunday morning. Subscribe here. I am also a coach who works with sensitive people so they can stop second-guessing, make decisions confidently and live the life they’ve always dreamed of. You can learn more about working with me here.
How can we get better at grieving?
Happy Valentine’s Day I’m here to talk about grief and loss!!!
I was watching 60 Minutes with my boyfriend a few weeks ago (this is what we do, by the way, on Sundays: make a quiet dinner, settle into his recliner and couch, flip on Bill Whitaker or Lesley Stahl for the hour, then read until we fall asleep, it’s a dream life) and they had a gut-wrenching episode on the families who lost members early on in the pandemic.
And I realized: We’re just about at the one-year mark of the first deaths in America from the Coronavirus.
And how the hell are we going to deal with that?
I’ve spent the weeks since reflecting more on grief than I normally do day-to-day (though, my job is basically to think about and help people be with their emotions, so it comes in rather more frequently than for others, perhaps) and thinking about how we as a country can memorialize loss at a scale like the Covid deaths?
And I came to this conclusion: I know instinctively that we likely won’t be able to, because America is f*cking awful at grief.
And we need to get better.
When I say we need to “get better” at grieving, I don’t mean to convey that I think grief is something to ‘get better at’ in the sense of improve, or do more quickly, or more efficiently, or do with less emotion. (In fact, that’s basically our current approach, which has made it so ineffective, in my opinion.)
I mean how can we fully step into, honor, inhabit and share our griefs honestly, for whatever that looks like for each of us?
And how can we build rituals and reflection both into our public collective lives and our personal intimate lives that create space for being with the grief, for saying, this happened, and it was awful, and I cannot nor will I be able to or want to forget?
And, how can we stop what we are really trying to do with grief, and so many things in our life:
Control it? Cage it? Hide it away? Make it tidy?
Pretend that we have power over it in the face of it?
One step forward is to name the multitudes of kinds of grief. We tend to think of grief only as the big losses in life; death, heartbreak, crushed and broken dreams. But in my own life and experience, there have been dozens of kinds of griefs, all as valid as the next.
The grief of lost expectations. The grief of where we thought we would be. The grief of lost normalcy. The grief of slowly awakening to what is and to who you are, and understanding you spent so much of your life asleep. The grief that our society has successfully duped and harmed us, intentionally, in so many ways. The grief of racism. The grief of lost potential. The grief of loneliness. The grief of never being alone. The grief of an imagined future that never came to be. Individual grief. Collective grief.
It feels slightly weird to write about grief, as somebody who’s overall had it pretty damn good. Sure, I’ve had heartbreak and loss of grandparents and elders, but my life looked at from a distance appears to be a glossy wave of prettiness.
But I do know something about grief, and it is this: You must develop a capacity to sit with, witness, and honor it, both in yourself and in the people around you. But we’re not taught to do this. We’re not encouraged to learn this skill. We’re not given the time.
We like to approach grief in what I’m starting to think of as “The American Way”: tuck it in a closet, tut tut it, shame us if it keeps popping back up, try to move it along quickly, or encourage consumerism as a way to heal it.
(Could I write a treatise about why and how we’ve sacrificed grief at the altar of productivity and capitalism, yet another thing given over to the assembly line of our society? Yes, yes I could.)
During my coaching training a couple of years ago, I sat with and coached pro bono clients for an hour a week and recorded the sessions for my program’s faculty to assess and evaluate and monitor. There was one session where a client, over Zoom, broke down in front of me, sobbing; I don’t even remember what about.
The American way of grief would have been to tell her it wasn’t that bad; point out all the good in her life; or shuffle uncomfortably and look pointedly away.
Instead I closed my eyes as she sobbed and put my hand over my heart. I let the powerful sensations of her unacknowledged grief crash through the screen and wash over me until tears were rolling down my own cheeks as well. And I whispered the only words that came to mind:
“I know. I know.”
We sat there, heavy in her grief, in silence, till her tears abated, and she nodded: That wave of grief felt complete, and seen.
Later my faculty mentor told me what I had done in that moment could be referred to as helping that client emotionally “metabolize” her grief. I didn’t try to pretend it wasn’t there, look away, or convince her that she had no reason to feel what she was feeling.
Instead, instinctively I’d been able to act both as a mirror and an anchor; a validation and a reflection of what she was feeling, and a steady spot for her to grasp on to and process until the crashing waves of emotion had coursed their way through the vessel of her body.
A mirror and an anchor. An acknowledgment and a place to rest.
If we could cultivate those abilities in the face of grief or other heavy emotions, both for ourselves and for others, maybe then loss and its attendant sorrow wouldn’t be made to feel like a shameful factory line that we don’t want to look too closely at.
Maybe then, with the mirror and the anchor, we could forge the memorial, the ritual, the sacred space in which to honor our grief as a living companion to the rest of our lives.
Maybe then we’ll feel a little more whole.
I want to close this essay out by dedicating it to any of you who feel grief these days, and have been trying to “should” your way out of it.
Your grief, however big or small, for whatever reason it exists, is valid. Maybe it’s because you’re alone on Valentine’s Day. Maybe it’s because you’ve lost a loved one, recently or decades ago. Maybe it’s because to grieve and feel this deep sorrow is an inherent part of being human, the flip side of the coin to all the joy and beauty we get to witness and hold in this wild life.
Here’s a poem for you today by Mary Oliver that cracks my heart open every time I read it. And the more I read it, and the older I grow, the more I understand:
The point of life is to have our hearts cracked open, and to keep them that way.
Here is a story
to break your heart.
Are you willing?
the loons came to our harbor
and died, one by one,
of nothing we could see.
A friend told me
of one on the shore
that lifted its head and opened
the elegant beak and cried out
in the long, sweet savoring of its life
which, if you have heard it,
you know is a sacred thing,
and for which, if you have not heard it,
you had better hurry to where
they still sing.
And, believe me, tell no one
just where that is.
The next morning
this loon, speckled
and iridescent and with a plan
to fly home
to some hidden lake,
was dead on the shore.
I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.