Each person’s grief is as unique as their fingerprint
February 5, 2020 11:45 AM   Subscribe

"Grief is what’s going on inside of us, while mourning is what we do on the outside." David Kessler on the Difference Between Mourning and Grief
Some grieve with darkness, some with light, some with both, depending on where they are in the cycle of grief. It would be a mistake to conclude that one is better than the other or that there’s a right way to grieve. There are just different ways to grieve, different feelings evoked by loss. This is also true of our relationship to hope. Hope can be like oxygen to people in grief. For others, however, especially in the early stages, it can feel invalidating. “In my sorrow, how dare you want me to feel hopeful . . . about what? Do you need me to hope to make you feel more comfortable?”

Hope has a very close relationship with meaning. In the same way our meaning changes, so does hope. Sometimes when I work with someone stuck in grief, I will say, “It sounds like hope died with your loved one. It seems all is lost.”

Surprisingly they perk up. “Yes, that’s it.”

They feel witnessed. I often say, “A loved one’s death is permanent, and that is so heartbreaking. But I believe your loss of hope can be temporary. Until you can find it, I’ll hold it for you. I have hope for you. I don’t want to invalidate your feelings as they are, but I also don’t want to give death any more power than it already has. Death ends a life, but not our relationship, our love, or our hope.”
From Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief
posted by not_the_water (25 comments total) 76 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, that's it.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 12:16 PM on February 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

And it never leaves you, really.
posted by alrightokay at 12:22 PM on February 5, 2020 [6 favorites]

Not ever
posted by mrgroweler at 12:24 PM on February 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

[exhales slowly]
Oh, shit.

Thanks for posting. I didn't know I needed to hear this.
posted by ApathyGirl at 12:29 PM on February 5, 2020 [4 favorites]

I recently listened to an interview with a religious studies scholar who wrote a book about turning away from religion during a time of grief. It touches on this subject in a slanted way. The book is titled: Why Religion? A Personal Story by Elaine Pagels. Here's the full interview via NPR. I thought it might be relevant in this conversation, for anyone that is interested.
ELAINE PAGELS: All of us have been feeling the tremendous vulnerability of living in a country in which atrocities happen, hatreds have been ripped open, people have been violated and killed and harmed in ways that we hadn't imagined could happen again in this country and, of course, throughout the world. So I had to open up the story to a much wider story to think about, how do human beings cope with the terrible vulnerabilities we face? But I've been thinking about this a long time - not just about the meaning and suffering - because I didn't want to write just a grief memoir. There are a lot of those. I wanted to write about how hearts can heal, you know, how we recover from things like that.

What you mention - these acts of violence made me well aware, all the time I was writing, that I've never had to deal with that. I've never dealt with that. I dealt with accident and illness and the losses that came, but I think that people who deal with violent killing - it's an order of magnitude greater. It's very painful to think about.

GROSS: So your book is, in part, like we said, about the search for meaning when you're suffering. And as you point out, you're a historian of religion. You look at how cultures have dealt with things like suffering and loss.
Great post, thank you for sharing.
posted by Fizz at 12:34 PM on February 5, 2020 [8 favorites]

at some point I figured out that my grief is carrying love for someone and not being able to share that with them anymore
posted by kokaku at 12:35 PM on February 5, 2020 [56 favorites]

Wow, that is great; essential reading for humans. Thank you so much for posting this.
posted by heyho at 1:07 PM on February 5, 2020

"what everyone has in common is that no matter how they grieve, they share a need for their grief to be witnessed."

I have been beat down with grief for the last few years and especially for the last few months, and this is really a true thing.
posted by slkinsey at 2:19 PM on February 5, 2020 [4 favorites]

Very interesting, Fizz.

Elaine Pagels certainly has the experience to know whereof she speaks.

Her son Mark died in 1987 after a four year long illness, and her husband
Heinz Pagels died in 1988 in a mountain climbing accident on Pyramid Peak, a 14,000-foot summit 10 miles to the southwest of the Aspen Center for Physics, where he spent his summers. Many writers of his obituary quote a dream he wrote about in his book The Cosmic Code[1982]:
Lately I dreamed I was clutching at the face of a rock but it would not hold. Gravel gave way. I grasped for a shrub, but it pulled loose, and in cold terror I fell into the abyss... what I embody, the principle of life, cannot be destroyed ... It is written into the cosmic code, the order of the universe. As I continued to fall in the dark void, embraced by the vault of the heavens, I sang to the beauty of the stars and made my peace with the darkness.
posted by jamjam at 2:19 PM on February 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

This rang so true. My sister died just this past December and my father died in 2015. My grief feels like a permanent state of shock. I have to remind myself over and over again that these two central people of my life are no longer here on earth.

It's exhausting.

I don't really understand the concept of 'hope' when it comes to grief. Hope to feel better? Hope that the dead are ok? Hope for what exactly? It's not so much that I'm lacking hope during this time, but rather I don't even see the connection to what I'm feeling or want to feel.
posted by arizona80 at 2:50 PM on February 5, 2020 [11 favorites]

I don't really understand the concept of 'hope' when it comes to grief. Hope to feel better? Hope that the dead are ok? Hope for what exactly?

I am experiencing the same thing, and I have not found the answer yet, either. Maybe there is some small solace that we are a real and far-reaching tribe. And maybe that is enough for now; knowing that none of you will ask me to feel better, and none of you will push me toward an answer that is non-authentic.

And knowing that we each wish - for each other, even if we can’t yet find it for ourselves - that doorway onward.
posted by Silvery Fish at 3:21 PM on February 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

I recently listened to an interview with a religious studies scholar who wrote a book about turning away from religion during a time of grief.

Oh man, Fizz, I was getting ready for work, stepping out of the shower, and that segment came on. Had to sit on the bed and listen to the whole thing.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 4:06 PM on February 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

I went through infertility for a long time, which is a type of loss that provokes a great deal of grief, and then the loss of two pregnancies, the second of which meant the death of possibility for me to ever become a mother. In between the pregnancy losses, all of our pets died. The best people during these times were the people who never tried to get me to look at the silver lining, who didn’t compare one type of loss to another, or to someone else’s loss. They just acknowledged my grief and were able to be witness to it. That was all I wanted.

While I don’t endorse it as a desirable method of education, these losses have taught me about responding to others’ grief. Mostly it’s about listening, and not rushing in with reassurances or silver linings or “at least...”, taking cues from the other person, positioning them in the centre ring. Sometimes—often—the most helpful thing for the other person to hear is acknowledgment: “That’s really awful. I’m so sorry.”
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:13 PM on February 5, 2020 [12 favorites]

I know Elaine Pagels isn't the subject of this FPP, but I was lucky to interview her once, and I would've applied to be her disciple afterwards. Even if religion ain't your bag in general, she's so damned eloquent and iconoclastic and wise. She has a depth of soul that informs even her most academic work, I think.

Anyway, yes, a good portion of my own therapy work has involved being witnessed in my grief. I didn't quite realize how many things I had yet to properly grieve in my life, after decades of keeping my head down and trying to just plow through waves of difficult shit. And it wasn't until I heard someone else say it all out loud, in words different from my own, that I finally understood. It's been a difficult gift, to say the least.
posted by mykescipark at 4:23 PM on February 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

I, ah, hm.

Hopelessness is the thing that makes me feel better, and capable, and able to do my day-to-day things, and care for my family. It can make therapeutic discourse in collective or one on one situations difficult, because so much therapeutic language is invested in the idea that hope is necessary and desirable.

I recently watched the 2018 film adaptation of Aniara, and have felt so lightened and amazed by it. I can’t say that the film is faithful to the original work, which I am taking steps to encounter, but as far as I can tell, it appears to have been a sort of culminating reaction to the terrible events of the first half of the Twentieth Century in Europe and the west, and as such, it would appear to express peak existentialism.

It’s not hope; it does not express or reinstantiate or privilege hope, in my understanding. But it makes me feel better, and helps me to be kind, and responsible, to the degree that I am capable of it. I mean, I think it does.
posted by mwhybark at 4:46 PM on February 5, 2020 [4 favorites]

Worse than minimizing another's grief, I hate it when people make a half-assed, uncomfortable grasp at emotional connection by describing some past, comparable grief of their own.
posted by bonobothegreat at 5:26 PM on February 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

I find it has been helpful to tell friends, "You're grieving. This is what that feels like." Just naming it seems to help. Because it doesn't feel like what people describe.

No one did it for me, though. I didn't really come through it after my mother died until I dreamed of her one night many years later; she was pushing her walker around busily, having moved into another house, and didn't have time to talk to me, and I realized even in death she had a life separate from me.
posted by Peach at 7:03 PM on February 5, 2020 [3 favorites]

Two weeks ago I posted on my FB:

Last Wednesday, after ten years of unwavering and unconditional love, affection, and constant companionship we were forced to do the humane thing and release Rosie from the pain and suffering that accompany our best friends as they enter the final years of their short lives. The grief that accompanied this loss was quickly subsumed by the news of my uncle’s heart attack Thursday morning and passing the following day and I’ve struggled to find the appropriate way to deal the two sets of similar emotions. How do you deal with two losses at once? These things are not comparable, and I know this, but grief is grief. It’s been a rough week.

There was more, a lot, about my dog and how much I loved her, but I sat on it for about a week out of respect for my aunt, cousins, and the rest of the family. I shared memories of my uncle instead and kept my grief over my dog as private as possible until it started to feel like a betrayal both to her and to myself.

My aunt was one of the first to express her condolences.

Anyway, I appreciated the last paragraph of the article.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 8:13 PM on February 5, 2020 [11 favorites]

The Babadook is a scary movie where the titular monster is a manifestation of grief. In the end it isn't banished or destroyed, but given it's own space and meagre nourishment. They learnt that they had to live with this monster, and that's not such a bad thing. It's a happy ending.

Mild spoilers.

The widow lost her husband in a car crash on the way to the hospital to give birth. So she would never have a birthday party for her boy and would just get upset when he asks why not. So it ends with a party, then they get some worms from the garden to feed the Babadook. It's kinda it's birthday too.

Fantastic movie, brilliant concept for a monster.
posted by adept256 at 3:00 AM on February 6, 2020 [4 favorites]

Fantastic movie, brilliant concept for a monster.

yes, and thank you. I'm going to remember this. Next time the problem of somebody else's grief comes up (or my own for that matter), I'm going to remind myself -- they're doing the best they can, they're grappling with a f***ing monster only they can really see. And step one is to believe them. The monster is real. They're fighting for their life. I've certainly known that fighit.
posted by philip-random at 7:27 AM on February 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

I agree, the metaphor really helps you understand. And it's a real monster we all know! And it's a perfect monster, anytime, anywhere, without warning and without end, sudden deep pain, impossible to ignore. Could be having a great day, then there's a song, a sight, a smell, and there's the Babadook. Maybe just because your day is too great, it's a pity that ... hello Babadook.

In one scene she sideswipes a parked car and just keeps driving - a hit and run. If you don't see the Babadook eating her son alive in the backseat, you'll just presume she's a total bitch. And what kind of mom doesn't do birthdays?

I recommend it in this post for it's incarnation of grief but I must warn all that it is scary and very dark. There's violence to an animal which is a showstopper for a few people I know. The Babadook made her do it. But the real reason it's scary is because grief is real and can make you do that to those you love most. It certainly inspires understanding. Makes you think twice before judging.
posted by adept256 at 9:28 AM on February 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

In the final paragraph: "If love is real, grief is real". The author is talking about grieving for pets, but it definitely applies for me against the judgement of people I've met regarding my lost loved one, who may not have lived a conventional life or had a nice peaceful middle class death without bothering anyone. I've thought a lot about the old custom of wearing a black armband, or literally wearing mourning, so as I got out into the world people know I'm a bit frozen and not all here. But we don't do that anymore, three days off work and then please stop being sad you're bumming out the office.
posted by winesong at 9:41 AM on February 6, 2020

How do you deal with two losses at once? These things are not comparable, and I know this, but grief is grief. It’s been a rough week.

I'm so sorry. I lost my cat, who honestly was my emotional core, five weeks after my dad. I struggled a lot with how even though my dad died of a stroke suddenly, I could take it. He was old. He had a great life. I could manage.

When I couldn't save my cat and heard him scream in pain, it broke me. Utterly and completely.

I spent a long time trying to say "I know I can't compare the two." to my therapist. I felt so guilty, how could I have been grieving my father but alright, yet my cat had destroyed any sense of self and hope?

I know why personally, but it doesn't matter. Grief is grief. A loss is a loss. You put yourself into caring for your dog, don't you dare fucking say "I know it's just a dog." No! It was a part of you. So was your uncle, but I doubt you cared for your uncle for 10 years through thick and thin. Both losses are real.

My aunt was one of the first to express her condolences.

She understood what loss was better than anyone at that moment. There's a lot of beauty in that sort of connection, even at the worst of all possible moments.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:14 AM on February 6, 2020 [6 favorites]

When people ask me how long they’re going to grieve, I ask them, “How long will your loved one be dead? That’s how long. I don’t mean you’ll be in pain forever. But you will never forget that person, never be able to fill the unique hole that has been left in your heart. There is what I call the one-year myth—we should be done and complete with all grieving in one year. Not remotely true. In the first year of your loss, you’re likely to mourn and grieve intensely. After that, your grief will probably fluctuate. It will seem to lessen, then something will trigger it, and you’ll find yourself back in the full pain of loss. In time it will hurt less often and with less intensity. But it will always be there.”

This absolutely nails it. My dad passed away in December 2017, and this is exactly how it's been for me. I've said that this is the filter through which I view everything that's happened ever since.
It was also after my dad died that I really appreciated that we sit shiva after the funeral, not before. Before the funeral, there was so much planning and notification and other things to do that the full impact didn't really hit me. It was after all that was done that I really needed others there for support.
posted by SisterHavana at 12:26 PM on February 6, 2020

I'm processing grief right now as well, and really appreciated this article. Thank you so much for posting, not_the_water.
posted by widdershins at 9:38 AM on February 11, 2020

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