“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not a mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”
These words were incredibly validating to me in the first weeks and months after my sister Christine died, when my daily crying was frequent and uncontrollable. Irving’s profound recognition of the value of this instinctual outpouring, and its testament to the reach of our love, continues to confirm my understanding of the importance of grieving deliberately. Tears authenticate our humanity.
In his op-ed Getting Grief Right (NYT 1/10/15), author and psychotherapist Patrick O’Malley briefly outlines what he’s identified as three “chapters” in the story of loss, as based on his own and his patients’ experiences. Namely, chapter one being the degree of attachment and its bearing on the intensity of grief, chapter two being the death itself, and chapter three, as the time when the outside world stops grieving with you.
I was reassured to read O’Malley’s encouragement to his patient to let herself sink into her sadness instead of trying to reassure others that she’d come to some kind of closure. I have certainly felt the strong pull to do this (and have succumbed to the pretense in various situations), especially now that a year has passed since my sister’s death. I have needed to consciously and consistently thwart the reaction, which feels like a betrayal to myself, and to my sister. I think the cultural reality that the outside world does stop grieving with you, creates this compulsion to put on a strong face. O’Malley mentions the exhaustion of keeping up the facade, and coupled with the sheer exhaustion of grief itself, seems to be a recipe for much more distress when the limits of human endurance are reached.
One of the ways I try to dismantle the facade is to try to be aware of how I’m really feeling when asked how I am, and to reply as simply and honestly as possible. If the circumstances are ripe for more of a conversation, great. If not, at least there’s no self-recrimination. Another thing that really helps is to talk as regularly as possible with my “safe” people. Those friends and family who are trusted grief-confidants – with whom I can speak frankly about my sadness, pain, regret, and the gamut of emotions that don’t normally see the light of day as the world marches on.
Privately, I feel most able to “sink into my sadness” by pouring out the rawness of my pain in my journal, and by regularly carving out the time and space to cry – sometimes alone (unless I’m feeling particularly vulnerable) and sometimes with a trusted person, like my spouse. Crying brings me a temporary calm, and a renewed appreciation for the magnitude of both the death and the life for which I now mourn.
Getting Grief Right
The above titled New York Times opinion piece exemplifies the idea that grief is an obstacle to be overcome, and a problem to be solved, and as such, there is a “right” way to accomplish this. Implying, if done right, it need never bother you in any meaningful way, or impact your functioning negatively. And as the author attests, this cultural expectation (sometimes overt, often subtle) of a time-limited and manageable grief, followed by getting back to your life, is alive and well.
How many of us are “exhausted from acting,” and failing to recover from our self-diagnoses? How many don’t find a doctor like this one – adroit in his assistance exactly because of having learned from his own grief? He even acknowledges that his formal grief training was a detriment to him, and his patients, and that it was after the death of his son that his practice began to change.
I think it’s more than safe to say the “rigidly embedded” grief model he describes in our “cultural consciousness and psychological language” has worn out it’s usefulness, if it ever had any.
I’m interested in thoughts about the “3 chapters of loss” he puts forth. Particularly the third. What would it look like if we let ourselves and others “sink into (our) sadness?”
Check out the comments section in the article, too. There are some really incredible stories and insights.
Thanks for reading, and welcome,