In my recent interview for an upcoming NPR TED Radio Hour podcast (10/1) on “Heartbreak,” the host, Manoush Zomorodi, asked a series of insightful questions from many angles about my experiences with grief over the years as a pediatric ICU nurse. Those questions have sparked many thoughts that I believe are worth exploring and sharing in a series here on grief, with hopes that we can take a closer, courageous look at grief and reframe our perspective on it during a time when we are all feeling it perhaps more than ever.
Unfortunately, recent world events give us countless issues to grieve on many levels. Please note this blog series will primarily focus on grief and loss more on the individual/personal level, though I think some of these ideas will be pertinent to broader societal issues.
And with that, the first thought I want to tackle is: Why we don’t know what to do with grief.
Before we tackle some reframing of grief, I think it’s important to consider why we run for the hills from it before we even give it a chance to just be a normal part of our lives.
Denial of its possibility is ingrained into our culture from day one.
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard or said myself, “I just thought that happens to other people in other places, not to me, not to us here.” Our blind spots to the assumptions we make about life as people in a wealthy, powerful nation profoundly shape our shaky personal response to real suffering, loss and grief.
We are a culture obsessed with convenience and easy fixes. Any ICU nurse (that’s me) can tell you how much we love our easy fixes to life’s pains and problems (hello, all the medical interventions), but also how powerless and detrimental some presumed fixes can actually be (again hello, all the medical interventions). We just keep assuming we can always find a way out of our grief, if not avoid it altogether.
Grief is too closely associated with negativity.
This is a tricky statement because there is obviously some connection between the two. But sometimes “toxic positivity” is completely out of touch with reality, and grief is more in touch with reality than we care to admit. You can have days of intense grief and intense negativity, but they don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. You can also have days of intense grief and also have solid hope. Because we have such a hard time recognizing this, and we are a fix-it culture addicted to “positive vibes only,” we are strongly tempted to reply to someone’s healthy, normal grief with “At least you…(can still have another child),” or “You should just be thankful that x, y, and z.” This actually ends up invalidating and somewhat shaming what is actually a normal, healthy response of grief to a real loss. We think it’s necessary (and even possible) to somehow cancel out the grief by diverting attention to some more “positive” thing over there, instead of giving healthy space and permission to cultivate and process normal grief.
In other words, we only know how to battle negativity by trying to shut it down, which in most cases is probably wise to not indulge it too much. Unfortunately, because we almost automatically associate grief with negativity, this means we typically respond to grief by trying to squash it as well, even when its manifestation is actually a very healthy thing.
We struggle to be quiet and patient with hard questions.
With Google Search at our fingertips, we are more accustomed than we realize to having all the seemingly hard answers so readily accessible. Will my children growing up in this Internet age really even learn to think for themselves? It is in many ways a gift to crowdsource knowledge and have others do so much of this hard work for us. But when it comes to grief and loss, which are so intensely personal and complicated, we have to do the work ourselves of wrestling with the hard questions grief often raises, and this feels daunting because we simply don’t practice it much day to day. We deeply resist the discomfort of having our worldview and our assumptions of how life “should” operate be so profoundly challenged, and often prefer relief and escape from that discomfort over working towards the building of a different, deeper life foundation.
We don’t know what to do with things that cannot be explained.
Even as we work through hard questions, there remain some things that cannot be fully explained. There may be a medical explanation, coroner’s cause of death, but there are other types of answers we often search for that we simply won’t find in their entirety. Our need for control and power chafes against this. But when I’m suffering, it’s usually not clear and specific answers that actually soothe my soul. As the wise singer/songwriter Rich Mullins once sang, “And I know that it would not hurt any less…even if it could be explained.” When I’m suffering acutely, I find the most comfort in having space to lament, being accepted and embraced as I am by safe loved ones, and being helped to just take the next step forward when everything else about the future seems too murky or overwhelming.
We struggle to see what a good and hopeful life can look like with grief always present.
This, I think, is key, and will be the topic of a future blog post. (Note: it won’t be a blog post with answers, per se, but an exploration of what we do to ourselves and each other when we only define a good life in a narrow way – and what we can do for ourselves and each other when we learn to broaden that definition of a good and hopeful life.)
Thanks for reading this far. I would love to hear thoughts, comments, disagreements, as long as they stay civil and productive.