Over the past week I’ve seen a lot of discussion about grief – most of it centered on the grief that many people are feeling about the election of Donald Trump. Most of what I’ve seen takes two basic forms:
a) “I just. can’t. even. with people saying (x) anymore! If you’re not willing to say/do (y) just shut up already!”
b) “I just. can’t. even. with these special snowflakes that melt at the first sign of adversity. What’s wrong with this generation? Back when I suffered (z)….”
This is, in microcosm, characteristic of a discourse that I’ve seen develop surrounding grief over the past couple of years.
On the one hand you have a group of people who insist that the vast majority of things that most people do or say to comfort the afflicted are, in fact, not only ineffective but actually discompassionate. You’re not supposed to say, for example, that things will get better. Or to talk about a time when you experienced something similar and describe how you got through it. Or discuss how the suffering might have meaning or purpose. Or encourage the other person to pick themselves up and move on. Or…
According to this group, the only thing that’s really acceptable is to listen. Find out what the person wants, and do that. Validate their feelings. Sit with them in their suffering. Don’t claim to understand. Just be a soft place where the grieving person can land.
On the other hand you have people who find this approach odious and self-indulgent. They will generally talk about how they soldiered on through their own sufferings, and how it would have done them no good if they’d been encouraged to wallow in their feelings. Instead, they say, people need to be helped to find the moral and psychological fortitude to get through their grief and get back to living normally.
Here’s my problem with both of these philosophies: they assume, prima facie, that there is really only one valid way to support a person who is grieving. They assume that all grieving people basically need the same thing, and that if you provide something other than that, there’s a problem.
In actual fact, different personalities process grief in different ways. There are, from what I’ve observed, five basic types of support that people need:
1. Comforting and reassurance – “It gets better,” “You’ll be okay,” and “Time will heal” are typical of the sentiments that are helpful to types who crave comfort and reassurance. They also tend to appreciate hugs, jokes, the idea that the loved one is “in a better place,” and fond remembrances.
2. Venting and validation – Some people heal by having others just listen while they emotion dump. These folks want others to affirm whatever they say, and to agree without turning the spotlight on themselves.
3. Sense and meaning – Thoughts like “This is part of God’s plan,” “This suffering has meaning even if I don’t see it now,” or “Death and pain are a necessary part of the human condition,” are among the kind of ideas that may be helpful to people who need to restore a sense of order following a loss.
4. Space and silence – There are some people who want to deal with their grief alone. They don’t want you to talk to them. They don’t want to talk to you. Maybe you can make them a casserole if you drop it off quietly.
5. Succor and encouragement – Some people grieve by taking action. They want to do something immediately that will honour the person they lost, or fix the injustice they suffered. They want their support people to help them have the courage and fortitude necessary to get on with it.
Different people will need different types of support to differing degrees depending on their temperament, their life situation, the gravity of the grief, their faith convictions, their relationship to the person or thing that they are greiving, and so on.
Of course, it would be entirely ridiculous for me to suggest that, therefore, people who offer validation are being insensitive, that they’re mouthing useless platitudes, or that they are don’t sympathize with my suffering. Obviously the reason why people offer that kind of support is that many people do in fact find it helpful.
And for many of those people, the things that I find helpful are irritating and make them viscerally angry. I’m a “sense and meaning” kind of gal. When I’m grieving I want to make sense of my situation. I find poetry helpful because it tends to move away from the specific towards the horizon of the universal. I find Stoic exercises, like picturing the triviality of my own life in relation to the broader order of the universe, really comforting.
The first time I had a miscarriage I was very happy that the only bed they had available at the hospital was in maternity. Seeing other women caring for their newborns, thinking about how life and death are part of the same current, reading a biography of Mother Theresa, offering my sorrows up in union with the Cross, and turning my unborn child over to the care of Our Lady. Those were the things that helped. When I miscarried the second time, the thing that prolonged my grief was not a lack of people to validate my feelings, it was that I had to painfully rework my world-view in order for the loss to make sense.
There isn’t one approach to grief that is the “right” one, and narratives that vilify or censure certain types of support are damaging to those who need to be supported in that way. When we say “don’t do (x), only do (y)” we create a cultural system that is only capable of helping specific types of mourners. David Foster Wallace spoofs this in a darkly humorous passage in Infinite Jest where Hal Incandenza tries to figure out how to “pass” his grief counseling after his father’s suicide: in the end, he has an emotional outburst that convinces the therapist that he’s achieved some kind of catharsis or acceptance – but that Hal himself only finds helpful in so far as it gets him out of further therapy.
Finally, there’s no reason to judge others for processing grief differently. Everybody hurts, and everybody needs to be allowed to mourn and to be comforted in a way that works for them.
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