We’re currently living in a world of extreme contradiction–extreme wealth and extreme poverty, extremely safe and extremely dangerous, increasingly connected and increasingly fragmented. Our inner worlds are plagued with anxiety, depression and loneliness even as aspects of our circumstances arguably promise joy, friendship and stability. Generations have been building to our modern prosperity in the hope of eliminating disease, pain and suffering but, if you believe any number of doom and gloom articles and statistics, these efforts have been an utter failure. And that’s something we need to talk about.
I’ve had a lot of grief in my life. Full stop. This isn’t a badge of honor nor is it a point of bragging but rather as I’ve lived I have had to come to terms with the fact that grief is not a competition and we don’t have to pretend that we could be in a worse place with greater grief in order to truly cope with it. In fact, it is this game of comparing grief to grief that has placed us in a position where we experience so much suffering without being given a social sanction to simply grieve for the pain we are feeling regardless of how much more pain we’d be experiencing if we were X and in Y position.
I spent my twenties not coping with grief because it was inconvenient to those around me.
“Life goes on”
“Everything happens for a reason”
I thought it was important to focus on college, work and whatever my friends were focused on. I wanted to be a team player and contribute to society. My grief, on the other hand, didn’t want any of this. I sunk into crippling depression, gained weight, slept a lot and had to lie to everyone, including myself, about how much responsibility I could really handle. I did eventually climb my way out of depression without meds or counseling–I do not recommend not seeking help. I hit my lowest low and found an email from one of the people I was grieving for before he died. It was a supportive note about my work and I’d forgotten about it over the years. It hit me incredibly hard and I felt this sense of–“why did someone like him die while I was still alive?” I explored this over the next couple of years through my writing because that was something he liked and I figured I would just write for him because he had enjoyed my work and it gave me a sense of acceptance that I was unable to give myself. And in the course of my next loss I found my answer.
When we refuse to grieve because society deems grief as isolating we end up truly isolating ourselves. Sometimes grieving means spending weeks in a haze, sleeping more than usual and not talking about it because there’s too much to talk about and our whole body is under the strain of grief. This isn’t conducive to our consumer culture that has to always be going, smiling and productive. Grief isn’t productive until you’ve begun to process the grief but getting there in an authentic way isn’t just a matter of hitting up a grief counselor for a few weeks.
Now, I want to say that the kind of grief I’m talking about isn’t isolated to personal losses but extends beyond. We are capable of enormous empathy and the result is that often we feel grief over the losses of people who we’ve never met and who have nothing to do with us. Our connected world allows us to gain close connections to people and events who never truly enter our lives but have still had profound effects on us in our daily lives. I’m not talking about celebrities or public figures exclusively but also people we read about who resonate with us for their ordinariness. Often this grief is then recaptured by a media who tells us we need to channel our grief into activism. And they transform our grief into rage but we remain deeply wounded.
The part of grief that is the most important is the inactive part. It is the part that belongs to us and it is the part we will live with long after we have begun to heal.
In the next part of this series I will delve deeper into the personal side of grief and why we need to give ourselves space to experience it and how these isolated explorations of grief help us to feel less isolated and more capable of feeling joy.