Three years ago, almost to the day, a dear friend of mine forwarded me an article and told me to read it. It was from the New Yorker, entitled "Good Grief", by Meghan O'Rourke. I just happened to come across it today.
In a lot of ways, this article became my Grieving Bible. I've passed it on to several friends who have lost loved ones, and I hope that it's helped them as much as it helped me.
It's not a guide to grieving, but rather, a review of articles written about grief and grieving and how our societal view of grief has changed over the last 100 years or so. As you might expect, because I am, (as my therapist describes me), "the most intentional person in the Western Hemisphere", the idea of having several potential models for grief to review and use as touchstones was reassuring for me. Especially in those first few months after Kes died, when I was flailing around like a spider who had lost three legs, being able to read the article over and over and remind myself that "Prigerson and Maciejewski say that grief peaks at six months in most people" and "Bonnano (2007) indicates that it's not unusual for some people to be able to adapt with resilience to even devastating loss", made me feel like I was "normal". Whateverthehell "normal" is for someone in my situation.
One of the major assertions of the article (albeit a subtle one, which I guess is why I like it) is that we don't do a good enough job of giving a public forum to our grief. In other words, we don't mourn like we did in years past. She cites study after study that shows that those who don't have a public forum for grief, especially after a sudden loss, have more health problems, are more likely to suffer from protracted episodes of acute grief later, and generally have a tougher time coping with their loss.
OK, so why am I talking about this? Yeah, there's a point in here, if only I can get to it...
I very deliberately have not talked about the horrific episode in Newtown, CT last month, and the empathy I have felt for each and every one of the families of those angels, big and small, who lost their lives in that senseless act of brutality. This Christmas, while our family celebrated in a more joyful and "normal" way than we have in the last three years, my heart quietly ached for all those families who were facing the utter devastation of that loss this Christmas. I was surprised that more than one of my co-workers, having watched the news coverage of the shootings, came up to me in tears and embraced me, saying, "I have thought of you all weekend; every time I saw that on the news, I thought of you. For some reason, I didn't understand until now how devastating that was for you."
Surprising also was the reaction of Mr. B, who, upon watching the news coverage, said, "It's not fair. You know, thousands of people lose their children every year, and they don't get a big thing on the news and parks named after their children and stuff like that. What about those people? Who cries with them? Even we had news coverage and strangers calling and consoling us and scholarships and trees and stuff. What about the people whose kids die in accidents or from cancer? They get nothing. It's not fair. How do those parents cope?"
And then today, one of my friends posted a Facebook status about tragedy and how we can choose whether or not to rise above it. I commented that tragedy comes into our lives to teach us compassion.
But that compassion is only useful if we know about the pain that others feel. And our society encourages us to hide that pain. Ms. O'Rourke may be more on target than any of us realize. It is, perhaps, a genuine loss to our humanity that we do not mourn as a community in a more tangible way when we lose one of our own.
Which brings me back here. Several people have asked me over the years how I managed to pick up and carry on after we lost the Bug. My standard answer is, "You do what you have to do; sometimes there's no choice." But that's not really true. In large part, I was able to pick up and carry on because I had an incredibly wide, diverse and compassionate circle of friends, both local and across the country, who let me talk and cry and rage and think, without my having to lean too hard on any one of them. But it's also, in no small part, because I had this space to write and to grieve in a more public way. Because through these pages, I was able to mourn, in public, and have my cries heard and echoed.
So if you're reading this, Thank you.
And please, don't be afraid to feel your own grief, to yearn, to mourn, if that's what you need to do. Even years later, a good cry is a beautiful thing.
And if you haven't read that article yet, do read it. Print it out. Go back and look at her other writings in the year after her mother passed away in 2009. Reading her articles and essays made me feel not so alone and not so crazy during a year when I was wont to feel both. And if she touches you, write her a letter and say thanks. That's what I'm going to do tonight, I think.