Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Forever Grieving

In the psycho world it’s the latest thing. It’s called grief counseling. Given that therapy is largely ineffective against whatever is ailing most people, it makes sense that various counselors would be offering up new and improved versions, the better to guide people through what used to be called the four stages of grief.

One feels compelled to remark that the mourning process takes place on its own time and in its own way. It ought perhaps to be considered one of the great instances of what psychiatrists now call resilience. When faced with the loss of a loved one, or with someone who is integral to one’s everyday life, one’s mind will reconstruct connections, recalibrate relationships and rethink the future. Surely, it takes time. It takes more time the closer the person was.

And yet, by resilience theory, most of us get over our grieving in the normal course of things. Making grief the meaning of your life is a luxury that few can afford.

Unfortunately, when grief counseling becomes a business and when it is being peddled by unserious thinkers, people suddenly have a stake in clinging to their grief. 

Moreover, given that people like David Kessler, apparently a best selling expert on grief, does not know how to think, when we read his thoughts in a Wall Street Journal interview, it feels like taking a bath in mental drool. The theorizing is so lame as to be embarrassing. Buzzwords and psychobabble  litter his speech, with the assumption that he is actually saying something. He sounds like a child who has just learned a new word and cannot help from continually using. In his case, the words are "grief" and "meaning."

You see, he himself lost a son, and feels deep grief. We sympathize entirely. And yet, that does not mean that everyone who has lost a job, changed a neighborhood, or even broken off relations with a friend is experiencing grief.

When people die, they are definitively gone, and largely irreplaceable. When you lose your job, you will hopefully find another job. You do not, if you are somewhat sane, grieve your lost job. If you have moved across town you do not mourn the loss of your last home. You fix up your new one. To do otherwise suggests some seriously warped mental processing.

Anyway, Kessler sees grief everywhere, even where it is not present:

Yes. Everyone has lost something this year: The world we knew, the rituals we used to have, the events that got postponed, a loved one who died. Often, people tell me they are “crying for no reason.” They may not understand that the heaviness they are feeling, the sadness they woke up with, the irritability or anger they have is grief.

And then, of course, he joins the idiot chorus of those who insist that we must make it all mean something. They should have read Susan Sontag’s book, Illness as Metaphor, where she argued persuasively that contracting cancer is not a meaningful experience. It requires medical treatment, not storytelling.

As it happens, Kessler does not understand the meaning of meaning, so he drones on about it, misapplying the concept:

We have the false idea that our work is to make grief smaller. Our work is to become bigger and grow around the grief.

Sometimes, when people hear me talk of meaning, they tell me there is no meaning in a murder or a child dying of cancer or a brain tumor or a pandemic. I say: “Correct. The meaning is in us and what we do after.”

Meaning occurs in the small moments. Maybe you become a more generous person. Maybe you become a more determined person. Maybe you become a kinder person.

It can be finding a way to commemorate or honor your loved one.

Meaning does not equal understanding. When you find meaning, it doesn’t mean you will understand why someone died. The example I give is the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Her daughter was killed by a drunk driver. She has gone on to find great meaning and save thousands of lives. It doesn’t mean she will ever understand why her daughter died.

Some of these suggestions involve how you reconstruct your daily life after a loved one has died. It has very little to do with the kinds of mind games that are contained in the search for an apparent meaning. Reconstructing your daily routine is a sign of resilience. It certainly takes time. Most of it happens without rummaging through your meaning bank.

The problem is that Kessler is insisting that it is all meaningful. Resilience is not a search for meaning. It is what the mind does to adapt. It does not tell us that there was a reason for our loss.

Even though you find meaning it is not worth the cost of losing someone. But in time, meaningful connections may replace painful memories. You will be able to focus on the meaning rather than the horrible aspects of a loved one dying.

Your loss is not a test, a lesson, something to handle, a gift or a blessing. Loss is what happens in life. Meaning is what we make happen after loss.

And naturally, it’s all about empathy, about feeling the feelings, about sitting down and talking it over. But, what happens if the person prefers not to talk it over? What happens if the person sees through your charade of pretending to feel his feelings?

Kessler does not consider it all:

The first thing we want to do is witness their grief. Listen to understand, not to respond. We need to sit with them. Say: “I don’t know what it is like to lose a loved one, especially during this time. But I am here for you.”

We have the illusion that people might forget their loved one has died. We think that if they are not publicly crying, if they look fine, they are OK. We don’t want to ruin their good mood. The truth is no one forgets a loved one has died. We won’t ruin their mood by bringing it up. In fact, we help them by bringing it up and saying that we understand their grief still exists.

And then there is the sharing. Of course, some people do not want to share their grief, except perhaps at a funeral ritual. They do not want you to see them as grieving, or even as aggrieved. And besides, how does he know what everyone else wants?

People have enormous pent-up grief they want to share. I am afraid that when things open up and people announce they are going to have funerals, others will say: “The person has been dead awhile; do we need to do that?” I say yes. Because their grief has not been witnessed. Their grief has been left alone in isolation. We need these rituals. A funeral is a marking of a life.

On the last point, he is quite right. Funeral rituals are designed to help a community, not just an individual, to deal with grief. They are formal rituals that commemorate a life and take a step toward a future without that person’s physical presence. 

At some point, need we say, people cease to grieve. They cease to mourn a loss. They cease to define themselves by their losses. 

As you might expect, Kessler does not see it that way. He sees grief as an eternal process, something we never get over. Of course, some losses are more grievous than others. Some are far more difficult to put behind us. But that does not mean that we are forever grieving or that grief is the meaning of life.

We have this expectation that you finish with grief at some point. You never finish with it. But that does not always mean pain. If we show up for our grief, in time we will grieve with more love than pain.

Showing up means not avoiding it, not pushing it away, not trying to bright-side it or find the silver linings. It goes back to taking the time to sit with it. In time the pain diminishes.

I think we have an unrealistic timeline of grief. I use the term “early grief.” People think this would be the first week or month or year. I tell people my definition of early grief is the first two years.

Anyway, today, this passes for serious thinking about grief. As noted, it is empty blather, the worst kind of psychobabble, designed to keep you in mourning forever. Sad....

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have said this in other places, and now here: The STUPID is STRONG in these ones!