Updated: Jan 30
I think about grief a lot. I read books and articles about grief and the process of dying. I follow stories on social media of tragic illnesses, diseases, and eventual death. I look for memoirs that chronicle the death of loved ones. Mostly I'm trying to really hear the human experience of death. And yes, it's dark and pretty morbid, right? Yup, especially since most of us spend a lot of time trying to avoid conversations about death.
So why am I drawn to this topic? Why do I want to understand more about the process of dying, the experience, and especially what it means to live when someone you love has died?
Well, some of it is personal. I've had some significant losses in my life and I carry those with me. They have shaped how I think about the world and thus how I consider what it means to live. It's a part of my story. And it's a part of my work. Over my years as a therapist I've walked with people in some of their darkest times as they grieve the loss of child, a partner, or a friend. Each time I am struck by what a shared human experience death is, and also how unprepared we usually feel when it happens to someone we love.
Here's what I've noticed as I continue to walk this path of learning around grief.
First, in it's early days loss can knock you to the ground so hard that you don't ever think you'll be able to get up again. Those days can feel like you are suffocating, unable to even move in the world the ways you used to. I describe this as though the world has tilted it's axis, you are walking on uneven ground. In these early days the unsteadiness of life takes all of your energy to survive and manage. Just trying to stay alive is enough.
Second, people need different things as they navigate the process of grief. Some need hope that it's not always going to feel so awful. These people need to look forward in order to survive. In the article, There are No Five Stages of Grief, Bastain writes "I’ve never felt as hopeless as I did when I lost my son. I didn’t need a vague theory. Facing grief that felt unbearable, I needed to know: When might the very worst be over?"
But that kind of forward thinking is intolerable to others in the process of grieving. It may feel dismissive of their loss and at it's worst invalidating of their experience. In this space grievers need companionship on the journey, and reassurance that "grief is the repeated experience of learning to live after loss" as Lee writes. Sometimes sitting in the sadness allows it to take shape in new ways in our lives. The impact is still felt, sometimes with terrifying intensity, but there is a place for it in this new way of navigating the world.
Third, meaning is a very tricky concept when you are grieving. I'm not talking about the flippant phrases that are most often grounded in religious thinking such as, "God's got a bigger purpose in taking them" or "with time you'll find the meaning in this loss". No, those kinds of statements are pretty much bad for grieving people, even those who find solace in a faith perspective. I'm referring to something that happens over time, our human desire to make sense of what has happened to us.
Again here I think it's important to attend to each person's individual process. Some people long for meaning, an answer to, why did this happen? In my experience there are no easy answers to this, at least none that fully satisfy. Others lean into the senselessness of death and struggle to see meaning as anything more than a bandaid on a gaping wound. As I've explored this more, I tend to live in the space that there is no good meaning to be found in loss, it will always hurt. And yet I also appreciate what David Kessler talks about in his book, Finding Meaning, The Sixth Stage of Grief. There he offers us the story of his son's untimely death and his struggle to right himself in the midst of it. He shares that a fellow bereaved parent said to him "I know you are drowning. You'll keep sinking for a while, but there will come a point when you'll hit bottom. Then you'll have a decision to make. Do you stay there or push off and start to rise again?"
Maybe understanding grief is really about understanding how we want to live. As I wander this journey if both my personal and professional life I keep coming back to wondering, well in the face of death, how do I want to live? What does it mean to have lived a life worth living?
Kara Wolff, PhD
Memoirs on dying:
When Breathe Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi
The Bright Hour, Nina Riggs
No Cure for Being Human, Kate Bowler
Memoirs on grief and loss:
The Light of the World: A Memoir, Elizabeth Alexander
Crying In H-Mart, Michelle Zauner
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
Seeing Ghosts, Kat Chow
Ordinary Light: A Memoir, Tracey K. Smith