Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Grief Survival Kit

I'm replaying this popular posting from December 2017 because I've added new writing, indented, towards the end.

This works for all forms of grieving - not just for departed loved ones. Feel free to pass it on to someone in need, or bookmark for a future moment. See also the Depression Resuscitation Kit.

To be clear, it's ok to feel sad. Grieving is natural. I'm not suggesting that we should be cold, emotionless robots. But I write this with one important assumption: that you aren't trying to fall in love with your pain. You're not using this sad moment to milk drama and stoke self-pity. You feel bad...and you'd honestly like to feel better. If so, this will help. If not, the following will upset you by minimizing exactly what you're trying to maximize! So consider carefully before proceeding.

Here's the question which you must ask yourself - relentlessly, again and again: What is real, and what isn't? Keep shaving off all the layers of untruth and drama. Slice away until you get to the real part, and then let that hurt (open yourself all the way to this pain; don't deflect it). You do not need to find fake reasons for heightening your pain. Deal with what's real.

Below are a few typical falsehoods (there are many more). They're things we've seen people saying in movies, so we have an unconscious urge to say them, ourselves. But they're just empty memes:

"Poor him/her!"
Whatever you believe regarding afterlife, your dearly departed is certainly not hurting. You can repeat "Poor him/her" ad infinitum, making yourself more and more miserable, but it's not a real thing. You're just hypnotizing yourself, and that's self-indulgence, not grief. "Poor him/her" is not true. Slice it off.

"She/he will never get to see/do X"
We, the living, miss out on things all the time. I'll never play quarterback for the Jets, and most likely none of us will celebrate our grandchildren's 75th birthdays. So what? This isn't the sort of thing we particularly sweat, so why would it be any more so for the dead? And if someone checks out at a low point, missing the happy turnaround, well, that's just normal odds! How many ecstatic peaks have you experienced? And would you have been particularly happy to have died during one them?

So young!
We all die young (at heart, we're the same person we were since we first opened our eyes; we only pretend to be grown-up). This meme, too, has to do with a person's "story", not the actual person. It's not real. Beneath the story-telling, we are ageless presences who watch stuff unfold. This, from their point of view, was just another thing that unfolded - and unfolds for each of us. It's not dramatic in any way. Don't try to make it so.

What a lousy way to go!
Accounts of gristly deaths used to really upset me. But I'm old enough now to have actually lived through some gristly stuff, and you know what? It was all just stuff. Broken bones and root canals seriously hurt! But such things don't ruin our lives. We get through them, and relief follows. Rest assured all suffering's over. It's natural to sympathize with pain, but, question: Did you sob for days when your cousin broke her ankle skiing?

I'll miss him/her.
Ok, now that's real. And that's all that's real. Everything else is just stuff you're telling yourself to heighten the drama and pain. Stay with what's real, open up to it, and let it subside, gradually, to a more manageable level. That's actual grieving, not cinema. Stay with the true!
A couple of years after I first published this, and having lost my mother in the interim, I see that there's still more falsehood to be shaved off. Even "missing" isn't entirely real.

I find myself missing her in instances where I could use guidance or an opinion...and then I remember that I can no longer turn to her for that, and feel a sense of loss and disconnection. Very sad, no? But here's the bizarre thing: I never sought out my mother's guidance. That wasn't her thing (she had other good attributes). She was never that sort of mother, even in her prime, and she hadn't been in her prime for a quarter century. Yet, every few days, I find myself crestfallen about losing something I never actually had!

We all hold a "Mother" idea (in an apron, with cherry pie cheeks and benevolent, nurturing smile) deep in the recesses of our imagination. And a "Father" and a "Child" and a "Husband" and a "Wife". They're images/ideals which may resemble the actual person only coincidentally, if at all. And since an imaginary image never dies, there's no reason to miss it. Deal with the loss of the actual person!
The impulse to torture ourselves with dramatized falsehoods has nothing to do with the departed. It's entirely about our own internal issues. Consider this: If you're this phenomenally upset about death, that can only mean life is truly amazing. So why ruin so much precious alive time with unnecessary drama? If the departed saw you doing this, they'd slap their foreheads and holler "Stop! That's just crazy! Don't do that!! Especially not in my name!" They'd want you to mourn for a while, and then go out there and kick ass, relishing every moment.

Resilience is related.


teejay said...

from a widow, you nailed it.

Jim Leff said...

Congrats for recognizing this. I've written before that the biggest tragedy is enduring travails without acquiring a dab of higher perspective. It's like the gold ring at the end of a given ride.

The world is not a torture device. The gods are not disrupting your plans and thwarting your desires out of sadism. Everything, without exception, is perfectly tailored to teach exactly what we need to know. It's ok that we naturally resist the lessons. There's no sin in failing to approach life as a perfectly playful and equanimous surfer 100% of the time. But when someone sludges their way through tragedy without letting their shell crack even a little bit, I can only pity their stubbornly blinkered persistence.

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