In a culture crippled by silver linings, we’ve overlooked the importance of the clouds
I lost my maternal grandmother to an unsolved act of violence. To this day, the details are fuzzy, the subject sensitive. We share photos and post tributes every July in honor of our beloved matriarch, agreeing to never forget the gift she was to us all. Occasionally, when one of us is feeling down, the other will offer a funny story because she left tons of them. But ever since the death of my grandmother I’ve had to deal with people using her tragedy as a way to force their unsolicited advice and unfounded analogies onto my ears-drums. Saying things like “Your grandmother wouldn’t want you sad this long” and “If she we’re here right now, she would be telling you to get back to business cause she is just fine.”
In the wake of the tragic death of Kobe Bryant and daughter, Gigi, people flooded timelines with their interpretation of Bryant’s last orders. Sports figures and analysts like Shaquille O’Neal and Stephen A. Smith jumped at the bit to tell everyone what Kobe would be saying could he say one last thing. All of their words sounding eerily similar, an order to get up, stop crying and get back to work. Either our dearly deceased relatives shared a publicist or we had a bad habit of silencing the grieving by speaking on behalf of the deceased.
We don’t grieve here in the West. Don’t get me wrong, we cry, we ceremonially lay our loved ones to rest, we step away from the office for a day or so and stomach a collage of condolences the minute we get back. We act out the grieving process, we use the word “grief” to describe it, but we really don’t grieve. As we do with other difficult human emotions, like jealousy, rage, and fear, suppression is the name of the game. And when we suppress the emotion that accompanies an experience, we fail to fully process either one.
Grief, for example, is a human experience that requires the person experiencing said grief to be in tune with their own emotions, and for good reason. We view grief from a very singular slant, only typically associating loss with sadness. If an individual is not in tune with their emotions, which includes having a healthy way of addressing them, when the wave of other emotions that accompany grief begin to present themselves, they’re more likely to be suppressed. Not in a conscious effort to evade the grieving process, but simply because they lack experience in dealing with them. It’s not enough to give ourselves permission to grieve if we’re of the misconception that grief begins and ends at sadness. Sadness is nearly a seam in the sequence.
In her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross made first mention of the five stages of grief. Grief, she argued, was universal, unpredictable, and unavoidable, affecting people of all cultures and walks of life. Each stage, she suggested, served a different purpose, requiring a differing level of commitment and intensity. Denial and Isolation, the first stage, guides us through the brain’s natural defense mechanism to sudden and unsuspected shock. During this stage of grief, we might block out outside communication and deny facts, this stage can last briefly or for an extended period.
This period is followed by anger, the second stage during which no one is safe from the deflection of our unprocessed and misplaced emotions. Once we accept the loss, we might blame friends, family, health professionals, or even the deceased as an attempt to establish a target for our agitation. And when passing the pain doesn’t work, we bargain with it, this happens at stage three. Bargaining is a step in the grieving process that happens when we attempt to regain a sense of control by convincing ourselves that we could’ve somehow changed the outcome. This stage is accompanied by a rationalization of all the irrational ways we could have averted our loved one’s death, for some, this stage is short lived, for others, eternal.
Overtime, these feelings of guilt and anger and sadness can meld into depression, the fourth stage of grief. For some, that depression centers around the more logistical concerns that accompany loss, like finances, travel, and loss of income due to time away from work. For others, that depression centers around the reality of the loss and the inability to say goodbye. Both variations are perfectly normal emotional responses to loss, neither more or less appropriate than the other. And once we work through this stage either with reassurance or respite, we finally come to the final stage of acceptance.
At this point we’ve worked through our denial, redirected our anger, bargained with the weight of the emotional burden and dealt with our depression, all in an effort to get to a place where we can relive the memory of our loved one without reliving the trauma of their death. And until we come to that place, it’s safe to say we haven’t fully grieved. There’s no timeframe around it, no satisfactory or unsatisfactory grading scale. It’s an ugly process that requires vulnerability, honesty, self-reflection and tons of support. And while it’s common to want to hurry someone’s healing along by offering them a guilt trip in the form of wise words from beyond the grave, we’re actually silencing and suppressing their sorrow.
So what does suppressed sorrow look like? Well, incomplete grief can take many different forms, one obvious one is hyperalertness. When someone is hyper alert or irrationally consumed with concerns of death, this is a sign that they’ve halted their grieving process or possibly haven’t begun it at all. Death can make us feel unsafe, it can make life appear unpredictable, but through the grieving process the goal is to make sense of the fragility of life and death without becoming fixated on our inability to control either or. Another way that incomplete grief can present itself is through anger and irritability.
Often when someone feels an obligation to manage the grieving process of other people, they place their own on the back burner. Eventually that inconsideration begins to manifest as irritability because our bodies have a way of expressing the things we won’t give a voice to, and grief needs a voice. Without one, we’re likely to see Behavioral Overreactions in place of the grieving process, this can look like a complete withdrawal from close attachments or an excessive attachment to them. Addiction and self-harming behaviors are equally prevalent in instances of incomplete grief, both used as a numbing agent to avoid and deny the actual grieving process.
In a culture crippled by silver linings, we’ve overlooked the importance of the clouds, they too have their purpose, just like grief. But grief doesn’t have to grind us down forever. We exist on the other side of our grief, we owe it to our changed selves to see the process through to the other side. Might some of us find solace in the suggestion that Kobe would want us tear-free and back in the gym? Absolutely. The suggestion alone implies that avoiding grief isn’t just about our personal comforts, but equally about appeasing the deceased, which we know it’s not. Truth be told, we don’t know what the deceased might say could they deliver one final message, nor is it worth it to surmise. Eventually we have to be more committed to our actual healing than to the appearance of being healed. Sometimes you’re not okay, you’re not over it, and you don’t need to hear how and why you should be.
Grief isn’t just a personal process, it’s a communal one, one that should be seen as both private and principal. We should be encouraging one another to grieve and to do so on our own terms, no one should feel obligated to suppress their sorrow on account of someone else’s satisfaction. That requires us to be open to the side of grief that isn’t muffled by funny memes and lighthearted montages, or crammed into a cute little 1080 pixel Instagram post. It requires us to be mindful of the fact that grief looks different for everyone, and remember that the benefit of grief is for the individual grieving, not for the dead and certainly not for those of us watching from the wings. We don’t actually grieve here in the West, but if you think about it, we really should.