Thursday, April 06, 2006

A Bit About Grief

Written by Antheia

I once read somewhere that the great Lucy Grealy only allowed herself to cry for 5 minutes a day. Grealy wrote one of the most breathtaking autobiographies I have ever read depicting her own physical and emotional suffering following the diagnosis of an extremely rare childhood cancer which left her face severely disfigured. She said that she could only allow herself those few brief moments to grieve each day because when she looked at her life in a broader perspective, she really didn't have it that bad. She said that when she thought about how many people were starving, homeless, or living in a war stricken country, she found it difficult to wallow in her own self pity. When considering this broad perspective, she found that her own physical and emotional suffering seemed trivial in comparison.

For the past few weeks I’ve been trying out Grealy’s philosophy. I’ve been granting myself only a few moments at the beginning of the day to vent in my solipsism about the state of my life. I don’t find it particularly comforting to think of how much worse others have it in comparison to my own suffering, because I believe that everything is relative. However, thinking about others serves to remind me of how resilient the human spirit is. It’s amazing how callous life can be, and yet even more amazing to think about how people can conjure up the strength to live through, and somehow thrive under the most horrific of circumstances. It’s amazing how much we can tolerate before shutting down, before we reach the point of being broken.

I know my own strength, and I’m fearful that I’m nearing that point.

While it’s tempting to reach out for the support of others, to have them shoulder the burden for even a few minutes, I know that it’s not really possible. I don’t want to thrust my emotional baggage onto anyone else’s lap. No one else can feel this for me. And while others can attempt to be understanding, no one can ever fully understand the desperateness, the gravity of another’s grief. Grief is tricky like that, there are no stages that each person progresses through at a particular rate, and I think that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (who defined the stages as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) should be shot for ever attempting to wrap up the emotions and feelings associated with it in a neat little box.

From my own experiences, I’ve learned that grief is messy, it’s individualistic, people progress in their ability to deal with loss only to slip back again at a moment’s notice. And I don’t know anyone who has ever been able to reach a state of acceptance or anything that resembles acceptance following the death of a loved one. I think that grief ceases when we run out of the energy that it takes to sustain it, not when we gain some sort of ultimate enlightenment regarding loss, because that enlightenment will probably never come. I don’t even think that the real grief begins until long after one has experienced the loss. It begins the following Mother’s Day, the following Christmas, the following birthday, times when you think nostalgically of when that person was alive, and think about how at the time you had no idea of how much those moments were worth.

The other day, I called a friend whom I haven’t talked to in awhile. I didn’t really have an agenda of things to discuss; it wasn’t so much the topic of the conversation that mattered to me, but rather the conversation in and of itself. But it’s difficult to have a “normal” conversation when both parties are attempting to tiptoe around the real reason for the phone call. There’s always that awkward silence, because there are no words that can explain a state of grief just as there are no words that can potentially lessen it.

"I wish that I could think of something smart to say," my friend said towards the end of our conversation. This statement shook me, because she is the smartest woman I know, she could argue, or rationalize, or prove her way out of any situation, which was precisely the reason I called her. If anyone could explain the throbbing ache that has existed in the pit of my stomach since I first learned of my mother’s imminent death, it was her. Yet she couldn’t offer me anything profound. Maybe death is just one of those things which cannot be rationalized, maybe it’s too convoluted with diverse emotions to be explained with logic, or perhaps it’s just too hazy a concept to be defined with conventional terms.

But it’s difficult for humans to accept that something cannot be explained, that there may be no answer to the question ‘why?’ The fact that it can’t be explained makes the yearning for an explanation that much greater.

Following our conversation, and all of the thoughts that it provoked in me, I finally gave myself over to my grief, my whole self, and allowed myself to experience it fully and without the limitations of time or convenience. I laid my head against the coolness of the window, and wept for far longer than the five minutes that I had been scheduling for my grief. Afterwards I was surprised by how satisfied I felt, how consoled this effort had left me.

Perhaps this is what I needed, more than a definition, or an explanation of death or grief, I needed to feel it, to taste it, to give myself over to it, to understand that it’s ok to let myself go, as long as I can get myself back.