It’s no secret that American society does a lousy job of allowing grief its proper place in everyday discourse. Or maybe it is a secret in the sense that with so few people talking about it, it’s not even sufficiently part of most folks’ consciousness to even form an opinion about it. And yet humankind is nothing if not a potpourri of grievers. There are folks in states of intense grief, folks for whom the sting of grief has abated over time or for whom the grief was more distant in the first place, and folks in the “not-yet-griever” category who are going about their lives without thought to or preparation for the inevitability of grief brought about by the inconvenient fact of human mortality. Literally everyone who has another human in their life is impacted, and yet so few are inclined to talk about it. It doesn’t have to be that way and there are things we can do as individuals and as a society to open our eyes and thereby share the load more equitably.
In my twenties, early in my days of starting to lean more fully into identifying as physically disabled, I read in a disability studies textbook about a phenomenon I found interesting and sobering: that many people are more likely to shun the disabled than they are other marginalized groups because of the fear of having to look at what might befall them at some point in the future. I am not, of course, suggesting that other marginalized groups get tons of empathy, but there is something different about the dynamic. What I found (and still find) interesting is how the capacity to directly imagine oneself in the shoes of a disabled person should, on paper, result in greater empathy, but so often leads instead to greater avoidance because that empathy just makes it too real.
I learned this, soberingly, in my twenties when I “came out” and started being candid about the impacts of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome on my body. By that point I had met exactly one other person with EDS, but there was enough writing on the wall that I felt the need to stop applying the unconvincing veneer of able-bodiedness. I look back somewhat fondly at the naivete that preceded this and led me to be surprised by how many people were made uncomfortable by this and how many phone calls just stopped coming, though it’s also worth noting that others stepped up their supportive ways. In my early thirties, I “came out” and revealed that I was a survivor of childhood sexual trauma. Again, some folks were (and remain) enormously supportive, but I still remember the conversations where people were rendered mute by this and changed the subject as quickly as they could.
That’s a lot of comings-out for a heterosexual, cis-gendered man, and it helped me be less surprised and more prepared when all-of-a-sudden being a grieving person centered itself as foundational to my life and identity. I’d lost people before, sure, but on December 14, 2012, the Sandy Hook school shooting occurred and even though I had the luxury of being a couple degrees of separation removed (Ana Grace, after all, wasn’t MY child), it changed my life and my consciousness instantly, even as what that looks like has been a more gradual unfolding.
I remain grateful for every act of compassion and kindness we experienced (many of them focused directly on us and our own struggle, secondary as it may be) and every person who in large or small ways has communicated a message of “I won’t look away, you’re not in this alone.” I am acutely aware that I am one of the lucky ones to have a community that is deep, wide, and caring. And I don’t even begrudge the folks who recoiled and turned away, who withdrew, and who otherwise hit the quite understandable threshold of how much pain their hearts and imaginations could endure. At the same time, it was another turning point in my observations surrounding the ripple effect of folks turning away, something that with the subsequent murder of my friend Claire Randall I’ve had further occasion to study.
Most significantly, and to put it bluntly, people get left behind. To be specific, grievers get left behind. There’s no formula for how this happens, just like there’s no formula for calculating trauma itself – it’s not as linear as evaluating a metric for how bad a traumatic event is and then measuring the duration and intensity of the subsequent struggle. As such, as outsiders to a loss, we are particularly ill-equipped to measure or predict what the griever’s trajectory will be, even if we think we understand the circumstances of the loss, the nature of the griever’s relationship with the departed, and so on. People suffer how they suffer for how long they suffer, and how that plays out tends to be a mystery even to them.
But even if we could predict and measure these things, the reality is that it takes significant intention and endurance to choose to open one’s eyes to another’s suffering for any significant period of time. One needn’t look far for proof of this, and any griever who is attentive to this is forced to reckon with the likelihood that their suffering will outlast the capacity of many others to continue offering care in proportion to that suffering, even if that care takes no more dramatic a form than checking in and listening attentively to a sincere state-of-the-emotional-union.
One thing that surprises me looking back at choices I’ve made along the way is that I’ve never second-guessed the moments I chose to lean in, even though on the surface a case could be made that turning away would have spared me some more acute pain. In the end, and on a purely selfish level, it seems clear to me that the pain of alienation borne of avoiding what I know to be true would be worse. The pain of capitulating to resignation that we humans are destined to just throw our grievers to the wolves would be worse. Inhabiting a world where I’ve seen and benefited from caring, openness, and generosity is one of the main things that allows me to endure moments of inner darkness. I’m also conscious that, for example, this year’s anniversary still hurts a lot EVEN with that support structure and EVEN nine years hence and EVEN though my own kids are alive; it breaks my heart to know that some folks at this moment are at once closer to the epicenter of loss and grieving without having had those hope-infusing experiences.
The inevitability of loss has always been part of the human condition. Add a global pandemic to that and it seems like we’re at a moment ripe for transformation with so many people only a couple steps or fewer removed from recent, tragic loss. We could acknowledge the prevalence of loss, make it part of the conversation, create a broad sense of solidarity and support structure, and in so doing provide an emotional safety net for whoever is next in line to experience loss.
Can we pull this off? I believe we can. Will we? That’s tougher to assess. The tension there can be illustrated every time we see or hear a news headline about a tragedy and we have that split second of evaluating whether we can handle it, often turning away in a necessary act of self-preservation. I know some pretty saintly folks, and yet nobody I know has an infinite capacity to take in others’ suffering without being impacted.
That said, what if each of simply practiced saying “I won’t turn away” in response to others’ grief once or twice a day? That doesn’t mean not turning away from anything ever, but maybe once a day we check in on someone we suspect may be struggling or wait another sentence or two before changing an uncomfortable subject or hold eye contact a little longer with someone vulnerable. The cost to us? Trivial. The gain for the other person in each such situation? That depends – anywhere from nonexistent to substantial. The collective gain for a society that agrees to engage in anything resembling this practice? Pretty game-changing, I’d expect, especially considering the trickle-down of normalizing this kind of engaged and (unlike so many things these days) entirely apolitical behavior.
Is it as easy as that? No, it certainly helps to have strategies. Deep breaths to ground oneself are important. Pre-prepping and (not “bracing”) before/after going into what we anticipate to be an emotionally difficult situation and taking space for subsequent debriefing are important. Staying generally tuned into our own self-regulation and finding the support we need (from people less impacted than we are, whether community members or professionals) to keep showing up is important. Subsuming ego so as not to become (intentionally or not) the protagonist of the story is important. Willingness to course-correct as needed is important. Having the patience to let things be as they are and the humility not to think you can “fix” an unfixable challenge is vitally important.
You’ll note, though, that all of these are healthy things that benefit one to do anyway. And in addition to the contribution to a more compassionate society, it’s not entirely self-sacrifice either. Participating in a meaningful exchange of support is a source of spiritual nourishment regardless of whether you’re the giver or the recipient. And there is something about being fully present for all that life (and death) presents that burnishes the soul and affirms that we can, in fact, handle it all. We can’t conquer mortality or neuter bereavement, but we can create a world that normalizes helping one another endure.