An Essay by Noble Erickson, MA
While easy to understand in the face of such potent loss, Depression is for many the most unpleasant of the grief states. Denial is protective, and both Anger and Bargaining can provide an illusion of power. But Depression is where the limits of our control are fully felt, and mortality is realized. Many people fear this state – especially when grieving a suicide – and therefore see it as something to “overcome.” The misconception is that Depression has nothing positive to offer—that it is somehow counter to the process of healing and growing.
Many cultures value this grief state as a valid, powerful experience: a testimony to the worthiness of the departed. Many communities grieve together, with funeral ceremonies that may last days, rituals that last for weeks, and traditions that may go on for years. There may be shrines to dead family members within the home, or expectations of leaving significant gifts at the grave. In Western culture, however, this kind of prolonged grief seems antithetical to the values of productivity and resilient strength. To counter its debilitating nature, many only experience Depression in brief spurts. In Western culture – especially post JFK America – we talk about “grieving in private” and “recovering from grief,” as though it is an ailment or cause for shame. But this was not always the case: in the second half of the 19th century, Western culture recognized “deep mourning,” involving visual reminders such as fully black wardrobe, jewelry that included photographs and locks of hair, and limited social interactions for up to two years. These traditions existed because sadness is normal and healthy.
When my father died, I wore some article of black – most often a black scarf – every day for a year. I did not experience Depression every day, but on the days that I did this external expression of my grief felt validating and comforting. It never made me feel worse. It is by displaying our Depression that we signal our need for comfort and understanding—especially to ourselves. Yes, experiencing this grief state is acutely uncomfortable, but so is childbirth: pain can bring unprecedented growth if we let it.
With Acceptance comes a modicum of serenity. Many people mistake this for being “hunky dory.” The misconception is that Acceptance means we are done grieving and ready to move on—this is partially related to the idea that we go through the Five Stages one at a time, and then are finished, like the steps in baking cookies. With Acceptance they have cooled on the rack and all been eaten, and now we’re on to the next thing. Since feeling OK with everything and moving on may seem like a betrayal to the loved one we have lost, many people actually fear this grief state, and may even work to avoid it. In truth, Acceptance is the part of grief where take what has happened and make it a lasting part of ourselves. The analogy that I like best is to think of tree rings: if a tree experiences a trauma and survives, the scars are covered with a new layer of bark, but they never disappear. They become a part of that tree, an internal mark that is unique and permanent—but not crippling. It has not vanished, it has not been forgotten, but rather it is closer to the heart and no longer the immediate wound.
Accepting something doesn’t make it “Ok.” Accepting that someone you loved has taken her life doesn’t mean that you condone her behavior, or even necessarily forgive her behavior, and it definitely doesn’t mean you are done grieving. What it means is that you have gained a level of understanding about your experience of that loss. It will not be the last level: remember, you will revisit these grief states again and again throughout your life. It becomes easier because you have experience, but that does not lessen the value of your grief.
The final misconception I would like to address around the Stages of Grief is one that people carry about emotions in general: we try to apply the laws of physics. We think there are dimensions, limits, measurements, when in fact there are none of these. We think it must be A or B, when in fact it can be both and more, simultaneously. We believe that because time oxidizes metal, weathers stone, and rots wood it must also degrade our feelings. None of this is true. All emotions – especially the states of grief – exist within the infinite universe of the human mind (or, if you prefer, the human soul). Applying the laws of nature to human emotion is about as appropriate as trying to teach a petunia to speak fluent Mandarin. If you are grieving the loss of a loved one and find your emotions to be overwhelming and confusing, that is because they are like nothing you have ever experienced before. What’s more, your grief in the future will be unique again. That is what it means to be human. My advice to those in grief is born out of everything I have shared in this essay, and it is always the same: be patient with yourself. This emotional journey will both take more and less time than you think. It will be both more terrible and more lovely than you expect. It will change you. And all of that is Ok.
What you are feeling right now is Ok.
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