I just wrapped up the fourth of five courses in my Thanatology (the study of death and bereavement) program and this one was about coping with death. It was more personal content, rather than a look at cultures and religions and rituals, issues and attitudes.
As I worked my way through the questions and assignments, I realized I didn’t have a working knowledge about grief. It’s been nearly 13 years since my father died – a death that was both anticipated and a relief (he had dementia) – and I’ve been witnessing death and grief vicariously through close friends and family.
We had to say goodbye to our ten-and-a-half-year-old dog – our best friend and constant companion and our protector – Abby this past week.
With Abby’s death, I am grieving and supporting a partner for whom this is a gut-wrenching loss. I have “grief brain” and no energy. Everything reminds us of her. There are so many habits associated with the dog; everything I do, I remember I’m not calling out to her to join us on the front deck, feeding her the last bite of croissant, inviting her on a walk. We cry all the time. This is the ‘acute phase’ of early grief, but all of a sudden, I have a working knowledge of what my friends went through.
After all the books I’ve read about death and grief, after all the essays and poems I’ve written, after all the stories I’ve told about being a funeral director’s daughter, I needed to experience death and bereavement IRL (in real life) in order to full appreciate what I know. I needed to see it and feel it in order to get it.
And what I get is that we need to share our grief with others.
In the past ten to twenty years, there has been a distinct trend towards no funerals.
We think if we don’t make our families “do something” after we die, their pain will be less.
We think no one needs to be sad, to mourn, to get together with friends and family to hug and cry and tell stories, to laugh and remember.
Some of us even think no one will care once we’re gone, that life will go on and no one will notice our absence.
Generally speaking, none of that is true. Especially the part about preventing pain.
As humans, as social beings living in relationships, in communities, in online spaces,
we need to gather in some way, to be present with each other, after a death.
Because like death, grief cannot be avoided.
And the only thing that lessens the pain is sharing our grief.
It makes a difference because it provides comfort and support and, over time, healing.
We never get over the loss of a loved one; as my friend Beverley so wisely said,
“We just become reconciled to grief.”
And since we all know what it feels like, we need to gather together.
There’s life, there’s death, and there’s life after death – and that’s when we need each other the most.
I say this as someone who thinks about people but doesn’t get around to reaching out,
who knows things “intellectually” but forgets to do what her heart knows,
who babbles and cries at visitations so she stopped going because she embarrasses herself,
who has felt uncomfortable putting a condolence in an online comment box because it doesn’t feel personal.
I say this as someone who doesn’t get around to do things because she overthinks everything.
Also: gets weepy and doesn’t want to upset people.
But reaction to Abby’s death – the compassion and empathy, the generosity of words and spirit – the outpouring from others, reminded me that showing up – just being present in some way, acknowledging the loss and the grief – is essential. It matters.
Grief is hard. For everyone. No one wants that kind of pain.
But even the smallest gesture – even just a comment on a Facebook post, I’ve learned – matters.
Makes a difference.
This, from rabbi, grief counsellor and author Earl Grollman: “Grief is not a disorder, a disease, or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical, and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.”
And the best medicine for grief is to share that grief.