Our response to grief is not meant to be judged. There is no right way to do it. There is no list of approved things to grieve over. It has no expiration date. Yet in our culture, we are quick to judge another’s process. We hurl advice, often tired clichés about silver linings, moving on, or leaving it on your mat. On this day of reflection, please consider your response to another’s grieving process.
In 1965, social anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer wrote about the rejection of public mourning, a new “ethical duty to enjoy oneself” and “to do nothing which may diminish the enjoyment of others.” Add to that today’s social media driven obsession to appear happy, to make bold comebacks documented by Instagram posts littered with positively-positive hashtags and inspiring YouTube videos. We think nothing of telling people, “Why not leverage that personal tragedy for a chance to do a TED Talk!” or “raise your profile.”
Stories are powerful. They can help us to feel connected to another person who has shared a similar type of pain and cultivate a deeper understanding of our very complicated human experience. While we have access to so many stories, we are all sprinting through life and often don’t stop to listen. We skim rather than read. We want to hurry people up to get to the end.
Life is not the movies. A friend may be sharing a story that has yet to be resolved. Maybe that story is yours. We can’t hit fast forward, and by insisting others hurry their arc up, we are missing the chance to understand another’s experience that we may never otherwise know because of our color, age, gender or life circumstance.
What if instead of reacting we reflect. What if instead of automatically texting Oprah’s latest inspirational quote, we pause. (I love Oprah, btw.) While delivered with good intention, it can say, “I really can’t be bothered to understand your experience.”
Let’s stop saying things like, “It could be worse.” A person can be grateful to have a roof over their head and a job but still experience pain because, well, events like 9/11, their child has cancer, their wife left them, or their mother has Alzheimer’s, the list is long. Gratitude and sadness can exist simultaneously.
Moving on means learning to live with a new situation. We find ways to make ourselves more comfortable. This takes time. Sometimes that includes a lot of letting go, a massive life purge to create even more empty space before filling it back up with a bunch of new people, places, and experiences.
The time in between can be really scary and lonely. It requires patience.
September 11 is a day of reflection. Like you, the list of people and experiences I grieve gets longer every year.
Reflection can be a sobering experience. We can move on and still look back to see how far we’ve come. We can feel content with our toes in the sand and sun in our face but still ache for who and what we have lost.
And remember, another person’s grief does not diminish our enjoyment, but instead it’s an opportunity for deeper understanding. Take it.