In this post, I’m going to talk about grief. And sorrow. And the pain of loss.
I imagine this won’t be easy for you, my dear reader. And I wish I could say that I’m sorry for that.
…but I’m not.
I think there’s a skill to seeing horror clearly. And I think we need to learn how to see horror clearly if we want to end it.
This means that in order to point at the skill, I need to also point at real horror, to show how it works.
So, I’m not sorry that I will make you uncomfortable if I succeed at conveying my thoughts here. I imagine I have to.
Instead, I’m sorry that we live in a universe where this is necessary.
If you Google around, you’ll find all kinds of lists of what to say and avoid saying to a grieving person. For reasons I’ll aim to make clear later on, I want to focus for a moment on some of the things not to say. Here are a few from Grief.com:
- “He is in a better place.”
- “There is a reason for everything.”
- “I know how you feel.”
- “Be strong.”
I can easily imagine someone saying things like this with the best of intentions. They see someone they care about who is suffering greatly, and they want to help.
But to the person who has experienced a loss, these are very unpleasant to hear. The discomfort is often pre-verbal and can be difficult to articulate, especially when in so much pain. But a fairly common theme is something like:
“Don’t heave your needs on me. I’m too tired and in too much pain to help you.”
If you’ve never experienced agonizing loss, this might seem really confusing at first — which is why it seems tempting to say those things in the first place, I think. But try assuming that the grieving person sees the situation more clearly, and see if you can make sense of this reaction before reading on.
If you look at the bulleted statements above, there’s a way of reading them that says “You’re suffering. Maybe try this, to stop your suffering.” There’s an imposition there, telling the grieving person to add more burden to how they are in the moment. In many cases, the implicit request to stop suffering comes from the speaker’s discomfort with the griever’s pain, so an uncharitable (but sometimes accurate) read of those statements is “I don’t like it when you hurt, so stop hurting.”
Notice that the person who lost someone doesn’t have to think through all this. They just see it, directly, and emotionally respond. They might not even be able to say why others’ comments feel like impositions, but there’s very little doubt that they do. It’s just that social expectations take so much energy, and the grief is already so much to carry, that it’s hard not to notice.
There’s only energy for what really, actually matters.
And, it turns out, not much matters when you hurt that much.
I’d like to suggest that grieving is how we experience the process of a very, very deep part of our psyches becoming familiar with a painful truth. It doesn’t happen only when someone dies. For instance, people go through a very similar process when mourning the loss of a romantic relationship, or when struck with an injury or illness that takes away something they hold dear (e.g., quadriplegia). I think we even see smaller versions of it when people break a precious and sentimental object, or when they fail to get a job or into a school they had really hoped for, or even sometimes when getting rid of a piece of clothing they’ve had for a few years.
In general, I think familiarization looks like tracing over all the facets of the thing in question until we intuitively expect what we find. I’m particularly fond of the example of arriving in a city for the first time: At first all I know is the part of the street right in front of where I’m staying. Then, as I wander around, I start to notice a few places I want to remember: the train station, a nice coffee shop, etc. After a while of exploring different alleyways, I might make a few connections and notice that the coffee shop is actually just around the corner from that nice restaurant I went to on my second night there. Eventually the city (or at least those parts of it) start to feel smaller to me, like the distances between familiar locations are shorter than I had first thought, and the areas I can easily think of now include several blocks rather than just parts of streets.
I’m under the impression that grief is doing a similar kind of rehearsal, but specifically of pain. When we lose someone or something precious to us, it hurts, and we have to practice anticipating the lack of the preciousness where it had been before. We have to familiarize ourselves with the absence.
When I watch myself grieve, I typically don’t find myself just thinking “This person is gone.” Instead, my grief wants me to call up specific images of recurring events — holding the person while watching a show, texting them a funny picture & getting a smiley back, etc. — and then add to that image a feeling of pain that might say “…and that will never happen again.” My mind goes to the feeling of wanting to watch a show with that person and remembering they’re not there, or knowing that if I send a text they’ll never see it and won’t ever respond. My mind seems to want to rehearse the pain that will happen, until it becomes familiar and known and eventually a little smaller.
I think grieving is how we experience the process of changing our emotional sense of what’s true to something worse than where we started.
Unfortunately, that can feel on the inside a little like moving to the worse world, rather than recognizing that we’re already here.
It looks to me like it’s possible to resist grief, at least to some extent. I think people do it all the time. And I think it’s an error to do so.
If I’m carrying something really heavy and it slips and drops on my foot, I’m likely to yelp. My initial instinct once I yank my foot free might be to clutch my foot and grit my teeth and swear. But in doing so, even though it seems I’m focusing on the pain, I think it’s more accurate to say that I’m distracting myself from the pain. I’m too busy yelling and hopping around to really experience exactly what the pain feels like.
I could instead turn my mind to the pain, and look at it in exquisite detail. Where exactly do I feel it? Is it hot or cold? Is it throbbing or sharp or something else? What exactly is the most aversive aspect of it? This doesn’t stop the experience of pain, but it does stop most of my inclination to jump and yell and get mad at myself for dropping the object in the first place.
I think the first three so-called “stages of grief” — denial, anger, and bargaining — are avoidance behaviors. They’re attempts to distract oneself from the painful emotional update. Denial is like trying to focus on anything other than the hurt foot, anger is like clutching and yelling and getting mad at the situation, and bargaining is like trying to rush around and bandage the foot and clean up the blood. In each case, there’s an attempt to keep the mind preoccupied so that it can’t start the process of tracing the pain and letting the agonizing-but-true world come to feel true. It’s as though there’s a part of the psyche that believes it can prevent the horror from being real by avoiding coming to feel as though it’s real.
The above might seem kind of abstract, so let me list a very few examples that I think do in fact apply to resisting grief:
- After a breakup, someone might refuse to talk about their ex and insist that no one around them bring up their ex. They might even start dating a lot more right away (the “rebound” phenomenon, or dismissive-avoidant dating patterns). They might insist on acting like their ex doesn’t exist, for months, and show flashes of intense anger when they find a lost sweater under their bed that had belonged to the ex.
- While trying to finish a project for a major client (or an important class assignment, if a student), a person might realize that they simply don’t have the time they need, and start to panic. They might pour all their time into it, even while knowing on some level that they can’t finish on time, but trying desperately anyway as though to avoid looking at the inevitability of their meaningful failure.
- The homophobia of the stereotypical gay man in denial looks to me like a kind of distraction. The painful truth for him here is that he is something he thinks it is wrong to be, so either his morals or his sense of who he is must die a little. Both are agonizing, too much for him to handle, so instead he clutches his metaphorical foot and screams.
In every case, the part of the psyche driving the behavior seems to think that it can hold the horror at bay by preventing the emotional update that the horror is real. The problem is, success requires severely distorting your ability to see what is real, and also your desire to see what’s real. This is a cognitive black hole — what I sometimes call a “metacognitive blindspot” — from which it is enormously difficult to return.
This means that if we want to see reality clearly, we have to develop some kind of skill that lets us grieve well — without resistance, without flinching, without screaming to the sky with declarations of war as a distraction from our pain.
We have to be willing to look directly and unwaveringly at horror.
In 2014, my marriage died.
A friend warned me that I might go through two stages of grief: one for the loss of the relationship, and one for the loss of our hoped-for future together.
She was exactly right.
The second one hit me really abruptly. I had been feeling solemn and glum since the previous night, and while riding public transit I found myself crying. Specific imagined futures — of children, of holidays, of traveling together — would come up, as though raising the parts that hurt the most and saying “See this, and wish it farewell.”
The pain was so much. I spent most of that entire week just moving around slowly, staring off into space, mostly not caring about things like email or regular meetings.
Two things really stand out for me from that experience.
First, there were still impulses to flinch away. I wanted to cry about how the pain was too much to bear and curl up in a corner — but I could tell that impulse came from a different place in my psyche than the grief did. It felt easier to do that, like I was trading some of my pain for suffering instead and could avoid being present to my own misery. I had worked enough with grief at that point to intuit that I needed to process or digest the pain, and that this slow process would go even more slowly if I tried not to experience it. It required a choice, every moment, to keep my focus on what hurt rather than on how much it hurt or how unfair things were or any other story that decreased the pain I felt in that moment. And it was tiring to make that decision continuously.
Second, there were some things I did feel were important, even in that state. At the start of this post I referenced how mourners can sometimes see others’ motives more plainly than those others can. What I imagine is the same thing gave me a clear sense of how much nonsense I waste my time on — how most emails don’t matter, most meetings are pointless, most curriculum design thoughts amount to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. I also vividly saw how much nonsense I project about who I am and what my personal story is — including the illusions I would cast on myself. Things like how I thought I needed people to admire me to feel motivated, or how I felt most powerful when championing the idea of ending aging. These stories looked embarrassingly false, and I just didn’t have the energy to keep lying to myself about them.
What was left, after tearing away the dross, was simple and plain and beautiful in its nakedness. I felt like I was just me, and there were a very few things that still really mattered. And, even while drained and mourning for the lovely future that would never be, I found myself working on those core things. I could send emails, but they had to matter, and they couldn’t be full of blather. They were richly honest and plain and simply directed at making the actually important things happen.
It seems to me that grieving well isn’t just a matter of learning to look at horror without flinching. It also lets us see through certain kinds of illusion, where we think things matter but at some level have always known they don’t.
I think skillful grief can bring us more into touch with our faculty of seeing the world plainly as we already know it to be.
I think we, as a species, dearly need to learn to see the world clearly.
A humanity that makes global warming a politicized debate, with name-calling and suspicion of data fabrication, is a humanity that does not understand what is at stake.
A world that waits until its baby boomers are doomed to die of aging before taking aging seriously has not understood the scope of the problem and is probably still approaching it with distorted thinking.
A species that has great reason to fear human-level artificial intelligence and does not pause to seriously figure out what if anything is correct to do about it (because “that’s silly” or “the Terminator is just fiction”) has not understood just how easily it can go horribly wrong.
Each one of these cases is bad enough — but these are just examples of the result of collectively distorted thinking. We will make mistakes this bad, and possibly worse, again and again as long as we are willing to let ourselves turn our awareness away from our own pain. As long as the world feels safer to us than it actually is, we will risk obliterating everything we care about.
There is hope for immense joy in our future. We have conquered darkness before, and I think we can do so again.
But doing so requires that we see the world clearly.
And the world has devastatingly more horror in it than most people seem willing to acknowledge.
The path of clear seeing is agonizing — but that is because of the truth, not because of the path. We are in a kind of hell, and avoiding seeing that won’t make it less true.
But maybe, if we see it clearly, we can do something about it.
Grieve well, and awaken.