When I watched my grandfather die, the weirdest thing to me was that I had no idea what to feel or how to respond. Humans have been dealing with death for hundreds of thousands of years and we still are paralyzed by it. We click into any number of different responses ranging from shutting down to explosively acting out.
For my current class on caring for those at the end of their life, we went over some theoretical models for grieving and bereavement. Going through the history, it was fascinating just how desperately humans have wanted a framework for how we respond to death and dying.
Part of the problem is this: how do you define “successful” or “healthy” grief? Moving on with life while living a joyful, grateful existence full of robust social connections? I think most would agree that’s a good picture of it. But the real difficulty when you’re sitting in front of a grieving person (or are going through it yourself) is: how do we get to that place?
I think many of us believe that you really need to feel the sadness, stare it in the face, deal with it, process it, sit in it for a time. But why? My gut thinks that’s the way it should go, but the research says otherwise.
Plenty of people go through a huge loss, feel a twinge of sadness, and then get up the next morning and move on with life, with no discernible negative impact on the rest of their life or relationships. When people aren’t actively in emotional distress, there is little evidence that forcing someone to do “grief work” is actually helpful.
I’m currently in a class on caring for those at the End-of-Life. At the beginning of this course, we were given an assignment (which you can do yourself) to give us a baseline as to our feelings and experiences around death and dying, and begin cultivating an awareness of how we cope with it.
I thought I had a good sense of my relation to death in my life, but this really clarified and confronted me in some profound ways. I saw just how unacquainted I am with death, and struggled to recall times it had entered my life.
The first death I knew of was my great-grandmother, with whom I had an oddly strong connection. But I was 10 or 11 at the time and heard about it from my mom, I think, while we sat in the car in our driveway. I remember numbness and confusion, not really knowing how I was supposed to feel. I felt solace in how religious she was, and I felt a responsibility to carry on her “legacy”.
But still, we did not return from Virginia to Texas for her funeral. This meant that my first funeral for a little boy at my church who had drowned. I was maybe 14 at the time. I did not know him, nor his family, and had no connection with them other than we went to the same large church. I went more out of curiosity and was confused at how detached I felt.
My biggest acquaintance with death was that of my grandfather. It was the first dead body I saw, and I was present for the hospice care and process of dying and grief over the course of a couple of weeks or so. But I will have more to say about this death another time.