We are allowed to be deeply into basketball, or Buddhism, or Star Trek, or jazz, but we are not allowed to be deeply sad. Grief is a thing that we are encouraged to “let go of,” to “move on from,” and we are told specifically how this should be done. Countless well-intentioned friends, distant family members, hospital workers, and strangers I met at parties recited the famous five stages of grief to me: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I was alarmed by how many people knew them, how deeply this single definition of the grieving process had permeated our cultural consciousness. Not only was I supposed to feel these five things, I was meant to feel them in that order and for a prescribed amount of time.
After my mother died, everyone I knew wanted to tell me either about the worst breakup they’d had or all the people they’d known who’d died. I listened to a long, traumatic story about a girlfriend who suddenly moved to Ohio, and to stories of grandfathers and old friends and people who lived down the block who were no longer among us. Rarely was this helpful.
Occasionally I came across people who’d had the experience of losing someone whose death made them think, I cannot continue to live. I recognized these people: their postures, where they rested their eyes as they spoke, the expressions they let onto their faces and the ones they kept off. These people consoled me beyond measure. I felt profoundly connected to them, as if we were a tribe.
SHE DIED ON a Monday during spring break of our senior year. After her funeral, I immediately went back to school because she had begged me to do so. It was the beginning of a new quarter. In most of my classes, we were asked to introduce ourselves and say what we had done over the break. “My name is Cheryl,” I said. “I went to Mexico.”
I lied not to protect myself, but because it would have been rude not to. To express loss on that level is to cross a boundary, to violate personal space, to impose emotion in a nonemotional place.
We did not always treat grief this way. Nearly every culture has a history, and some still have a practice, of mourning rituals, many of which involve changes in the dress or appearance of those in grief. The wearing of black clothing or mourning jewelry, hair cutting, and body scarification or ritual tattooing all made the grief-stricken immediately visible to the people around them. Although it is true that these practices were sometimes ridiculously restrictive and not always in the best interest of the mourner, it is also true that they gave us something of value. They imposed evidence of loss on a community and forced that community to acknowledge it. If, as a culture, we don’t bear witness to grief, the burden of loss is placed entirely upon the bereaved, while the rest of us avert our eyes and wait for those in mourning to stop being sad, to let go, to move on, to cheer up. And if they don’t — if they have loved too deeply, if they do wake each morning thinking, I cannot continue to live — well, then we pathologize their pain; we call their suffering a disease.
We do not help them: we tell them that they need to get help."
Cheryl Strayed’s thoughts on grief, the day after the progressive journalism community mourns one of its own.