Part 4: Cultures of Grief | Act 1: Grief and Emptiness

Disclaimer: The following is entirely opinionated. It is a generalization of what I believe to be common practices of dealing with and reacting to Grief where I’m from (the USA) and within the cultural bubble that I was raised in. I did not, in fact, have time to deeply research Western Cultures of Grief on a scholarly level this week. I have studied them before, but it’s been a few years. So, what I’m trying to tell you is that I am not writing this from a place of wisdom. These are merely my own perceptions based on what I have been exposed to and what I have observed surrounding my own experience with grief as well as others’ around me. I don’t know what I’m doing or how to give the right advice. I don’t even know how to act on my own advice, nor the bits and pieces given to me. I just want to talk about it freely and see if anything clicks. I’m learning as I go, and this is part of the process.

I really would love for this to be an interactive conversation. Please feel free to share your opinions, experiences, and thoughts on the subject, as well as your suggestions for interesting articles and books and any advice you feel compelled to leave behind in the comment box below.

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Grief and Emptiness

Last week, I ended with several questions that I had no answers for—sort of shaking my fist angrily at my conception of Western Cultures of Grief and how they’ve fucked me up. Over the following week (lifetime), I looked for answers to those questions, internally and externally. Of course, I found no hard answers, but I think I might have found a few insights. I’m still, however, shaking my fist angrily, but this time with some perspective.

After the recent death of my friend Will, I was left questioning why I felt so empty. Where were the Big Emotions, why did I feel hollow?

Let me attempt to answer this question with a story (or several):

I remember when my grandfather died. I was a child and it was my first experience with Loss. The first one that shook something in my mind open. The first moment I became aware of the permanence of death and the first time I had to learn to accept the fact that I would never see him again or hug him or play one of my dozens of made up games together (which he was always gracious enough to endure and indulge in).

I cried until I felt ripped open and raw. I mean I sobbed uncontrollably—belly deep, wracking sobs that shook me for days and nights on end. I didn’t understand anything or how I was supposed to act or feel, but my body did. So, I cried. My mother got sick of it. Exasperated with my display of grief and the seemingly unending sobbing. She would tell me to hush or to go somewhere else and cry. My parents have never been great consolers. Not big on hugging. Their philosophy centers around “Suck it Up and Get Over It, Big Girls Don’t’ Cry”. You know the: “feel bad for having emotions and control them so nobody knows you have them” school of philosophy. I imagine many of you might have been brought up the same way (I don’t know, I’m guessing. Seriously, let me know. Trying to feel less alone here).

Stoicism is not the best parenting technique just for future reference. Over the years I’ve worked out that they really just don’t like kids that much. Which is totally understandable. I can’t stand them either. But if you have one, you should probably figure out how to deal with it, especially a sad one.

It’s not their fault, really—they were unprepared. Most parents aren’t emotionally mature enough to deal with their own shit, let alone a tiny emotionally underdeveloped and alarmingly dependent human being.

This experience taught me three very important things:

  • That grief is something you are expected to deal with quietly, on your own.
  • To move on quickly and get on with your life, get back to work. The American way. That’s why we often don’t get to take time off after a loss, and even if we do, it’s not much.
  • And that not everyone is always in tune with your particular brand of grieving. They might lack the emotional capacity, or simply the time, to be there for you the way you need them to be. Yes, even here, at your most vulnerable, there is room for rejection.

By the time my grandmother died, I had learned to internalize grief.

I remember, being in the hospital with her, knowing she was dying—soon—and walking away, down the hall. To be alone, and to hold in my tears, and myself, as hard as I possibly could.

My cousin came and found me and gave me a hug. I’ll never forget that. It instilled in me a kind of hope that some people do know exactly what to do in these situations. Of course, everyone is different, everyone has their own needs. But it allowed me to believe that there is someone out there who understands and accepts, maybe even resonates with, how you need to grieve in that moment. Still, in my experience, this is a rare form of intuition.

Ten years later, the day after Theo died, I called my parents. That scene, too, is carved into my memory with razor-sharp detail: I am sitting on a picnic table outside the apartment. It is Fall. Late October. The air is beginning to chill. The colors are muted. Dull orange and yellow.
Everything seemed muted then.

I don’t know what I expected their response to be, but I distinctly remember feeling that it was underwhelming. Their reaction did not ring with the same loud and discordant sound that was spilling out of me in waves.

I was then hit with this sinking feeling that I had no one to grieve deeply to. I had just moved to a new city, with new friendships in nascent stages. There was always my childhood best friend, but we lived on opposite sides of the country and when it happened I didn’t really know how to deal with it at all myself—how to deal with that kind of pain—so I just shut down and shut in. I didn’t know how to ask for help because I didn’t know what I needed. Not only that, but even in the moments when I did feel the urgent compulsion to reach out, I felt too guilty about placing my burden, my heaviness, onto anyone I loved. And my parents, I don’t think they truly understood how deep a loss this was for me. Never have. When I bring it up, they still don’t give me the emotional reaction or reception I seek.

Not many people do really.

I experienced the same phenomenon when Will died. I know there are people who it cut so deeply. But most of the people I reached out to seemed not to care that much, from my point of view. They seemed sad that it happened, but the loss did not resonate at the same frequency.

***

Is this a lack of empathy or an inability to express our emotions? Is this a consequence of the fact that we’ve been taught, like those before us, not to engage with intimate emotion, not to expose yourself, not to be vulnerable? Why did their reactions seem so subdued and distant?

This is one possible answer I have arrived at:

Everyone is carrying their own emotional baggage. As for my parents, they were taught that this is simply a burden to sling across your back, but never to turn around and actually take a good look at what it is you’re dragging behind you. Do not investigate pain. Stay away from dark places. Ignore that achy feeling between your shoulders. And parents, in turn, teach this to their children; and so, it passes through the generations.

I’m often thankful that I’m a rebellious brat. I’ve always been determined to do the exact opposite of whatever it is my parents are doing. In this scenario, that means, to open my baggage up and dig around inside. Go over each and every little thing. Find the items that don’t belong, that don’t need to be there, toss them out, make the bag lighter. Hold some things preciously in your hands for a moment, then place them back in delicately.

Get to know your baggage, people. Trust me.

And try your best not to pass it on, not to your kids or your partners or your friends. Or, at least make sure it’s as light as possible before you, inevitably, do.

***

Another possible answer: It’s my head that’s the problem.

I don’t handle loss well, I guess. I can’t deal with its permanence, with its reliability. I walk around in constant fear of it, knowing that someone I love will certainly be gone soon, because it’s always soon. You’re never ready for it.

Maybe I felt too deeply and for too long. Maybe I still do, but the difference between then and now is that, at some point, I was taught that there is a socially acceptable amount of grief, as well as a time limit on mourning. I don’t really know by whose standards I am judging myself, but that is how I feel.

So, I’ve adapted; I’ve stopped feeling so much. Or, I should say, I’ve stopped letting those feelings spill over onto the surface. Instead, I now let them boil within me, pushing and pulling with the intensity of a storm-tossed ocean. That’s better right? Healthy. Contained. Controlled.

I mean honestly, how many times can you have your emotions shut down or ignored before you start shutting them down yourself—before your observant mind takes over and says “Ok! So, we’re not eliciting an empathetic reaction from anyone around us, so maybe we should just not respond to it either”.

Perhaps this explains my lack of emotional response with Will. I stomped down on the emotion because there was no one to receive it. Because at this point, I have learned to be so emotionally vacant, mimicking those around me, that it didn’t reach me like I felt it should.

Or perhaps we all just exist within our own different cultures of Loss, of Grief.

I don’t know exactly what I am expecting from people, but I do know I really need to hear an echo.

Always have.

I need everyone to cry just as hard with me, to feel the loss as deeply as I do so that I know that it’s OK to feel so much and to be so broken.

But how absurd is that? To expect such a strong reaction from people who weren’t close to the one you lost, not in the same way you were close. Who don’t even know what this person meant to you because you’ve always kept your deepest feelings to yourself. Because you are so absolutely petrified of being vulnerable and showing your soul—even to your friends.

Honestly, I don’t think that is fair to the ones you love either, nor to acquaintances, nor to strangers.

Perhaps we should just be more open with each other, in general. Then, maybe, I wouldn’t even be writing this. I would have found healthy ways to cope. I would have never even tried to do it alone, never feared asking for help or for comfort.

I know after I shared my post about Theo, people started connecting more. My best friend reached out with desperate words of love, consolation, and regret. It was powerful. My parents told stories, shared memories of him— when before, they would usually just look away and make some sort of sad noise.

So, is that it? Is that the secret? Just be more vulnerable with each other?

No, no it’s not—not entirely. It helps to share more openly but, that is only one part of a much larger and very vague answer. Eventually, everyone will go quiet again. The flow of empathetic response will slow and cease. Of course. That death was not their loss. In the end, when you’re alone, you’re going to have to find ways to deal with that noise, or else you’re never going to sleep easily again.

***

So, here we are with some possible answers to persistent questions; there are no certainties when it comes to sociology and psychology. But I think…As long as you’re asking the questions and seeking for answers, then you’re doing OK.

Sorry folks, I’ve really rambled and digressed. This post has carried on for way longer than I anticipated. So, I think I will have to split Part 4 into two Acts (yes, I do still have more things to say and issues to work through). Join me next time as we talk about The Performance of Grief.

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