Pay attention

About GriefSince I’m thinking and writing about my experiences with grief and burnout, I made a little trip to BookPeople just to see what was new there. The Grief and Grieving shelf had a lot a new books that I hadn’t seen before. I picked up this one and read it in two sittings.

The book takes a critical look at the burgeoning “grief culture” and the ever more proscriptive character of grief advice and counseling. It helped me to fine tune my thinking about what I’m writing and why.

Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief have become the ubiquitous explanatory framework for understanding the grief process. However, as this book explains, they were never based on scientific observation. And although Kubler-Ross herself stated that they aren’t strictly stages as defined scientifically, the grief industry latched onto them as such, and capitalized on this tidy formulation to promulgate the idea that grieving takes work, is supposed to proceed in a certain way and lasts a very long time. Now, there is a thriving grief counseling industry, complete with trade associations and conferences, continuing education and professional certification (that can be awarded to people without any professional mental health education or training).

The problem is that new (actual) scientific research has shown that the majority of people get through their mourning period in their own way and their own time. Most people, it turns out, are very resilient in the face of loss, coming to terms with the death of a loved one with the support of friends and family, and usually within a few months. People with a history or predisposition to depression, or who experienced the death as a personal trauma of some kind are more likely to experience what is now called “complicated grief.” They are the ones who benefit from counseling; but, the research has shown that they need to get it from experienced, trained mental health professionals, not under-qualified “certified thanatologists.”

So, essentially, there is this whole money-making business out there capitalizing on the mass marketed idea that we need to go through these five stages or we will somehow pay for it later with a delayed response or just not be normal. The funeral homes have built it into their business model, many now providing “after care” for the bereaved. And the self-help section is full of books on what you need to do.

You could blame it on advertising, which from earliest childhood inundates us with messages and images designed to feed our deepest insecurities—the need to be loved and accepted. The seed is planted early on that we are somehow not enough just the way we are, and that instead of listening to our own hearts to discern our true value and know our place in the world, we can buy some product to fill the gap or make up the difference. We forget how to know ourselves in the absence of comparison. And we turn to “experts” to tell us how to feel.

needs of dyingNow, I admit to having read a bunch of books about grief after Mom died—because, well, that’s what I do in just about every situation. I read books about it! But I was never drawn to the ones that seemed to offer easy answers. I never picked up or worked through a work book. In fact, the book that I found the most helpful was not even about grief at all. It was called The Needs of the Dying: A Guide for Bringing Hope, Comfort, and Love to Life’s Final Chapter. It reassured me that I had done okay in Mama’s last hours.

In those hours and moments at the end of Mom’s life, I was tuned in. Nothing could distract me from this most important thing, the most important moment in my life, and my wish to make her as comfortable and not scared as possible. Hell, if Benny was barking then, I didn’t hear it! And in this state of real presence, I knew what to do, both for her and for me. And I think it went ok. She left without fear — she told me. And I remained.

And that’s what happens when someone dies. You remain. And then you feel stuff for some amount of time. And maybe you need help. And maybe the books are helpful to you. But maybe you don’t, and you will find acceptance and integrate this new absence into your life on your own.

I want to state clearly that I’m not trying to add to the mainstream grief culture literature or make an argument that my experience was universal. I do want to argue that we would all benefit from learning to pay attention to whatever it is we are feeling — or aren’t. If we were better at that, perhaps we wouldn’t turn to the books and under-qualified counselors to figure out what we should be feeling, what we should be doing.

Meditation and yoga are great places to practice that now. My yoga practice has been an enduring source of comfort and insight for me. It gets me out of my head and into my body, where the real emotional wisdom resides. As I quiet the chatter of my mind, and exhaust my body which is also trying to contain and manage emotions, I find that whatever I’m feeling finally has a chance to express itself, and then it’s done. I feel it, and then it passes on. I’m glad I had that practice… but we all need more of it.

The hospice movement has opened up some space for this kind of paying attention and just feeling in a person’s last weeks. It has also opened up a space culturally for integrating death into life, which his critical for our transformation through grief. It’s another of grief’s contradictions. Even if there is this burgeoning grief industry, in our culture at large I still think we don’t openly acknowledge death or the reality of grief. We aren’t comfortable with the ambiguities. And yet, at the same time, you could say we are obsessed with death and dying — we do everything we can to stave it off. Fear of death drives much of our spending in the self-help, fitness and diet industries. As Irvin Yalom theorized, our fear of death translates into our fear of life, and thus, our disconnection from our feelings and the real stuff that provides the flavor and texture of living. We NEED to pay attention.

So, if Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief have been misappropriated, and if she was a little kooky (as Konigsberg describes in her book), her work was also instrumental in the founding of the hospice movement, and a new way of acknowledging death.

So now we just need to learn to pay attention to what is actually living, and then we will be better equipped to face dying, and living after someone we loved has died. Pay attention.

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