You can’t control grief. It has a mind of its own. It runs its own timetable and its own unpredictable patterns. There was a famous episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show in the 1970s. Chuckles the clown meets his demise when he dresses as a peanut and is shelled by one of the circus elephants. At the funeral, the minister mentions some of Chuckle’s achievements,
Chuckles the Clown brought pleasure to millions. The characters he created will be remembered by children and adults alike: Peter Peanut, Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo, Billy Banana, and my particular favorite, Aunt Yoo Hoo. And not just for the laughter they provided—there was always some deeper meaning to whatever Chuckles did. Do you remember Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo’s little catch phrase? Remember how, when his arch rival Señor Kaboom hit him with a giant cucumber and knocked him down, Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo would always pick himself up, dust himself off, and say, ‘I hurt my foo-foo’? Life’s a lot like that. From time to time we all fall down and hurt our foo-foos. If only we could deal with it as simply and bravely and honestly as Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo. And what did Chuckles ask in return? Not much. In his own words, ‘A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.’
Mary Tyler Moore can barely contain her laughter during the eulogy, muffling her chuckles. The minister finally stops his eulogy and asks Mary to stand up. He tells her that Chuckles would want joy and laughter, and gives her full permission to laugh freely. After getting permission to laugh as much as she wants, Mary suddenly begins to weep inconsolably. Grief is like that. That is partly why some people need to laugh at funerals, and other people in grief find themselves crying at random times without warning. Robert Fulghum said, “Laughter is the cure for grief.” It’s certainly one of the cures. Shakespeare also had some truth when he said, “To weep is to make less the depth of grief.”
Some people say that grief has stages that follow a fairly predictable pattern. Michael Scott, in the episode about grief on the comedy The Office, described his version of the stages of grief-
There are five stages to grief, which are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. And right now, out there, they’re all denying the fact that they’re sad. And that’s hard, and it’s making them all angry. And it is my job to get them all the way through to acceptance. And if not acceptance, then just depression. If I can get them depressed, then I’ll have done my job.
He is quoting the (serious) Elisabeth Kubler Ross stages of grief-
- Denial (this isn’t happening to me!)
- Anger (why is this happening to me?)
- Bargaining (I promise I’ll be a better person if this stops happening to me…)
- Depression (I can’t handle what is happening to me)
- Acceptance (I’m ready to accept what is happening to me and whatever comes)
Kubler Ross’s writing was specifically focused around people as they face the prospect of their own death. The stages were later applied more generally to grief, but this wasn’t Kubler Ross’s focus. Even as they relate to the dying process, the stages are only general markers and should not be applied legalistically. There are no hard and fast rules in relation to grief. If your elderly parent dies peacefully in her sleep, you may not feel any anger and many people skip denial, anger and bargaining and move straight to depression. Grief doesn’t proceed in an orderly way. You may go back and forth between denial and depression, or have days of acceptance followed by tough days of sadness. A favorite song or a particular place might trigger memories and sudden sadness. Holidays may be difficult times to contemplate. People experiencing deep grief often become forgetful about daily chores, suffer from insomnia and loss of appetite, all of which compound the challenge of grief.
There is a beautiful movie, starring John Cusack, called Grace is Gone. The husband (Stanley) and two young daughters are forced to deal with the absence of their wife and mother who is serving in Iraq. They each have their own way of handling this grief. The 6 year old sets her alarm to a set time each day when she and her mother think about each other. The 10 year old walks at night, when she can’t sleep. When Stanley sees two soldiers at his front door, he knows that the news is not good.
He doesn’t know how to tell the girls. He doesn’t even know how to deal with it himself. So he packs the girls in the car and they drive to Florida. They have all sorts of spontaneous adventures and tender moments, but he still doesn’t tell his daughters about their mom’s death. When they stop at gas stations, he slips away to a payphone and calls home. He hears Grace’s voice on the machine and bears his soul to her, asking her what to do, how to talk to the girls, begging her forgiveness, admitting his feelings of inadequacy. He finally finds a way to tell the girls and they hug and cry on the beach.
I love the movie because it feels like an honest, authentic portrayal of grief. It captures the messy feeling of sadness and confusion that most people feel after loss, and certainly something like what I felt when my best friend died in an old refrigerator at age 6, and when my childhood dog died, and when my grandparents died. I gathered with my siblings on my parent’s bed when my grandfather died, and we lounged in our grief, shared random memories, laughed at his idiosyncrasies, and cried when we thought of what we would never get to say to him. It helped to share an unplanned time of grieving.
No one can tell you how to grieve. Anne Lamott said it well,
Everyone wanted me to get help and rejoin life, pick up the pieces and move on, and I tried to, I wanted to, but I just had to lie in the mud with my arms wrapped around myself, eyes closed, grieving, until I didn’t have to anymore.
What is good grief? The first truth of good grief is to be fully present to the pain. The second is that you are not alone, no matter how lonely it feels at times. The third truth of good grief is that its YOUR experience of grief, grief that follows your timetable with honesty and self awareness. Most of us jump around from shock to outright pain to acceptance or numbness to chaos to acceptance. And that’s okay.
Be patient with yourself and others. Maybe there is no such thing as full acceptance of loss. Acceptance may be a mythical town, somewhere in the nonexistent state of closure. The expectation of an end to grief may just add more pressure and guilt. Maybe acceptance is the mini victories of human courage; getting through a day without crying, or managing your first Christmas alone better than you expected.
However it manifests for you, be patient with yourself and allow your mind, body and spirit to heal in its own time and its own way.
As Deepak Chopra says,
Grief falls into the rare category of being a necessary suffering. You have to go through it before you can release it back to the light.