I wonder if what has been making us mean in the last few years is unprocessed grief. Maybe we have not grieved at all, or haven’t considered all the ways our souls are working through the losses and sadness we carry.
Do people in the United States have good ways to grieve anymore? Were you taught anything by your family system that helps you?
I am connected to many people who are not conversant in grief at all. If I suggest we talk about their loss and the grief they feel about it, they almost immediately deflect. They can talk about trauma, anxiety and depression, which are words the therapeutic language we use allows. But the deeper, soulful grief they are passing through and which they will continue to bear is hard to admit. For many men, especially, grieving seems weak, shameful, irrelevant, or just annoying.
You can see grief behind the meanness
It is possible, isn’t it, that not making room for grief is contributing to how mean we are getting. Many people have noticed our agression and disrespect growing, especially if they drive a car, and even more viscerally if they have been to the U.S. southern border. Americans are meaner. David Brooks wrote a great (long!) article about becoming meaner in The Atlantic last fall. But he did not highlight grieving.
Even though we went through a pandemic and even though the death and fear of it is not really over, Americans generally seem to brush off their need to grieve. Our president, at the outset of the health emergency, minimized the disaster and his followers loudly distrusted the vaccines which undoubtedly saved the lives of millions of the 111 million Americans who have been infected, so far — (yes, a full third of the country! and it may be more). Even with the vaccines, 1.2 million people have died from Covid so far in the U.S. — that’s over 1/7 of the estimated deaths worldwide. Donald Trump is famous for appearing on the porch of the White House, fresh from the hospital, still having trouble breathing, pointedly denying anything significant was happening.
I know many of us did not take his lead, but I think the country, by and large, buried its grief. The persistent irritation of unrecognized, denied, or avoided grief could make us mean and even sicker than we might normally be.
Maybe Trump takes his cues from the screen, since he is famous for having a lot of TV time. The screens contribute to our inability to grieve. We often learn how to live from them. And the screens are sketchy about what they teach about grief.
If you see grieving on the screen, it often moves through in a few moments. Some movies are enlightening stories of grief, of course — but even those films tidy things up, generally, after about two hours. Learning grief from film or TV shows may stunt us. They may desensitize us to our personal process because our catharsis happens while watching someone else, and someone who is not real, at that. It is not the same as having our own experience.
Our experiences rarely match the screen. Most screens show grief in stereotypic ways. A Reddit ranter says:
I’m home alone watching Kingsman (I know) and the main character loses the son he spent his whole life protecting and after 3 mins of air time grieving, he’s smacked into reality and goes back to work…. Like, is this annoying to anyone else but me? A close friend can give you a pet [sic] talk to physically hit you and now you’re okay again?!!?!
The boatload of heroic spy and superhero movies we’ve had in the last decade usually include this message about grief: there is no time for it. Besides, we’re too tough to give into it. Heroes tend to say, “I’ll honor your moment of silence for the latest victims, even acknowledge your single tear squeezing out. But then it is back to the work of revenge or raining overwhelming force on our enemies.” For instance, here is Thor dealing with his grief in Guardians of the Galaxy:
He gets slapped. Then he “gets it together” in record time. Grief meets meanness on the screen.
Maybe we need grieving room
Last week a book my acquaintance wrote about grieving showed up in my Kindle. I forgot I pre-ordered it. I admit, I was hesitant to open it because I really admire this woman and I did not want to not like her book. But as soon as I read a few pages, I could not put it down. It is a charming, honest, helpful book about grief: Grieving Room: Making Space for All the Hard Things after Death and Loss. In a world that wants to rush toward closure and healing, Leanne Friesen gives us reasons, and maybe more important, gives us permission to let loss linger. She teaches us to give ourselves and others grieving room when the very worst happens.
I wrote a bit about grief last week, too, because I need to give it room, just like anyone else. I was not prepared for loss. I think the most I heard about grief in my family growing up was when my mom shouted “Good grief!” — which isn’t quite the same as demonstrating healthy living or having a serious discussion!
Reading Friesen’s book creates much-needed time to meditate on old, unfinished griefs and space to accept more recent, raw ones. She is mainly reflecting on her own life-changing experience of losing her relatively-young sister to cancer. But I think what she says easily applies to losing several years to a pandemic, to vicariously losing mass-shooting victims or Palestinian children, to being fired from your job, to losing your child to estrangement, or to many of the other losses we don’t think to make room for.
She also focuses on her own emotions, which she can readily access; there is lots of crying, angry outbursts, and tenderness. That does not mean you can’t use her book to help you grieve the way you do. Men who have rarely cried as an adult can read it, traumatized people whose losses are terrifying can enter in at their present level, even Christians who think the Holy Spirit bears all their griefs so they don’t have to can benefit.
One of the most helpful images in Grieving Room comes in the chapter “Room to Never Get Over It: Always Missing the One You Lost.” In that chapter Friesen faces the hard thing we all face when someone asks, “Are you over it yet?” — or when we fear someone might ask that because we should be over it, or when we ask ourselves that question because we want to be over it. She says:
There is a season when you live right inside that big cloud of grief. In the grief bubble, it feels like you live surrounded by grief all the time. This is a normal part of grieving. It is also true that at some point, we transition to a time where we live beside the bubble, instead of inside it. Moving to this season can take a long time. Even when the big cloud shifts, your grief never really leaves. It is still part of us, forever.
It could take years for us to get out of our grief bubble. If we don’t make room for that reality, we’ll probably get mean to ourselves or others — and who knows what else might happen?
This award winning short film reduces the process of grieivng to ten minutes, but it seems more accurate to me than many depictions. You might see the bubble in it.
Jesus in the dust with us
Even though Friesen is a protestant church leader, she realized she might not make room for resurrection. In the chapter right next to the one I just mentioned is “Room for Resurrection: Starting to Find New Life Again.” She writes:
One of my favorite quotations, from Frederick Buechner, says, “The resurrection means the worst thing is never the last thing.” [The Final Beast (1965)]…Had the idea of all of us rising together ever meant something to me before? It had a little but even more now. Until I lived through my very own worst thing, I didn’t know the truth of the idea that the resurrection means the worst thing isn’t the last thing. It took a lot of death for me to start to see resurrection. I had never really needed resurrection until [my sister] died.
Unlike Friesen, many of us are tragically alone in our grief! To hear her tell it, her life is full of family, good friends and caring churches. I think it’s possible she could make room for the many hard things of grief because room had been made for her and her emotions in her family and community. She can look forward to rising from the dead with her family and friends!
That may not be where you are at right now. For one thing, the pandemic killed a lot of churches and the ones left are still recovering. Nothing will ever be the same. So if you had that togetherness it might be hard to find now. On top of that, you may have ended up too alone, locked down, to dare grieving. You’re more like Thor: hyper responsible for everything (but without a hammer) getting slapped. With morality gone, like David Brooks claims, and Christianity taking a nose-dive, you might basically be without God, too. So many of us suffer a deep sense of being completely on our own.
Being alone, or feeling alone, might make it that much harder to to get out of that overwhelming bubble of grief. Grief might become a chronic experience. Resurrection, the other side of the deaths we experience and the losses we carry, might seem like a fantasy.
The New Testament is honest about how slowly resurrection dawns on the grieving disciples. The Lord’s #1 woman, Mary Magdalene, thinks Jesus is the groundskeeper outside his tomb. At one point the risen Jesus finds his irritated disciples gone back to fishing.
The resurrected Jesus can be hard to recognize. He has a different look on the other side of death. We do too. Things look and we look different on the other side of our losses. I think the whole world looks different after the millions of deaths during the pandemic.
Before death comes to us or on us, resurrection can be an easy thing to keep on the outside of us, maybe more like a nice thought or an inspiring principle. Even Peter rebuked Jesus for wanting to go to Jersualem — no death, no need for resurrection, let’s keep things controllable. When death gets inside our defenses, into our heart, resurrection becomes crucial. When grief can no longer be denied or prevented, we have nowhere to go except to the one who holds the words of eternal life.
I think this very short video does a nice job of bringing us to rest in the hope of Jesus being with us, not only in the bubble, but in the challenge of facing death, inside and out, every day. I’ll leave you with it. When you say with the psalmist in Psalm 22,
“My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death,”
may you experience how God lays down with you in your dust.