Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Ask Arthur 2021, Part 2: Grief, coping, and living

I decided to take a break from the “Ask Arthur” series over the Christmas holidays. I think that most people (including me) don’t want to deal with too much thinking at that time of year. Still, with the year winding down, it’s time to get back into it.

The first question is from my friend Enzo, who I’ve known for many years, since back when Nigel and I were living on Auckland’s North Shore. He asked:

What’s your top five best tips for coping with grief?

This is a really good question, and my answer to it has been evolving for two years now, and I’m sure that’s not going to change any time soon. Nevertheless, there are certain themes that keep popping up, so they’re a good place to start.

1. Feel. What I mean by that is that a grieving person should be and feel free to experience whatever emotion they’re experiencing at the moment. We must be free to cry and/or laugh when we feel like it without judgement from others—or ourselves. Emotions are the way the body and psyche heal, in this context in particular, from the trauma of losing a loved one. I’ve noticed how often grieving people will self-censor and not say what they’re really feeling for fear of being judged, either literally judged by people they know, or more figuratively by what I call “The Unseen Other,” the (probably) imaginary person we picture frowning and sighing deeply at the way we deal with our grief (this same Unseen Other often keeps people from trying new things, by the way). One of the best bits of advice I can give anyone is to cry or laugh whenever they want to. In time it’ll become more of the latter, but that takes time and space to happen.

2. Triggers are inevitable. There will be times when something—anything— can suddenly trigger a bout of crying, or even heavy sobbing. That includes things like a photo, a birthday card, the way the light falls on a familiar tree in the neighbourhood, the birth of a new relative, a new movie, or even the song used in a TV commercial (this last one happened to me with a Christmas ad this year). Such things can seem to come out of nowhere, and the feeling of being blindsided by the emotions is part of what can make it truly awful. On the other hand, they also tend to disappear as suddenly as they arrived—IF we allow ourselves to experience whatever we’re feeling (see Number 1). If we try to suppress or ignore what we’re feeling, it can drag on and on. Triggers are inevitable, but the pain they can cause doesn’t have to hang around. And there’s one more important things about triggers: They can also give us happy feelings, like nostalgia, love, or warmth. This is something that becomes more common as time passes, but triggers of deep sadness can occur for many years. Just ride them out.

3. It’s a journey, not a race. This is one thing that many people—those who are grieving and those who care about them—forget. There’s no such thing as a set timeline, and certainly no linear path. The grief will last as long as it lasts. I’ve seen plenty of grieving people worried about, and even feeling shame about, how long their grief journey is taking. Whether it’s people telling them they need to “get over it” (sadly, that really happens), or just a grieving person feeling that they “ought” to be feeling “better”, the result is still awful. I’m deeply sceptical of anyone—even mental health professionals—who try to put a fence around someone’s grief, something I’ve referred to as “six and done”, that we’re “allowed” to grieve for six months, but then we have to be “over it”, or starting to “move on”. It never works that way in real life. Some people absolutely do adjust more quickly than others, but that fact doesn’t mean that there’s something “wrong” with the people who need more time. It’s arrogant to decide for someone else how long they’ll be “allowed” to grieve, and stupid to tell them to “move on” (we move forward, not “on”, by the way). Each person is a unique individual, and their journey through grief is unique, too. Each person’s grief journey will take as long as it takes.

4. There’s no “right” way to grieve. This relates to all three of the previous points: Not everyone feels their emotions, some people won’t experience any real triggers, some people seem to have moved past their grief quickly, and some people will be the opposite on all those things. Most grieving people are probably somewhere between those extremes on one or more of the things they face in their journey, but whatever one’s reality may be, it’s perfectly normal for them. Just because person A seems to no longer be grieving after a few weeks doesn’t mean that person B is wrong for grieving a lost loved one years later. Instead, it merely means they’re different from each other. Only the grieving person will know what’s right for them personally. Give them time and space and they’ll get through it.

5. Breathe. All of the things I’ve talked about relate to the tendency we have to judge ourselves or to worry about the judgement of others. Because of all that, a grieving person may get a bit panicky about where their journey is at, or maybe that sometimes they need to sob heavily. In the early stages of grief in particular, it’s important to take one day at a time (as we all should), but sometimes we need to take one hour at a time, or one moment, or even just one breath. There will be times on a grief journey when the whole thing is absolutely overwhelming, and it may feel like it will never end—maybe that it can’t. When things get too overwhelming, the best thing to do is to just breathe. Some people find it helpful to concentrate on inhaling slowly, pausing, and exhaling slowly, but the larger point is that sometimes the best thing we can do is to forget about time, and everything filling it, and simply breathe. One breath at a time leads to one moment at a time, one hour, one day, and the more that happens the easier everything becomes. And then we grieving people can truly move forward.

As I said above, my advice on all these points has been evolving over the past couple years. I’ve talked about many of these things as they relate to my own journey in various blog posts, labelled ”A Survivor’s Notes” (posts about my grief journey), and also ”Building My New Normal” (which talk about my “journey out of grief”). All of which means that if I was to do this again next year—or in a few months, even—my answers might be very different. But the advice to just breathe is one thing I doubt will ever change, because, really, that sums up everything else.

Thanks to Enzo for the question!

Next, I have a somewhat related question from Roger Green:

Other than Nigel, whose death did you most mourn? Also what death of a public figure most affected you?.

The short answer would be that I’m not sure. That’s because that Nigel’s death ripped apart the fabric of my life to such an extent that everything, including my perceptions of my own past, is in a state of flux. I’ve also become more fatalistic about life and death, which has kind of retrospectively diminished the impact of anyone else’s death.

Still, my parents’ death affected me greatly at the time, but I was quickly overwhelmed by the need to survive as I set out on my new adult life. Before that, it was the death of the woman I called “my adopted grandmother” (she started out helping my mother do the housework, and eventually became a treasured member of the family—one I often think about to this day). I don’t remember my actual grandparents, since I seldom saw them and they died when I was still quite young.

I’m glad you asked about how the death of a public figure affected me, because I don’t think I’ve ever actually mourned a public figure—certainly not the same way I’ve mourned someone I knew in real life. The first time I remember the death of a public figure affecting me was John Lennon in 1980, when I was 21. While I remember the deaths of President Kennedy and Dr. King, I was a very young child—not even in preschool yet—when JFK was assassinated, and still in the third year of primary school when Dr. King was assassinated, so I didn’t understand what was going on.

I was also affected by the deaths of Princess Diana, Nelson Mandela, and, only recently, Desmond Tutu, among others. Some public figures’ deaths affected me more than others, of course, and I’m sure there are more I’ve forgotten about. These are just some I remember.

Additionally, two deaths affected me well afterward: Harvey Milk’s assassination in 1978 and Matthew Shepard’s murder twenty years later. In 1978, I was in high school and deeply closeted, and so, not willing to feel anything, however, I think that I felt the White Night riots were justified, though I certainly never told anyone that back then. In 1998, I’d been gone from LGBT political activism for several years, and Matthew’s death hit me because he symbolised all the victims of the very hatred and prejudice I’d fought against when I was an activist. He wasn’t a “public figure” until he was killed, and then he became a one: A symbol of all the young gay people we couldn’t save from anti-LGBT hatred, and also all those we’d lose in the future. And we’ll continue to lose, even now. It’s fair to say that the deaths of Harvey and Matthew affected me more than that of any other public figures.

Thanks for the question, Roger!

All posts in this series are tagged “AAA-21”. All previous posts from every “Ask Arthur” series are tagged, appropriately enough, ”Ask Arthur”.


Yes, ask again – The first post in this year’s series.
Ask Arthur 2021, Part 1: To blog, or not to blog


Roger Owen Green said...

Thanks for your answers. Your #2 I know to be especially true.

I know what you mean about the delayed reaction, BTW. It was true of Milk, who, at the time I only knew as the 'other guy" who died with the mayor, and which I relate to the general grief San Francisco was suffering after the Jonestown massacre (many folks from the Bay Area) and the assassination of Rep. Leo Ryan.

True of Shepard.

True of George Harrison, who died about 2 months after 9/11 and I know had been sick. His death was the first topic to make the Time magazine cover that wasn't in some way about 9/11 or the subsequent war in Afghanistan. It wasn't until I bought Concert for George album, which was recorded a year after his death and came out months after that when it really hit me.

Arthur Schenck said...

Now that you mention it, there are probably a lot of artists (in particular) whose deaths gave me pause, like David Bowie in particular, and even Donna Summer. I hope I never get to the point at which deaths, even of celebrities, no longer affect me in any way.