Friday, April 2, 2010

"I just can't imagine": a Holy Thursday reflection on inconsolable grief

In the fall of 2008, my friend Michelle wrote a column in her local Catholic paper about inconsolable grief -- her own experience with it; a friend's experience with it -- and about the different ways we as human beings respond to other people's grief.

In reaction, I found myself writing about loss and grief and support. About Michelle's loss, about her friend's loss, about loss in my own life. About how I'd responded 20-odd years ago to Michelle's grief, how being there for her in little ways helped me six months later when my own life fell apart, how I responded when we got back in touch, how I hoped I'd respond differently now. About why people react in the ways that we do to other people's grief and loss. About what was helpful and not helpful to me when my life fell apart and while I was putting it back together, and during times since when I've been facing hard things and needing support.

I knew I was writing something that needed to become a blog post, but it never quite made it there; it kept waiting in the wings. Several things seem to be bringing it out today... A discussion with my friend Denise about the nature of bravery: about being labeled "brave" by people around you when you're just doing your best to keep putting one foot in front of another; about being labeled "brave" when what you really are is quietly desperate... That Holy Thursday is the anniversary of the day Michelle's husband died... A set of discussions with pastoral care colleagues at Cherry Hill, about helpful and unhelpful things to say to people who are grieving, and unhelpful things that other clergy members, well-intentioned but clueless, have said to us.

In her column "The Psalms Are in Our Bones," Michelle wrote:

A friend lost her son last week, dragged from a long awaited retreat in silence into a maelstrom of pain. Over and over people told her that they could not imagine her grief. Perhaps what we really meant was that we did not want to experience her grief ourselves.

I kept coming back to that phrase: "I can't imagine."

Another friend, also an academic, had recently gone through the death of a spouse, so that was fresh in my mind and heart. Over the years, I had supported a number of friends and colleagues through the deaths of spouses, also usually sudden and unexpected; I was holding each of those in my heart.

And I often heard that phrase in the wakes of those deaths: "I can't imagine." "I can't imagine your loss." "I can't imagine how you're feeling." "I can't imagine how you're coping."

I've certainly said it; I hope I haven't said it in a long time, not since I was younger, less experienced (more stupid?), and more awkward.

Michelle's friend pointed out in her own blog, quite bluntly, that when people told her that, it was not helpful. Not remotely.

So, why do we say it?

Michelle theorized that when we say "I can't imagine," we are saying we don't want to experience that person's grief ourselves.

And I couldn't help thinking, it's not that we can't or don't want to imagine the loss ourselves -- because we can't help imagining it. We imagine how we would react in the exact same situation -- and perhaps that's where our imaginations fail.

We can imagine being in the same situation -- the death of a husband, wife, partner, son, daughter -- but perhaps what we can't imagine is how we would cope.

When people have told me things like, "I can't imagine," or "You're so brave," it hasn't been helpful. When I was coping with the hell of putting my life back together after trauma -- coping with the hell of the aftereffects of sexual assault and abuse, child abuse, and domestic violence -- I wasn't being brave: I was simply, quietly desperate. My choices were, literally, "Face this" and "Die." To me that wasn't a choice. A number of people have tried to tell me it was, that I chose to live and to heal rather than to die and that that was brave; but it just doesn't feel that way to me. During that time, when people told me things like "I can't imagine" and "You're so brave" (and they did), it felt to me that they were putting distance between us. They were saying, I can't be you; I can't even imagine being you. And it wasn't helpful. I didn't need people to be just like me, but I did need connection.

So, what is helpful?
  • Being present. Michelle wrote: "My mother held me, repeating over and over again that she knew there was nothing she could to take away the pain, but that she would be with me."
  • Being willing to hear how it is without running away. (After all, the person who's hurting can't run away; they have to live with it.)
  • Listening.
  • Being willing, being able, to be with, without trying to fix it, or make it go away, or (insert platitude here).
  • Bearing witness. I learned a lot about bearing witness from two people in particular throughout my 20s: Mona and Nif. Mona was my therapist; Nif, my best friend. Neither could "fix" anything. But they could, and did, bear witness. They could be there with me while I went through it. And they, along with the women in my sexual assault and sexual abuse survivors' groups, taught me to bear witness.
I know the phrase "bearing witness" is charged, but that's what this is; and it is sacred work.

All these things are about connection and being present with each other. Real connection with each other; being truly present with each other, just as we are, where we are.

Along with other trauma recovery experts, Quaker healer John Calvi talks about how one of the things trauma does is separates us from community, and about how healing from trauma necessarily involves reconnection or creating new connections. We also know that further isolation from community after trauma hinders recovery.

What John talks about, what Michelle's mother did for her, what Michelle did for me, what Mona and Nif did for me, is affirming connection. Affirming sacred connection. And that honors That-Which-Is-Sacred in each of us.

Michelle continued: "The psalms don't necessarily bring comfort or ease in grief, but like my mother, everyone who prays them, is with me, and with each other. Can we be with others in their inconsolable grief?"

Can we?

I think we can, we do, and we must.

This brings to mind the chorus of the song "Stone Circles":

and everything I do
touches you
and everything I am
you hold in your hand

and it seems to me that we are standing stones
there's no way that we can ever be on our own
and even if at times it seems that we are all alone
we're in stone circles marking time
with standing stones

(c) Anne Lister, "Stone Circles." Recorded by Anne Lister and Anonyma on Burnt Feathers, and by Sound Circle Women's A Capella Ensemble on Sound Circle. (See related post here.)

Also, I did consult with Michelle before I posted this piece.


Sydnii said...

Beautiful post. I know the feeling of distance when people praise me for doing what I *have* to do. I'm a single mother, attending school full time, 3.5 hours from any family. And people always tell me "I could never do that" or "What you do... it's amazing" and every time I think, "I have no choice." So, yes, this post has truly spoken to me. Thank you.

staśa said...

Thanks, Sydnii... I really appreciate it.

Ann Keeler Evans said...

Sometimes I also think people are buying insurance. I can't imagine it... (it couldn't happen to me, it could only happen to you.

I had a fb exchange with someone not long ago who said that he couldn't play for people who had lost children and the caretakers who stood with them as it happened and who cared for the littles. He'd done it once and it made him think it would hurt too much. After I hit my head against the wall a couple times, I pointed out, fairly gently... that if he couldn't play, he couldn't, but that he could use his instinctive understanding of that pain to comfort those who had lost children. Other people's grief is indeed difficult to witness, and it's the job of the moment. Nice post.

Clare Slaney said...

What a rich and interesting post. The involuntary movement into liminality and the semi-voluntary movement back into community are particularly powerful ideas for me. After liminality, primarily, there has to be a meaningful community to return to, inauthenticity blares after an experience of terrible distress. If there's one thing that Paganism can be great at it's ritual, but we haven't yet been able to tackle the liminality of pain. Sitting Shiva and other grieving rituals are one way of setting boundaries to one kind of pain.

I wonder if one of the reasons people say 'I can't imagine ...' is because they've been told not to say 'I know how you feel.' Nothing can be satisfying to people in agony other than being able to go back in time and avoid the agony. Witnessing is, as you say, the only appropriate way of Being With someone in deep pain.

Thanks for your own transparency, Stasa.


Robin said...

I am Michelle's friend who lost her son.

This is a beautiful post.

Last month I helped a friend whose husband was dying as she began to plan his funeral. Several times over those weeks, she mentioned how beautiful our son's funeral had been and then said, "I just don't know how people do this when the death is sudden and they only have a few days."

What could I say to that? I suppose the answer is that other people step in and enfold you in responses to questions you had no idea existed.

I'm so glad to have discovered your blog.

staśa said...

Ann, well-said.

Robin, thank you so much for commenting. I truly appreciate it. As Michelle can tell you, I was a little hesitant to post this entry at first.

I am thinking of two deaths I attended in the same year, both of friends; one completely sudden, the other of someone who'd been in hospice, but only for a few days. I'm thinking of other deaths in my life, the sudden ones vs the ones where we've had warning...

It's tempting to say death is somehow easier to face when we know it's coming and we have time to say goodbye. But I don't think it's that simple. I think our experience is different, but I don't think "easier" or "harder" are words that adequately or accurately reflect that experience.

I am thinking of both you and Michelle this Easter season, and holding you in the Light and in my heart, even though you and I have never met.

staśa said...

Hi, Clare!

"After liminality, primarily, there has to be a meaningful community to return to, inauthenticity blares after an experience of terrible distress."

Yes. A community that can enfold us in our distress, even as we feel very different from and far away from them.

I can't speak for other people, but I'd almost rather deal with someone who is awkward but fully present with me than someone who is inauthentic in that moment...

Have we finally been taught not to say, "I know just how you feel?" I'm not so sure, but I hope so.

Hmmmm. How would I feel if someone did say to me, "I can imagine what you're going through?" Something to ponder...

I am reminded of an interesting moment the day my F/friend Susan died (the hospice death I mention above). She died at home in bed, and for several hours after her death, her partner, family, and friends had the quiet house to ourselves while we finished saying goodbye and dealt with some of the practical stuff. I was sad, but felt like I was doing fine, until I watched the undertakers go up the stairs with a bodybag. I rushed into the kitchen where Beloved Wife was doing dishes, burst into very quiet tears, and asked her to put her arms around me. About a minute later, someone turned me around, and Susan's partner put her arms around me. "You weren't supposed to see me like this!" I sobbed harder. "Silly Stasa, whyever not?" she smiled. "I'm supposed to be comforting you!" I wailed. She chuckled and drew my head onto her shoulder, and we all three cried together with our arms around each other. Very much present with each other.

This is not an opportunity I've often had...

Rev. Dr. Laura said...

This is powerful, thank you.

It is interesting how things affect us differently....There are many things I hated to hear when my nursing toddler was killed in a car accident, and I've even published an article on some of them. And I hear how you and Robin and Michelle find "I can't imagine" unhelpful, which makes me resolve to be much more careful with it as a responder--but I have always found it quite welcome because 1) it's the polar opposite of the very hurtful "I know how you feel", honoring that my experience is unique and to learn about it someone needs to ask me and 2) it is often associated with honoring my/my husband's/God/dess's courage and integrity and grace in dealing with the tragedy, a welcome counter to the guilt and shame such things can bring.

I did hate the "I could never survive that loss the way you are" though--always felt like a backhanded compliment implying that they really loved their children, more than we did, and if we loved as much we also be nonfunctional. Not to mention the fact that, as you point out, you survive what you have to when it comes (usually).

DeniseUMLaw said...

Thanks, Stasa. This is a beautifully insightful post, one that speaks from first-hand experience and deploys your spirituality in a practical and important way.

I will say that I *have* said: "I can't imagine". One way that I have tried to be present for others is to empathize with them. When someone describes an event -- a tragedy -- for which I have no experience and no ability to empathize, my imagination literally fails me and I find myself grasping for something to say to someone so they get that I care -- deeply -- but that I would never try to presume my ability to feel what they are feeling (perhaps even in the presence of similar circumstances).

I don't know what the term "bear witness" means. And, I don't think I've ever read the Psalms (I'm also not sure I even know what "Holy Thursday" means). But, what I do know is that your list of things we can do for one another, during periods of unimaginable grief seems perfect and one I will remember.

Thank you for your open, loving and giving heart.

Rev. Dr. Laura said...

Denise, Holy Thursday is the Christian holiday marking the Last Supper of Jesus and then his arrest, the night before he died on the cross--hence three days before Easter.

A P.S. on why I really liked "I can't imagine"--it honored the depth of the tragedy and evil, versus the common sentimentalizing/preaching stuff (God's will, she's in heaven, etc.) designed to minimize and domesticate that, and my husband's and my rage and grief. And I would probably be hurt and angry if someone presumed to say they could imagine what I was feeling. Nope, cause you're not me and it's not your loss-- you can only imagine only what you might feel in a similar circumstance. (And sometimes that very unrealistically, like the woman who assured me that she knew if her child died she would constantly feel their presence spiritually--when I was in the utter agony of complete separation from her on that level, which lasted seven years. She just wished she would, and, again, implied that any good mother would, which didn't say anything good about me).

Rev. Dr. Laura said...

Thank you for letting me speak on this here, by the way...even so many years later it is such a healing blessing.

staśa said...

Sophia, thank you; I really appreciate it.

Oh, interesting. Yes, I definitely see what you mean, about how "I can't imagine" is so very different from "I know just what you're going through."

Ugh, yes, I also see how "I could never..." is such a backhanded compliment.

And if, as you say, we (usually) survive what we have to/what comes... if someone says that to me and I'm close to not surviving it, how does hearing it feel - ?

Thinking about this with the people whose anguish I've been present for, and the conversations I've had with other clergy and Priestess colleagues, I really do believe that what it boils down to is being present and being real with each other. How do you know what to say or do when faced with someone who's grieving or going through what seems like the impossible? How do we know we're saying the "right" things? Well, how present are we?

None of us can be "perfect" at being there; that's a fallacy. And it's okay to make mistakes. For me... it's been easier to bear folks' mistakes when they've been genuine with me, have been real with me, have been present with me, than when they've been trying to make me into Other, have been putting distance between us...

Sophia, I am sorry for your loss.

staśa said...

Denise, thanks for your comment, and thanks for the earlier conversation that contributed to this post. :)

I'm curious, b/c I'm trying to get myself into different head-spaces/perspectives... When you say, "I can't imagine," how does that feel similar to or different from "I'm so sorry" or "I'm sorry for your loss/hardship/etc."?

As for "bearing witness"... There's the more legal sense, of being able to attest to something or provide proof. But for this, I mean something more along the lines of the definition that starts with being physically present when something occurs, and so therefore able to say, Yes, that took place, and then becomes more about being both physically and emotionally present during an event or a process. Grief. Giving birth. Dying. Healing. The aftermath of a traumatic event, such as an assault or a house fire or a natural disaster.

The gift of presence combined with the gift of witness: someone else was there with you during a difficult or momentous event or process.

For example, right before I started working for Kim, I spent several weeks doing hurricane relief work on the Gulf Coast after Katrina and Rita. We couldn't "fix" anything. We couldn't snap our fingers and repair the infrastructure or the food distribution system. But we could be present with the people there with what they were going through; they weren't alone with it. We could take our knowledge and experience of their reality home with us, we could take it into ourselves and our hearts. It turned out that having us there to go through things with them was important to the survivors; many had felt so alone, and wondered if the rest of the country knew or cared about what was happening to them. Even knowing what I already did about the power of presence and bearing witness, I was surprised by the strength of folks' reactions to us just being physically there and to asking them to tell us what happened. Six weeks after the first hurricane, and it was the first time many folks had the chance to tell their story.

So, that's more of what I mean by "bearing witness."

You're welcome, and thank you. :)

staśa said...

Sophia, thank you, and you're welcome -- I truly appreciate your sharing your experience.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post. I recently lost my partner, and as you might expect, everything has changed. However, I didn't expect my grief or the process of grieving to separate me from community, as you described. so many things are incredibly difficult now, and frankly, I haven't found much support. Some friends are present, but eventually that moment passes. Not sure exactly what I'm trying to say, but thanks for just acknowledging the difficulty of grief. thank you, I suppose, for simply being present.

Morgan said...

I forgot to post that Sophia's comments are no longer visible, b/c she felt she had to delete them to protect herself legally. :(

Morgan said...

Riverwolf, I am so sorry for your loss.

Sometimes it's very hard to tell how much of that separation from community is external -- people pulling back, not really being able to be present -- and how much is internal/existential -- feeling subjectively cut off from every one else b/c one is overwhelmed or b/c of what one is going through. And sometimes it's a mix.

I do hope you are able to become re-connected.

Thank you for sharing about your experience here, and thank you for your comment. You don't have to be super-articulate.