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.)
- 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.
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?"
I think we can, we do, and we must.
This brings to mind the chorus of the song "Stone Circles":
and everything I do
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.