‘Stay Strong,’ And Other Useless Drivel We Tell The Grieving

Courtesy of WBUR.org/Cognosenti | By Megan Devine | Photo by Gerald Herbert/AP | Originally Published 03.07.2018 | Posted 03.12.2018

Now that it’s been almost three weeks since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and the students have returned to classes, people are starting to wonder how those students will heal. How will the parents whose children died recover? What will the teachers do to cope? And how can we help them all move on?

It was only a matter of hours after my partner drowned in Maine in 2009 that I started hearing things like, “He’s in a better place,” “He wouldn’t want you to be sad,” “You’re young — you have your whole life ahead of you.” When I was still sad three weeks later, and six weeks later, and three months later, many people felt I was doing something wrong. Maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough to be happy. They encouraged me to get better, faster.

We hear a lot about the power of vulnerability these days — how important it is to be real with each other, how it’s our darkest, hardest times we need to share with those around us. What’s missing from that conversation is how quickly we respond to vulnerability with correction or encouragement or condemnation. When someone shares the pain they’re in, we jump in to cheer them up. We judge how well they’re dealing with things. We believe that there’s a right and a wrong way to grieve, and if you don’t return to “normal” (aka: happy) quickly, you’re not doing it right. There’s a shelf-limit for sadness, as there is for most expressions of grief, and it’s far shorter than you think.

To be clear, most people genuinely want to help the people they love — it’s hard to watch people suffer. We have the best intentions. It’s just that the tools we’ve been using aren’t effective in helping grieving people feel the support we intend. And that’s true in all forms of grief, including what the survivors of Parkland’s shooting will experience.

Students grieve at Pine Trails Park for the victims of the Wednesday shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. (Brynn Anderson/AP)
Students grieve at Pine Trails Park for the victims of the Wednesday shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

I’ve heard some “experts” claim that activism and outrage from the Parkland students isn’t healthy — it isn’t allowing them to grieve. They should be shielded from the media, allowed to be sad. I’ve seen crude, cruel social media posts shaming some of the students for laughing. Laughing! How dare they, when their friends are dead?

I’ve seen the expected hashtags and memes encouraging the survivors and families to “stay strong” and live a good life in honor of the people they’ve lost. As though being sad or feeling devastated dishonors their loved ones’ memories.

I’ve seen op-eds and articles saying the students are stuck in the “anger” stage of grief, or voicing concerns that they won’t reach “acceptance.” As though any of this is acceptable. As though outrage were the wrong response.

We’ve got such a narrow definition of grief in this culture, and even within that definition, no one can win. Grieving people don’t feel supported, and those who want to help feel frustrated and helpless.

Not knowing how to support ourselves and each other inside grief isn’t really our fault. We’ve had decades of training in looking on the bright side. All of our movies and books are stories of redemption and transformation. Our social media memes glorify those who put their pain behind them and go on to live “even better lives.” We believe that a positive attitude changes everything. Things always work out in the end. We believe that only happiness is healthy and normal. Anything less than that means there’s a problem. We give people advice on how to feel better. We label people “mentally ill” when they’re feeling sad, when they claim that loss has deeply and irrevocably changed them. It’s what we’ve learned to do.

Grieving people learn, too. They learn quite quickly to hide their grief. They learn to avoid judgment or disappointment by not speaking about their pain openly. They avoid unsolicited advice by simply pretending nothing is wrong. It’s really no wonder we have epidemics of addiction, depression and violence. Hiding your pain may be a smart response in the face of others’ judgment or naïve misunderstanding, but it doesn’t make that grief disappear.

Pain, allowed expression, doesn’t have to turn in on itself.

Unaddressed and unacknowledged pain doesn’t go away; it attempts to be heard in any way it can. Most grieving people aren’t going to become mass murderers. But grief is the thread that connects so many of our culture’s woes — addiction, depression, loneliness, isolation and yes: violence. Violence against ourselves, violence against others, violence against what we perceive as threats. And it doesn’t even need to be that dramatic: Thoreau wasn’t wrong when he said many people live lives of quiet desperation.

We can do better.

For the victims of this most recent shooting, for those surviving the acts of violence that continue across so many communities, and for those whose pain makes them lash out in aggression and destruction, we’ve got to get better at grief. Pathologizing grief isn’t helping. Correcting each other’s heartbreak isn’t helping. We can’t keep using a broken system, knowing it doesn’t work.

It isn’t easy, but if we really want to support a grieving person, we’ve got to listen to his or her pain, rather than try to correct it. Pain, allowed expression, doesn’t have to turn in on itself. Given room — and validation — grief finds its right place, alongside the life that is built in the wake of loss.

The friends and families of the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School won’t “stop” grieving. Grief doesn’t have an expiration date. What they’ll need most, from their communities, and from all of us, is the capacity to bear witness to their pain. This is true for these survivors, and those still reeling from other acts of violence. The real cutting edge of growth and development is in hurting with each other, in choosing companionship over correction. It’s in acknowledgment of how much life hurts sometimes. It seems counterintuitive, but that acknowledgment is often the only medicine that helps.

Grief isn’t a problem to be solved. Some things cannot be fixed, they can only be carried. How we carry those losses — our own, and those of others — is important now, and will continue to be, in all the days to come.

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