A reader writes:
My husband of 47 years passed away in December and I’m wondering if you would recommend any books for me read to get through the grieving process. Also how can I respond when people ask me “are you ok” or “how are you doing”? I am not doing ok so don’t want to say I am but I don’t want to make any one uncomfortable by saying I’m doing awful. Most people want a positive response when they ask that question because they don’t really want to deal with your pain. K.S., Las Vegas
The best book I’ve ever read on the subject of grief is Life After Loss, by Bob Deits.
47 years. It boggles the mind. To entwine our life and dreams so tightly around a mate’s life and dreams. So tightly, in fact, that “my life” and “my dreams” happily and regularly defer to our lives. Our dreams. Great love is like that. It relentless yet lovingly hammers “I, me, mine” into the more sublime and meaningful “We, us, ours.”
Or, as I often say it, the only ‘me’ that’s worth knowing is the ‘me’ you will meet in faithful, creative, meaningful relationships. When I decide that the most important thing is to always and fiercely defend my autonomy and individuality … well, frankly, I become rather dull and uninteresting. It’s a sad and silly way to live.
You chose another path, K.S. You chose union. Matedness.
I begin my response to you, then, with a hearty congratulations. I admire you. You are awarded love’s Purple Heart.
Once upon a time you stood before an altar/ And you promised not to leave/ You held each others hand and dreamed a sweet forever/ Love drove angels to their knees
Oh, the days they do fly by/ Count the tears that you have cried/ Count the laughter and the lies/ Count your love and times love died
And here you stand together, battle-scarred and torn/ The locks of fairy tales have fallen, long since shorn/ Love has chosen you, blessed you, crucified you/ See what you’ve become/ Love’s Purple Heart is won
And now you begin the journey of grief in a culture that is not very good at grief. Hence, your question. People ask how you are doing? And you find their question creates a dilemma for you.
On the one hand, some of these people are sincere in their inquiry of your well-being. You are loved. Others seem to have an agenda; to wit, they want a positive response from you so they don’t have to witness your pain. Either way, you are loath to make them uncomfortable. Odd as it may seem, their comfort seems a more pressing priority than burden of your grief. Yet, you don’t like being duplicitous, saying you are fine when you are awful.
You are stuck in a kind of convoluted, tragic “grief etiquette.”
I dislike what I need to say. It’s unfair. And, again, had you been born in another time and place (that is, in a culture wiser about grief), it would not be necessary to say it. But here we are.
Grieving people, if they wish to grieve faithfully and well, are often obliged to ‘manage’ the people around them. Grieving people do well to mobilize a kind of “grief politics” as they return to work, family, and social circles.
Not everyone knows what to say. Not everyone is helpful. And, even when people are helpful, there are times in a good grief that we need to be fiercely private and alone with our pain. It isn’t always helpful to talk and process.
So, we mobilize a grief politic. We assemble a repertoire of benign responses: “I have good days and bad days … I’m enduring … Hanging in there … Keeping busy … I’m really grateful for friends and family … Thanks for asking!”
I would encourage you not to think of this as phony; rather, as loving, polite, and functional. Functional? Yes, because skillful management of not-so-helpful people guards your heart form undue wear and tear. In a strange way, it protects the people thus inquiring.
Because here’s the only point that matters: Grief is a very intimate thing. And you, K.S., get to pick your inner circle of people with whom you’d like to “be naked” in your grief. Everyone else gets your graceful (and deflecting) decorum.
Once upon a time you promised to believe/ That wounded hearts though painful so /Are the only hearts that grow
(Steven Kalas is an author, therapist and Episcopal priest. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)