This is the second post in a series of reflections on grief, inspired by recent loss, injury, and an abundance of pain. Part I is available here.
“I’m sure you are starting to feel better… aren’t you?”
“Look at you! You are getting so good on your crutches!”
“Are you… feeling happier yet?”
Forty days after the death of a loved one in Greece, we conduct a service called μνημόσυνο — a ‘mnemosyne’. In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne was a titaness who was the daughter of Gaia and Uranus, quite literally the daughter of Earth and Sky. At a mnemosyne, we remember the person we lost and begin to let go of a layer of the grief. In traditional circles, mourners wear black until that first mnemosyne, 40 days after the loss. For some, that is the permissible return of color into life. For others, particularly in rural areas, it is not unusual to wear black and keep the grieving rituals for a full year.
Well-versed in the traditions of my homeland as I may be, I am not sure how we decided forty days is the appropriate time to mourn and that the 41st ought to mark the beginning of letting go. And yet, I do know that in every period of grief I have survived until now, it is around that seemingly arbitrary 40-day mark that something starts to shift inside. The pain does not magically evaporate, nor does memory. After all, the word ‘mnemosyne’ refers to the personification of memory. But something little cracks, rearranges itself, propelling you into the next stage of recovery.
What happens when that next stage of recovery is not the ‘healing’ you and everyone around you expected?
In my professional sphere of conflict management and transitional justice, ‘healing’ is a charged term, right alongside ‘reconciliation’. Some, like Martha Minnow, have acknowledged that ‘healing’ may be “an absurd or even obscene” notion to impose as a requirement for survivors and victims of violence, and others, such as Miriam Aukerman, have concluded that “transitional justice can strive for at least enough forgiveness, reconciliation, or healing to make coexistence possible.” While I can wrap my mind around both their arguments, I have to ask: What is enough? And how do we know that this level of sufficiency has been met? How do we know we, as individuals or communities, whether in the realm of conflict and violence or outside of it, have healed enough? How do we know others have healed? When can we pronounce ourselves healed? And what about the un-healable pieces that linger after the spotlight has moved on?
Shifting from the transitional justice realm to the personal one, Cheryl Strayed tackles that question of ‘sufficient healing’ and the expectations others have of our own recovery after loss in an essay about everything from sex to mourning. She writes:
“We are not allowed this. We are allowed to be deeply into basketball, or Buddhism, or Star Trek, or jazz, but we are not allowed to be deeply sad. Grief is a thing that we are encouraged to “let go of,” to “move on from,” and we are told specifically how this should be done. Countless well-intentioned friends, distant family members, hospital workers, and strangers I met at parties recited the famous five stages of grief to me: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I was alarmed by how many people knew them, how deeply this single definition of the grieving process had permeated our cultural consciousness. Not only was I supposed to feel these five things, I was meant to feel them in that order and for a prescribed amount of time.”
There is an impatience to the process of recovery from grief and its emotional bruises or even from physical ailments. Some of it is our own; it is self-imposed impatience, and there is a degree of needing to give ourselves permission to not be well — as my beloved friend Erin puts it, permission to just “lie in the mud.” But some of it is social impatience, born out of an eagerness on the part of our loved ones to see our pain subside, taking with it our fragmented pieces and returning us to the world with wholeness. They want us to lose the crutches, they want us to wear bright teal instead of black, they want us to behave in ways they do not associate with mourning.
I am a teal and sunshine and rainbows kind of person, the kind some would scowl at in New York City because she’s smiling on the subway. Failing those social expectations of a timely recovery, arbitrary as the time frame may be, breeds a little extra impatience. It is the holiday season and the whole world smells like gingerbread, twinkling lights, and jingles. There is a heightened degree of dissonance to not being able to match the sunniness around me, both because my own state of grief and pain is seemingly out of pace with the universe and because it is out of pace with the typically sunny disposition of my ungrieving self.
As I slide on sheets of ice on the sidewalk on my crutches, I am tempted to think to myself that “this would all be easier in the spring,” but then I realize there is never a good time for pain or grief or loss — other than “not now.” I am also tempted to think that ‘this’ would all be easier if it were ‘just’ my broken bones, or ‘just’ the loved one’s grave illness, or ‘just’ grief for my lost family, or ‘just’ another blue holiday season, as opposed to one stacked on top of the other simultaneously like a messy mille-feuille dessert. When I ask friends about their engagements or homework or their time at the gym or their fatigue, they look at me with guilt, as though none of those stories are worth sharing in light of the mind-numbing cocktail of pain in my own life. Layered misfortune stuns conversation into silence.
Over time in my work in conflict-affected areas, I have witnessed the dangers of creating hierarchies of suffering, of privileging some pain over other, of placing experiences of injustice on a ladder, rendering some of them more worthy of attention or sympathy than the next. I insist on remembering that when contemplating personal suffering outside war zones. My trauma does not trump yours. There is no trumping because there is no winning. Simply put, there are no prizes for most scarred — so tell me about the engagements and the stressful homework and your worry that you are getting fat and your loneliness. They are allowed to exist alongside mine.
Cheryl Strayed, in the same essay I quoted earlier, disagrees. She contests:
“After my mother died, everyone I knew wanted to tell me either about the worst breakup they’d had or all the people they’d known who’d died. I listened to a long, traumatic story about a girlfriend who suddenly moved to Ohio, and to stories of grandfathers and old friends and people who lived down the block who were no longer among us. Rarely was this helpful.
And there is a difference. Dying is not your girlfriend moving to Ohio. Grief is not the day after your neighbor’s funeral, when you felt extremely blue. It is impolite to make this distinction. We act as if all losses are equal. It is un-American to behave otherwise: we live in a democracy of sorrow. Every emotion is validated and judged to be true as any other. But what does this do to us: this refusal to quantify love, loss, grief?”
I like to think that this is what the refusal to quantify love, loss, grief does to us: It makes us empathetic. It makes us keenly aware of the abundance of pain in our world, of loss in all its forms and suffering with all its faces. It reminds us that we are not hurting alone, that our pain may be unique to our circumstances in ways that only we alone can know, but that Pain at large is a shared, recognized, recognizable emotion. The shared experience of loss is, in itself, paradoxically, part of the fabric that connects one life to the next. We do not all hurt equally all the time — nor do we need to. This need not be a meritocracy of pain. We do not need to earn the right to our mourning, we need not live, as Strayed puts it, “in a democracy of sorrow.” But given the choice to grieve at the top rung of a ladder of pain or in a shared community of loss, I know I’d choose the latter.
I am not ‘better’ ‘yet.’ I have not healed. Sometimes the healing itself, from my broken bones to the grave illness to the lost family, is so imperceptibly slow that I am not sure it is happening at all. When I venture online and am confronted with images of happy families with at least ten people who are related to each other sitting around a table and a pile of presents, I feel a tinge of envy, as though the universe deprived me of the ability to ever take that photo with myself in it. When I stumble upon a “10 resolutions to make for 2014” listicle online, inevitably involving eating more vegetables and being more mindful, I groan because I cannot muster thoughtful reflection right now. I cannot dream up a year because my whole energy is channelled to dreaming up the day that just dawned, starting with gathering the courage to get out of bed and facing. It is when you say this out loud that you can feel yourself failing social expectations of sunniness and recovery.
I am not in constant pain any more, nor am I so overwhelmed by shock that I cannot get out of bed in the morning each morning. But I cannot pronounce myself healed and happy and whole yet, much as I wish to reassure everyone around me. So I long to carve out an in-between space of grief and recovery, a space in which the suffering is not so loud that it obliterates everything around it with its sheer weight but is also not so distant in the past that you feel you can get through the day unaccompanied by pain.
It seems that such a space does not come easily in this world on December 29th. The expectation is that we reflect and rejoice, dream up resolutions, pop the champagne. Count our blessings. And it is in this light that failing others’ expectations of sunniness, or even our own, becomes especially harsh.