“You just need an attitude adjustment.”
“You are in need of the truth. If you were to only see it you could get over your loss and have new life.”
“You seem like a very angry person and if you just learned to release that anger you would see the path.”
One of the consequences of writing about loss and pain very publicly is that some people come to believe that you are, in fact, a deeply angry, troubled, fucked up person. That isn't an accurate description of me at all, but I get it: people make assumptions, and that’s fine.
However, the above statements are the sorts of things that grieving people hear all the time, and they point to a collusion of disastrous problems as relates to how grief is approached in our culture.
When you've been devastated by any form of loss, you’re inevitably going to come in contact with people who harm you with their insensitive comments, their platitudes, or their abandonment. Some of these people will be among your friends and family; those who supposedly love you most. This is a fact we don't like to admit, but it's the truth. Being offered empty words or facing abandonment by those we trust amid loss is not rare. It happens all the time.
Yet some people go further: in their desire to “help,” they go so far as to claim to know the way to healing. They declare that if you simply follow their prescriptions, you’ll move on and be ready to sing songs and hang out with Mickey Mouse in no time.
These people are particularly dangerous, because they seem to be benign, yet rarely are. Why? Because they are the conformists. They are the grief police. They are the benevolent narcissists.
All too often, these are the self-proclaimed “happy people” who take great offense at your having the audacity to be angry or despondent in tragedy. Negativity is heretical to them, and they'll often go to great lengths to excoriate it.
If you've ever heard the types of statements I mentioned above in the aftermath of loss, you're not alone. Some people have an almost pathological obsession with changing others, and this is almost always done under the guise of "helping."
With that said, they're never really helping, are they? No. They're condescending. They're dictating. They're controlling. The primary issue with the "You just need to change your thoughts/see the path/do what I do" types of statements is that they completely fail to acknowledge that grieving people are, in fact, grieving. They move immediately from "oh, you lost your child?" to "well, here's the way!" without one shred of acknowledgment, one hand held, or one moment of uncomfortable but essential solidarity.
What these statements imply is that grieving people are simply too bitter—too enraged and out of control—to do what's best for them. In short, these statements imply that grieving people are stupid. That they’re unenlightened. That if they just have the “correct” worldview everything will work out.
One message I received encapsulated this perfectly. A man wrote stating that I was, among other things, a "burdened" and “disturbed” man and that there were “serious issues” with my worldview. He then proceeded to tell me he wanted to provide “encouraging wisdom.” How did he do this? By quoting Victor Frankl's Man's Search For Meaning.
In a sense, I admired the guy, because it was kind of brilliant in a this-is-so-fucked-up-it's-brilliant kind of way. He made a litany of assumptions about me, drew a further set of conclusions about my mental state, and then "encouraged" me by throwing a few sophisticated-sounding quotes at me.
This message was not an isolated incident. His words were simply representative of what I know grieving people are told in one form or another constantly.
So I'm going to address some of the themes in what this man said, and offer what I would say to him and everyone else who has offered me similar sentiments in the past:
Thank you for writing, sir. While I appreciate your reaching out, the fact is that your words are bullshit. They do a great disservice to grieving people everywhere, so I'm going to make it abundantly clear that your words not only did not help, they caused damage you're not even aware of.
But hold on. Don't worry. Although you seem to think I'm quite angry, I'm actually a really laid back dude. I also want to make it clear that I forgive your ignorance. However, your words were damaging, and you need to know the truth. If what I say reinforces your picture of me as "disturbed," so be it.
The thing is, I've spoken with hundreds of grieving people in my life. While there is no universal one-size-fits-all set of pains grieving people experience in their encounters with those around them, I have found several recurring themes which come up time and again in conversations I have with people who've seen their lives turned upside down.
I can tell you that grieving people are sick and tired of being told to conform to a narrative in which everything must work out in the end. We're exhausted by the relentless insistence that if we don't attain some sort of sufficient "grief progress," we must be fucked in the head.
The reality is that finding meaning amid loss is a delicate, messy, beautiful and aching process that often takes years. Rushing to assign some sort of "meaning" by cowardly throwing a few quotes at me is really a passive-aggressive instrument of control; it assumes that one must always be getting better after loss, and that is the cause of almost unimaginable suffering in this world.
Your description of me—a grieving person—as "burdened" with "serious issues" speaks precisely to the damaging myths and narratives that grieving people have rammed into their heads incessantly. The implicit assumption is that if we're not finding "meaning" in everything—if we dare to be distressed or pained or confused, then there is something wrong with us. This is the pervasive narrative in our culture, and it destroys lives.
You might be surprised to hear that I live a rather extraordinary life. I left a terribly unsatisfying corporate existence at a young age to travel, write, and do work I love, despite living with a chronic health condition, a disability, and facing daily physical and neurological challenges. I'm doing things most people never will, and I've been remarkably fortunate to have had the opportunities I've had. So no, there's nothing "disturbed" about me. I just refuse to envelop grief and adversity in a cesspool of bullshit narratives and in the emptiness of platitudes which have pervaded our culture.
Grief and meaning are not mutually exclusive. You can be both full of purpose and wounded at the same time. To state otherwise is to dishonor those who have suffered horrific calamities in their lives, yet are shamed for not getting "past" them. That does, unfortunately, happen all the time.
That, sir, is a terrible shame. We agree on Frankl. His work is wonderful, and it's actually seated on a table next to me at this very moment. To reference one of your quotes, I have also "see(n) beyond the misery of the situation to the potential for discovering a meaning behind it," in my own life countless times, but what you fail to see is that this does not happen if one is not permitted to grieve in the wake of tragedy. Our culture provides very few resources to encourage the active experience of grieving, and this is a great scandal.
What's much more powerful than what you've offered here? Acknowledgment. Bearing witness. Not trying to fix or change someone by providing "wisdom," but standing in solidarity with one who's devastated by loss. That, sir, is an act of great courage. There's far more meaning in the mere offering of presence and acknowledgment than any quote from a book.
So let me ask you this. Could you acknowledge my pain? Could you bear witness to the tears of my soul, and not try to change them with this patronizing attempt at looking sophisticated by throwing some quotes at me?
I know, I know, you’re going to say you were tying to help. I get it. Maybe you were. But even if you were, please stop.
Instead, let me—and every grieving person—do one thing: grieve. Let us immerse ourselves in the love we must express, no matter how painfully. That love will be manifested in ways which are difficult to witness. But that manifestation is no less valid for being unpleasant or hard to deal with.
Love hurts, often quite intensely. When loss rips us open, the pain of our love is exacerbated to infinity.
Don’t try to take that away from us by pointing to an imagined future or questioning our intelligence or prescribing a path we did not ask for.
At the end of the day, what you’ve really done here is participated in the tyranny of commanding “right thinking.” You’ve presupposed that if I just have the “correct” worldview, I'll find meaning and move on with my life.
After all, how do you know that I—or any grieving person you haven't spent time with—is disturbed or burdened or lacking in an acceptable worldview? Of course you don’t know that. Yet even if we were disturbed, so what? Is the antidote to that an indictment of how we process our pain, however imperfectly?
After all, what’s the correct worldview for a mother grieving the loss of her baby girl?
What’s the correct worldview for a teenager who’s just been raped?
What’s the correct worldview for a man who’s been paralyzed as a result of a collision with a drunk driver?
What’s the correct worldview for a woman who’s come home one day to find that her husband of 20 years has abandoned her?
What is it, sir? The answer, of course, is that you don’t know. You don’t have a clue. So when you say that there are “serious issues” with my worldview you’re engaging in a form of condescension so harmful you don’t even realize it’s harmful.
In the end, anyone can throw a book in someone’s face. It takes nothing to do that.
It takes balls to stand with a wounded soul, and do nothing but be there.
That, sir, is grief support. Because it’s actual support. It’s vulnerable. It’s love borne of action, not “love” borne of empty gestures.
Right now, at this very moment, millions of people are burying their pains in shame. They're hiding their wounds because they’ve fallen prey to a culture that has utterly failed them in its insistence that every situation must have a happy ending. This is nonsense, plain and simple.
By insisting that grieving people return to a state of positivity, we’re really insisting that they return to a state of conformity.
Our culture has decreed that it’s unacceptable to be angry. It’s unacceptable for life to be unpleasant. It’s unacceptable to grieve openly, because it’s seen as weak and a form of "wallowing."
Fuck that. Life demands so much more of us than the relentless pursuit of feeling good all the time, and it isn't acceptable to ostracize those in pain simply because they are, in fact, in pain.
Here's the kicker: this is true even when—especially when—we feel that they're not doing it "right."
The more "wrong" you think someone is handling their pain amid loss, the less you should tell them what to do.
If I'm grieving, I don’t need encouraging wisdom. That can come later, but not now. I don’t need to be told that everything will work out if I just find meaning or adjust my worldview. Because you don’t know that. Yet you do know that I’m here, right now, in pain.
So stand with me. Be here. Love me in your willingness to admit that you don't know the answers.
Because if you did that—if you let yourself be just as terrified and helpless and fragile as that devastated person next to you, and didn't leave them—you could literally save a life.
The advice? The wisdom? The books? Those all have their place. But they are a terrible substitute for the gifts of solidarity, empathy, and the understanding that comes when you admit that you will never, ever, truly understand what that human next to you is going through.
That, sir, is a magnificent thing. We can do so much better—all of us—including me.
Learning the art of doing nothing and being everything with a grieving person is one of the most selfless gifts of service we can provide to others in this life.
It is very hard work, but it is oh so worth it.