Throughout the day, I’ve been secretly crying at my desk or in a bathroom stall. And all day I’ve caught myself thinking, “You need to stop this. Get over the tears and do your job.”
And only just now, in the quiet of my own home, has something occurred to me: I’ve been lying to myself all day.
I don’t need to stop crying. Just the opposite, in fact. I need to cry right now. Grief needs to be felt! When it isn’t, when we stuff it away or shelve it behind “more important things” like a to-do list, what does it do but fester? Why are we as a society so afraid of grief? We limit it. We quantify it. We contain it to a tight schedule.
About a year ago, a man I know lost his wife of more than thirty years. Her death was a slow agony over a few months, her mind and body twisting into some pale shadow of her former self. Several months after the funeral, the man’s son shook his head and said, “It’s frustrating. Dad just isn’t getting over Mom’s death.”
How can the grief of loss be set to any timetable? Why do we think someone should “get over” the pain of death, of heartache, of separation?
The thing that baffles me most about this is that we all grieve. We all lose people we love. We know what it’s like to be in the center of that kind of sorrow. And yet, whether we want to admit it or not, there is a part of us that thinks, “Okay, time to get over it now. Gotta move on.” And we don’t just say it to others–to those who lost everything in a natural disaster, or the immobilized mother whose son was taken in a school shooting, or a neighbor whose mother died a year ago–we say it to ourselves.
“Stop crying in the bathroom. You have work to do.”
Recently, I was in New York City and attended a discussion between Renee Fleming, one of the world’s most renowned opera singers, and a famous dancer and choreographer (who is, in fact, so famous that I’ve forgotten his name…). It was just a few days after the Boston Marathon bombings, and the topic of discussion was art and community. At one point, Renee Fleming said,
“We, as a society, have lost something because we do not sing together. We don’t have a communal voice for things like grief. How can we possibly process and mourn something like the Boston bombings as a society if we do not sing together? Do not make art together?”
This statement is profound. How, indeed, do we as a people grieve?
Think back to moments of national tragedy. 9/11. Hurricane Katrina. Newtown, Connecticut. The Oklahoma tornadoes. Do you remember seeing images of candlelight vigils on the news? Flowers stacked against fences and buildings? But how much more did you see images of the Towers collapsing? Of houses up to their rooftops in water? Of terrified children being led from a building? Of the savage pathway cut through the middle of a school by angry wind?
We allow grief in for but a moment. A clip of flickering candles. A snapshot of a devestated mother. But we spend countless images and words and hours on the violence, on environmental factors, on the political party to blame. Do we do this because it is too hard to grieve? Too frightening to allow sorrow in for longer than a moment? Are we embarrassed by our tears, by the clawing emptiness in the center of our gut? Are we ashamed of our grief, of what it says about how finite we all are? Would we rather turn to topics like gun control, carbon footprints, and pending to-do lists because they, at least, are within our control to some degree?
Of course, I understand that there is a time for grief, just as there is for laughter. Grief can sometimes become inescapable, and that isn’t healthy. But not allowing ourselves to feel it properly isn’t healthy either. And while I’m certainly no sociologist or psychologist, I can’t help but feel that our lack of ability to grieve as a nation is detrimental. If we can’t, as Renee Fleming says, find a communal voice for our grief, what alternative do we have but to turn away from those in our community who are grieving? And to turn away from our community is to become all the more self-reliant and self-absorbed. To shut out the grief of others because we don’t have a way of expressing it as a group makes us callous. And what are callouses but a covering of weakness?
I don’t know why we are so uncomfortable with sorrow, both in others and in ourselves. All I know is that I spent today telling myself to stop crying in the bathroom. And perhaps I was right about one thing: I shouldn’t have been crying in the bathroom. I should have been crying with those I love, those who also lost someone today, those who similarly feel gutted by tragedy. I shouldn’t have been hiding my tears like they are shameful. I shouldn’t treat grief like it is a nuisance.
Because grief reminds me that I am human. It reminds me of how much I love, and am loved. It is painful and has embarrassing timing, certainly. But it means that I am still here, and that my time for connection and healing and joy is not yet over.
Renee Fleming singing You’ll Never Walk Alone at the Concert for America on 9/11/2002