Deceptive Grief

Not long ago, the hospice where I work sponsored a Saturday conference on grief.

There were workshops, from hands-on experiences like creating memory scrapbooks to offering current research-based insights into the whys and whats of grief. A labyrinth was available for walking, inviting symbolic journeys for individual reflection. I co-lead a section on writing to explore personal grief through words.

I think most participants had a meaningful time.

However, I’m confident many knew about the conference but were “no shows.” Maybe they wanted to take part, but didn’t possess the energy to leave the house. Maybe they wanted to take part, but hesitated about going alone. Maybe they wanted to take part, but couldn’t stand the thought of being around others. There might be strangers present, which could be overwhelming. There might be friends present, which could be overwhelming. They didn’t want to cry. They didn’t want to be around others who cried. They were afraid there wouldn’t be anything worth learning. They were afraid they might learn something and be confronted with change.

Excuses, like springtime weeds, are prolific.

I wish more people than the seventy or so who attended had come, but I was amazed those seventy did register. It is hard to leave your home and spend time with an event that reminds you of one of the worst times of your life.

armen-baconWe featured a keynote speaker—Armen Bacon—who was as engaging as she was honest. Ms. Bacon’s a relatively well-known local “personality” and had recently published a book to excellent reviews. I enthusiastically recommend her “Griefland.” With co-author Nancy Miller, she wrote the story as a reflection on their newfound friendship and a common grief: both were mothers who had young adult children die.

Ms. Bacon emphasized one thing in her heartfelt speech that struck me deeply. She said . . . I may look good on the outside, I may look like everything is okay, I may appear not to be saddened by my son’s death, but all of that is a lie.

A lie. Actually that’s my paraphrase. She probably didn’t use that word. It’s close enough, though.

As I stood in the rear of the room, I wondered how others perceived her. Would those in the audience believe the truth of Ms. Bacon’s lie?

You see, Ms. Bacon dressed quite nicely for our event. Jewelry. Make-up. Color-coordinated. Hair just right. Darn it all, she looked good. And she spoke well. She shared relevant quotes from other authors and from her book. She was spontaneous and relaxed. She made eye contact. Hey folks, she earned an “A” for her keynoting. By background, I’m a pastor and have delivered thousands of sermons, and have heard a thousand more sermons from other preachers. I may not be a color-coordination or jewelry expert, but I know when I hear well-coordinated words that are like precious diamonds delivered to a congregation or audience.

But did that audience believe Ms. Bacon’s truth about her lie?

I’ve gone to other conferences where someone who has suffered a great loss anchored a stage and shared the story of his or her pain. The audience had flocked to hear the speaker. They wanted to learn. They wanted to hope. They wanted to confirm someone had survived the worst of grief.

But I suspect there are always some in any audience—at our recent conference and in all similar conferences—that were a thimbleful or even a bucketful envious of the speaker. Why envy? Because the person who had obviously overcome death and disaster wasn’t the listener, but instead was the speaker! Wasn’t that nicely dressed, color-coordinated, engaging person at the microphone better or stronger or smarter than anyone else in the room? She (or he) was “healed” and no longer hurting. She (or he) had conquered the bad grief from the past and now lived in a “normal” present with optimism about the future. How dare they survive and thrive!

I’m fairly confident our speaker, the lovely and poised Armen Bacon, remains a wreck. Earlier, I paraphrased her words, but however she said them, she shared a deceptive truth and a truthful deceit: perhaps I look good on the outside, but inside I still hurt. Her son died several years ago. At times, it probably feels as raw as the day before yesterday.

True love is forever. Grief, true love’s grim companion, is also forever. Does grief get less worse? Yes, enough so that some can sit in front of a computer and write gracious words or stand in front of a microphone and speak vulnerable words. However, whether writer or reader, speaker or audience, there is more than enough hurt to go around.

I wish I could make everyone who is grieving attend a helpful workshop or conference. But at times—and I know this—it’s simply hard to leave the house.

Thanks, Armen Bacon, you reminded me that none of us are alone in our pain.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

Image of Ms. Bacon from here.

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  1. I have a different opinion on this issue of grief . When my husband died suddenly from a heart attack, I was plunged instantly into the chaos of grief. If someone had told me then that grief lasts forever, I’m certain I would have walked in front of the nearest bus to end my pain. Fortunately, no one handed me that stone to carry.

    I believe that grief is actually that horrible begining to loss. It is horrible pain compounded by a feeling of being terribly lost and alone in an unknown place.
    Grief is what knocks you flat and unable to function. It makes you feel like you are going crazy.

    But grief is not a place that you have to live in forever. Although every loss is different, every loss requires you to choose thoughts and behaviors that help you move through grief in order to choose a happy new beginning.

    You will still miss your loved one. You will still yearn to to see your loved one. At times, maybe minutes or hours you will be sad that your loved one is not here. But missing, yearning, and being sad are not grief — not that horrible mess at the beginning. They are a normal part of life and its losses. And these moments will be tempered by the happy moments you choose to create.

    I think of my husband often. Sometimes I cry a little thinking of something special we shared. But these are only moments in an otherwise happy and fulfilling life— a life I choose for myself.

    Armen’s book is exquisitely written. Those who have lost a child are sure to find comfort in it.

    As for me, I wrote my own way through grief. I think of it as a grief book with a happy ending. My book — Grief Sucks, But Love Bears All Things — is available at Barnes & Noble and, Majesty Bible and Gifts, Cozy Cottage Antiques, Two Sisters Vintage Home and Garden.

    • Gayle:

      Thanks so much for your comments! And, though I haven’t yet read your book, I’ve heard of others who have read it cover to cover and deeply appreciate it. Your words and views are valuable and I’m glad you shared them here . . . and even more with others through your ongoing work and words.

      In some ways, though I could be wrong, our “different” views about grief may be semantics. When you mention the later on sadness and the down the road times of crying you have experienced, and refer to them more as the feelings of longing and yearning rather than grief, I mostly agree with you. Where I would gently “disagree” is that those brief moments of being sad and those tender tears that may occur years after a death can still be understood as grief. I believe love and grief are intertwined; both evolve as time goes by and new experiences accumulate.

      But again, I think any “disagreement” is semantics.

      One of my hoped for goals in writing this essay about our grief conference—and Armen’s wonderful participation in it—was to urge people to be realistic about the ways they learn about, and deal with, their grief. Sometimes we view others and assume how they “solved” their “problem” was the “best” or “only” choice . . . but when we try his or her way, it doesn’t work. For example, it’s obvious that you, Armen Bacon, and I all need to write to help us work through grief. That won’t be the case for everyone.

      Even more, I think all of us, especially when we are vulnerable, compare ourselves to others. If that “other” person appears to be “normal” after a terrible experience, why can’t I be normal too?

      But again, and most importantly, I appreciate you adding to this discussion!

      (And by the by, for other readers of this post and its comments, here’s Amazon’s link for Gayle’s book Grief Sucks.)

  2. Thank you, Larry and Gayle, for lifting the veil on this very difficult topic – one that most shy away from for obvious reasons. At the conclusion of my remarks, here is what I also shared: Survival is possible. It’s also something you have to want. You CHOOSE it even though it is excruciating. You embrace the possibility of feeling human again. It looks different for each of us. THEN, you keep putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes, you survive in five minute increments. You learn to lean on others, to ask for help. Some days will be better than others – the journey often feels like a steep climb up Mt. Everest. The air gets thin. You walk into walls. But you can do it. We live for each other at first perhaps more than for ourselves – we live for our children, our parents, partners, spouses and friends – for what remains. But the world wants and needs more from us so along the way, we find our tribe, our people, the ones who love and accept us when we are feeling shattered, broken, brain-damaged, disheveled and weary-eyed. We learn how to be gentle with ourselves, honoring the journey. There is no right or wrong way to do this – to grieve, no “how to” manual, nor is there an expiration date. Believe me, any way you get through it – is heroic. This is not something you “get over” – you work through it every day of your life. But the human spirit ROCKS with resilience. And I mean that. In the end, grief has the capacity to make us all more human. It also has a way of clearing the rubble and leaving beautiful gemstones in our path for us to discover. But it all takes time. There is no need to rush. We can agree right here and now to let our hearts stay broken for awhile. But with one caveat: it’s also OK to be happy again – to find joy. It’s one of the best ways to honor those we’ve loved and lost. Wishing you all moments of peace. Armen

    • Armen:

      Thanks for your response . . . and the obvious and insightful clarity you bring with your words.

      Me? I foolishly “paraphrased” some of what you said at the conference and that can never be accurate and will always be influenced by my biases.

  3. Larry, I agree that our different approach to grief may be in semantics. I panic though when I hear someone say that grief will last forever, and my hope is that those words never be said to someone who has just been plunged into grief. A heart newly confronted with loss may not understand the semantics behind them. That heart might be weighted down by them and choose not to survive.

    That being said, the importance of what you, Armen, myself, and others do in sharing our stories is to offer up ourselves as little beacons of hope to those who are struggling. We share our most painful and private thoughts in the hope that someone else can find themselves in our story and see that it is possible to survive, and beyond that, to find joy again.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me.

    • Thanks again, Gayle. I so appreciate what you’ve added . . . and if anyone reads what I wrote in the original essay, along with your and Armen’s responses, they will be immeasurably blessed by the perspective and honesty both of you bring to your life journey.

      You have been a “beacon of hope” to many.

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