Friday, January 13, 2006

On Grief

[a long, rambling, shabbily thought-out post. Feel free to skip. Read The Onion instead]

Freud somewhere wrote that clinical experience had convinced him his excessively shy patients were, at heart, supremely arrogant individuals masking monstrous superiority complexes. One of the most pleasurable pay-offs of reading Sigmund are those insights that at first seem counter-intuitive, but after consideration make a lot of sense.

I've been thinking about grief recently, and trying to do so objectively, and have come to the conclusion that (at least in my case) grief is an entirely selfish response to the death of a loved one, based mostly in shame and guilt and fear. I'm sure this isn't a new idea--someone far smarter and more eloquent at some point in history has had every thought which crosses most of our craniums these days--so I'll be brief.

Of course there is a component of pity--a Schopenaueresque compassionate involvement with the plight of the deceased--involved in grief, but my recent examination of the emotion leads me to think pity plays a relatively small part.

Components of Grief

Guilt: Much of my grief is based in regret--regret that I didn't do enough for, or say certain things to, or make enough time for the deceased. All of these reasons for sadness are purely selfish; the sadness doesn't spring from a genuine emotion about the deceased, but instead from a moral judgment of the Self as inadequate.

Nostalgia: My grandfather had more catch-phrases than the cast of The Simpsons. "I'll be a cow kicked by a mule." "You baboon hunter!" "I'm too old to drink coffee." "People get killed for less than that." "For pity sake." "You ain't-a kiddin'." I could go on. He also had a dozen easily recyclable stories that at one time became tedious, but now their memory brings a tinge of melancholy. Sadness based in nostalgia for the past and for another chance to hear or see someone from the past is purely selfish.

Mortality: In confronting the death of a loved one, we confront our own mortality--that shit sucks, and results in the most selfish grief of all. "I know Grampa couldn't live forever, but goddamit I wish I could!"

Idealization: It's easy when remembering deceased loved ones to gloss over their defects and to recall only the purest idealized traits. Much of what I am is in direct contradiction to my grandfather; as a young teen I vigorously rejected his faith, his simplicity, his tastes, his anti-intellectualism, his political and historical ignorance, and his Biblical favoritism of male over female. Of course I loved him all the same, but now it's easy to forget all the negatives and remember only the tussling in the yard, the Indian-burns, the whiskerings, the Dutch Rubs, the tickling, the bear hugs, and the honest working man. In idealizing the deceased, we do a dis-service to their humanity and their dignity. We make the world easier for ourselves out of pure selfishness, and the conflict in our souls between the idealized and actual deceased becomes fuel for grief and regret. There's a great D.H. Lawrence story dealing at least in part with this idea, called "The Horse-Dealer's Daughter." [Although I must admit I have matured a lot since my teenage years, and I view my grandfather's simplicity as an admirable trait now. He went to church three times a week not because he thought it would get him to Heaven, but because he loved going. He didn't volunteer to clean the church bathrooms and lead the singing because he wanted attention or thought he'd look more upstanding to his peers, but because he genuinely enjoyed doing so. When he offered to help someone or did charitable deeds, it wasn't out of a sense of duty (Jesus says I should help others, so I guess I better), or out of an economic morality (if I do X for Y, Y will owe me in the future), but because he actually and sincerely liked helping people. So what if he thought Walker, Texas Ranger was the best TV show ever? So what if he'd sneer at a Picasso and say "I could do that with some crayons!"? So what if he told me that Satan hid dinosaur bones to fool me into believing Carl Sagan and Stephen J. Gould? So what if my atheism was a constant worry to him? He never judged me for my non-belief, he simply couldn't understand it, and worried about my welfare. He kept his worries to himself, unlike my grandmother, who would evangelize the drive-thru lady at McDonald's and the gas man and clerks at banks. Part of my grief springs from the fact that for so much of my life I judged him negatively, even if I never said so; I also regret that dishonesty!]


The death of a loved one should be a time of celebration, not of grief. We get it backwards I think. Perhaps we're too wrapped up in ourselves. *Aha! I've switched to the first-person-plural, indicating that I'm generalizing my experience of grief. I apologize.* Perhaps it's because I'm so wrapped up in myself.

In the Tibetan Book of the Dead there's an acknowledgement of the selfishness of survivors: one of its most important lessons is that we must give dying loved ones permission to die. Our selfishness results in the need to hold them here with us, and this causes torment to everyone involved. Saying "It's ok to go now, I love you, I forgive you," and all those sorts of things can ease the passage. I also think our predilection for hiding the dying away in homes and hospitals is problematic--talk about taking away someone's comfort and dignity!

Of course, understanding or trying to understand the underpinnings of grief doesn't necessarily make it easier to deal with...

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