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Bearing the Unbearable

1. The Role of Others in Our Grief

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The Role of Others in Our Grief

And we wept that one so lovely should have a life so brief.

— WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT

I MET KYLE’S MOM through my work with bereaved parents. Her fourteen-year-old son had been struck and killed by a stray bullet. Although it was not intended for him, all fourteen years of him were murdered — by a person who would never be found and would never face prosecution.

“I hate grief! I don’t want it anymore! I want you to make it stop! It’s killing me!” Karen screamed and cried on my office floor as I sat cross-legged and silent beside her. Her tears were so profuse they fell onto her beige linen pants, staining them with the blue mascara she wore to work every morning in an attempt to cover up her anguish. Karen was a single mom and Kyle her only child — her “entire world.” The day he died her life and identity changed, she said. She felt pressure from others to move on and wanted to “feel normal” again.

She recounted a story of how her cousin introduced her to a childless colleague as also being childless. This was a turning point into isolation for Karen. From that moment on, she no longer considered herself a mother. Her sleep had changed, and she stopped attending church. She withdrew from friends and felt unsafe in the world. She moved out of the home where she had raised Kyle into an apartment in a nearby suburb.

Karen came to me six months after Kyle died, wanting help to “overcome” her grief, wanting me to “make her better.” There was a familiar desperate edge to our interactions on both our parts. She 10found herself fantasizing about dying in order to be with Kyle. She didn’t literally want to die; she simply wished, with all her might, to rewind time. She wanted Kyle back. His return was the only thing that would remedy her irremediable pain. Her body, mind, heart, and soul were in a state of protest.

WE ARE OFTEN COLLECTIVELY MESMERIZED following violent, highly publicized, or celebrity deaths. This is commonplace, and there is often a public outpouring of embellished emotion and incongruous grief from strangers. Conversely, deaths like Kyle’s that occur under more private, albeit still tragic circumstances that are not publicly known elicit only truncated attention.

In Karen’s case, gestures of compassion and support were short-lived. Her role as a mother was negated following her son’s untimely death, and this caused her to doubt her own heart. She still felt like Kyle’s mother, but incessant social edicts persuaded her to mistrust not only her place as Kyle’s mom, but also her own rightful emotions — her grief. No one remembered with her. No one would speak of Kyle or validate her grief.

In contrast, because of the news-grabbing way Charlotte Helen Bacon was killed by a shooter in Newtown, Connecticut, people were abuzz with chatter, and many expressed grief over her death, even if they never even knew her.

Twenty first-graders and six staff members were murdered in Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was a horror story that was recapitulated in the mass media for months and even years. The unremitting public coverage left some of those who were personally affected by the death of a child or other loved one feeling helplessly exposed and vulnerable.

I met Charlotte’s parents in the summer of 2014. Charlotte, a smart, bold, and tenacious girl who could be “a little sneaky” and certainly spirited, was murdered as she holed up in her school bathroom with her classmates. All but one child in the bathroom died that disastrous 11day. Charlotte’s parents, Joel and JoAnn, grappled with the tragic death of their only daughter while at the same time withstanding public scrutiny and consumption of their very private tragedy. In an open letter, an angry, hurt, and frustrated JoAnn wrote,

On December 14, 2012, a man murdered my daughter and stole her future and stole my future. She was herded into her school bathroom with her classmates and gunned down. Completely vulnerable and defenseless. AND I AM ANGRY. In my experience, anger is the emotion that people dislike the most. They do one of three things: Try to change my attitude and have me look on the “bright side” and “count my blessings,” or change the subject, or stop showing up altogether. All of these infuriate me even more. It is a vicious cycle. I can speak my truth and make everyone uncomfortable and have them running for the hills or I can be the great pretender, smiling and nodding my head, making myself feel like a fraud. Both are awful and both leave me feeling isolated and misunderstood.

What I want to know is how anyone can think that I will ever be okay with my daughter’s murder? I am outraged, and want to scream, “Why are you not outraged?” And as for blessings, you don’t want to travel down that road with me. You can count your blessings, but I don’t feel very blessed at the moment. You also don’t want to remind me that great things come from great tragedy. I do not want to hear how my daughter’s death taught you something profound or compelled you to do something. My daughter was not placed on this earth to die and give new perspective. Charlotte was here because she was wanted, was loved, and had something to offer this world while she was living. Everything else feels like an appeasement, and it hurts. What nongrievers like is to find inspiration, the silver lining, and the triumphant end. I despise being told that I am an inspiration. It truly makes me uncomfortable… I am a grieving mother.

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JoAnn expresses important points about the ways others perceive grief. These perceptions stir up many emotions within us that can complicate our experience of mourning. For JoAnn, the assumption, explicit or not, that somehow Charlotte’s death was meant to inspire others or create a better world is unhelpful. What they have “done with grief” — any legacy since her death — came at far too high a cost for her family. And failing to recognize the deep, unmitigated pain that preceded their “new” and unwanted lives is not honoring.

Cultural norms promote inexplicable double standards that are often harmful to those grieving. Certain tragedies deemed worthy are validated, and in those cases, others often arrogate those losses, usurping a grief that is not theirs. Individual grief is discouraged, even scorned, beyond a brief period of time. Years later, the culture willingly remembers private tragedy publicly without assent, consultation, consideration of those who are personally affected. But if a loss isn’t dramatic enough, if it hasn’t touched the masses or been deemed worthy of a public platform, then society might not remember at all.

When others call into question our grief, defy our perennial relationship with those we love who have died, treat us as anathema and avoid us, and push us toward healing before we are ready, they simply redouble our burden.

It almost seems that the only way to eradicate our grief would be to relinquish the love we feel — to disassemble our loved one’s place in our lives. But checking in with the wisdom of our heart, we see that is impossible.

Grief and love occur in tandem.

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