Dealing with Loss and Grief
After death and loss, when is it okay to move on and laugh? That depends on who you ask.
It’s one of those unusually ugly afternoons here in Las Vegas.
Cold. Clouds. Fog. Rain.
Given the collective dispirits of many in this city and beyond, the miserable weather is ideally suited for one thing — mourning.
I consider it a facade to pretend that only a few days ago nothing bad happened. No, I shalt not move merrily onward. Penning another article about the latest movie, a new restaurant experience, or my opinion about a football game just doesn’t seem appropriate. At least, not right now. Not yet. Besides, writing about current events can be just as distressing.
The immediate aftermath of being dealt a devastating emotional blow and suffering an unexpected loss often brings pain that becomes all-consuming. Fortunately, there’s a natural remedy for most forms of pain, which is time. It’s been said that as time passes we gradually become less burdened by our sad thoughts. They begin to fade and are replaced by more pressing concerns. Sometimes, they’re replaced by other sad thoughts. But then, there are happy thoughts, too. Intermediary reminders of shock and loss become sporadic, and then infrequent. Hours turn into days which become weeks and months and eventually we don’t think nearly as often about our loss. It’s that way with all things. “All things must pass,” George Harrison taught us.
Reaction to loss varies by individual. Death is a deeply personal thing. The period of reflection needed to cope is different for everyone. There are no right, nor wrong ways, to mourn. Mourning has no rulebooks, nor timetables. Those who lose someone particularly close usually need more time to get over death than common acquaintances. But this isn’t always true, either. When celebrities die, their fans are often stricken with grief that lasts for weeks or even months. Hence, we can also mourn just as deeply and with as much sorrow for those we’ve never met — as those who were closest to us. Neither is the period for mourning reserved for humans. For some, even the loss of a devoted pet can be an emotionally crushing experience for which the only elixir is the passage of time. Time might not heal all wounds, but time does usually somehow make things better.
I’ve written previously about the disparate emotional reactions many people had to one of the most traumatic experiences of our lifetimes — the terrorist attacks on 9/11. In New York City, most Broadway shows reopened just a few nights later and those performances enjoyed an unexpected rush of unusually early sell-outs. Theater-goers reasoned that they desperately needed some kind of diversion, a temporary emotional getaway, a timeout, a reprieve. The horror from the previous 72 hours had been too much to bear. For some, the best way to cope with sadness was to seek out a new opportunity to smile.
However, we had to be careful about smiling or laughing in a manner thought to be disrespectful. In Los Angeles, at a comedy roast that was happening just as Broadway shows were playing to packed theaters some 3,000 miles away, Gilbert Gottfried infamously bombed before a live audience when he cracked a 9/11 joke, and after a collective gasp, someone stood up in the crowd and shouted “too soon,” to a loud chorus of boos aimed at the comedian. Somehow, it was okay to laugh at a situation unrelated just miles away from a sacred site where twisted metal was being unraveled and body parts were still being pulled from the ashes, yet at a comedy show across the country, an off-the-cuff joke told by a performer well known to be crass was considered unsuitable.
Indeed, when it comes to mourning, there are no rules. There only seems to be inconsistency.
Right after Hurricane Katrina, which slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005, I spent weeks at a time on assignment in New Orleans. Even though I have family members living there, I wasn’t sure exactly how to react to the unusual circumstances of an entire city and its residents who suffered so deeply whilst I was tasked with promoting some frivolous event taking place at a local casino. Generating enthusiasm for a gambling thing just didn’t make much sense, nor did it seem right — not when so many people around us were still trying to grasp with the shock of losing their homes and coping with death.
All my presumptions about the way people mourn were shaken, however, when I voiced these concerns to a few New Orleans locals, who pretty much all told me the same thing. Their common response was — for the last several months all they’d heard was Hurricane Katrina. Nothing but Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Katrina all the time. Hurricane Katrina this and Hurricane Katrina that. Here was a chance to do something that was fun and different. Here was a chance to get back to the way things were before. For those who needed a break, we were the distraction of a Broadway show. Our seemingly frivolous event was their reprieve. For them, there was no such thing as “too soon.”
I came to learn more about mourning and the odd manner in which people react to loss in ways that might be unexpected. Not too long after, a friend of mine lost his only son, who died tragically in a car accident. The impact of that loss was devastating. It’s one thing to experience the death of a beloved parent, and perhaps even lose one’s siblings, losses which are, frankly, to be expected. But no parent deserves to lose a child. That degree of pain does seem particularly harsh, perhaps even incomprehensible.
Yet, I learned something very surprising while talking about his son and discussing his period of mourning. He conveyed just how difficult things were while trying to return to “normal,” whatever that meant. For him, things would never ever be “normal” again. Normal was having his son around, and he was no longer there.
But his road to recovery was particularly difficult because of a constant wave of unintended remorse. As my friend returned to work and inevitably ran into hundreds of friends and co-workers and associates (we traveled around the country together doing events), nearly all of them would come up and offer their condolences. All these people meant well. They wanted to say and do the right thing. They cared. But finally, my friend couldn’t take it anymore. Just when he’d somehow managed to focus on his work, another person would approach him, offer kind words, and remind him yet again of the devastating loss. For him, there was no theater in which to escape, nor any joke that was funny. Everything and everyone was a reminder. Hence, genuine expressions of compassion resulted in unexpected consequences.
Each loss, every death, our reactions, the ways we mourn, the amount of time we need, the degree of attention we long for, the level of support we might require — is different. No two losses are ever the same. All reactions are different, and almost always justified.
We are each entitled to our own reprieve and the means to get there, to arrive at the place we need to be. We should be allowed to make the journey back at our own pace. The cold, clouds, fog, and rain shall indeed lift. Eventually. Perhaps, sooner than we expect. Storms can be unpredictable, too.
Here’s hoping tomorrow is a better and happier day. I sense the clouds lifting already.