Let’s start with how bad a title that is. If you chose to read this because the title rubbed you the wrong way, welcome. Let’s talk.
In my reading about the process of grieving, I see a lot of emphasis that “there is no right way to grieve.” I appreciate the sentiment, but it is clearly wrong. There are ways of grieving that make everything worse. Those ways are not a “right way to grieve.”
What the people mean, I think, by pushing the “no right way to grieve” is that there is not a single clearly defined way to grieve that everyone should follow. That’s true, of course, but is that the problem we are facing?
What is the disease for which this is the cure?
As I said, it seems to me that there is a lot of emphasis on this these days. The idea is iterated and then reiterated. It is as if someone thinks that there is an upsurge of belief in the “one right way” theory. I don’t think there is. I haven’t seen, heard, or smelled it and I have been paying attention.
What I think is more likely is that it is an artifact of our hyperindividualization. There is scarcely any way that sharing a common attitude can be represented as better than opposing what is shared. “Mine and mine alone” is the high ground. My feelings are unique; no one has ever had them before. Consequently, any help I might require with my feelings also needs to be unique.
The grief I feel is, for instance, quite unlike the grief you feel or, as a matter of fact, the grief anyone else has ever felt. The right way to grieve, for me, needs to be invented (not accepted) and it needs to be tailored precisely to my own individual nature.
This leads us to reject as helpful models, the experiences of others. “You just don’t understand me” used to be portrayed as the lament of a teenage girl. As it becomes more popular, it is being made a principle of interpersonal relations.
I have a picture in mind of what “doing it right looks like.” It doesn’t answer all the questions, but it’s a very powerful picture for me. By 2003, when my wife, Marilyn, died, she and I had been in a book group for twenty years. It was a really good group. We chose good books and sometimes discussed them well. We cared for each other and knew quite a bit about each other’s lives.
“The Bookies,” attended the memorial service the family had for Marilyn at our church, but they really had their hearts set on a picnic in the afternoon. It would be a picnic where they could remember and celebrate the Marilyn they knew. Anybody who wanted to remember who Marilyn was among her friends was invited to come, but it was a Bookie picnic.
I will never forget the invitation I got. They told me they had no way of knowing just how much I would have left after the service and the reception that followed. I didn’t know either, of course. So they made it plain to me that the picnic was not for me. It was for them. It was going to happen. And I was invited to come if the earlier events had not completely depleted me.
I loved it. I didn’t know how I was going to feel? How could I? But when all the ceremonies were over, I consulted my feelings and my energy level and saw that I really wanted to go. So I went.
You could criticize a picnic like this in the way the assumed models of grief were criticized in he introduction to this essay. It doesn’t open the experience of grieving as something we share. Or it defines the common experience as a rigid and mandatory set of expectations. Or it doesn’t give a griever any guidance at all and just leaves him to flounder. But I didn’t experience it in any of those ways.
First, the picnic was going to happen. It met their needs—the Bookies’ needs—so they
made some time to celebrate Marilyn as they had known her. The fact that it was going to happen whether I liked it or not was a great relief to me. I had already made 50% more decisions that day than I make in a normal day and many of them were highly emotional. This wasn’t yet another decision to make.
And although the picnic wasn’t aimed at me, it was open to me. I was invited to grieve along with them about our common loss. The loss of Marilyn was a particular kind of loss to me, of course, but I also lost what they lost. I lost a person who read and discussed the books and had good ideas just as they lost her. I was comforted that that much of our grief was in common.
It allowed me to define at the time of the picnic—not in advance—how separate I needed to be and how social I could afford to try to be. And really, isn’t that when you will know best what you can do?
Why this is a counter-example?
I could, of course, have rejected the whole thing. No one has ever felt the unique and precise grief I am feeling. Therefore, you really don’t “know how I am feeling” and you really shouldn’t impose on me any notion of what would help. A picnic, for instance.
And if I were a chip swirling around in the cascade of uniqueness, that is what I might have done. In actual fact, I clung onto the group’s determination to celebrate Marilyn’s life in their own way and at their own time.
And to invite me to come if I could.