Comedian Patton Oswald’s wife died suddenly this past spring, at the age of 46. As he told the New York Times recently, she’d been having trouble sleeping. One night, she gave in and took some Xanax, and fell into a deep sleep, and never woke up.
It’s always a shock. Whether you have lots of advance notice – or if it comes on all of a sudden – the loss of someone you love,never doesn’t feel like a surprise.
Where did she go? He was here, his voice so clear and present. Their body and its warmth so available. All of these so suddenly missing. With advance notice, however, in addition to the surprise, we also tend to carry guilt – because we shouldn’t be surprised we think.
We should’ve been ready, prepared somehow.
Nonsense. There’s no preparing. No amount of anticipatory grief – as we call it – can do the work in advance.
Still, the sudden, unexpected death is different. It breaks a story of life right in the middle of the juicy part, the part you may have never even known was juicy until death came. And then all the unfinished things, the way life was just beginning to make sense,
still starting to take shape, all of these show themselves, and the disorientation of this new interruption – this new reality – can be so deep, comprehensively chaotic.
After his wife’s sudden death, Oswald tells of a life crippled by sadness. Like Mary Oliver says: “That time / I thought I could not / go any closer to grief / without dying / I went closer.”
He says he struggled to go to work, to hold it together day-by-day, he has a 7 year old,
he had to try –and he did, he tried everything to make the pain better. He says, his grief was an attack on his life, always present, as if saying, “the minute you try something, I’m waiting for you.”
But then, in the last month, he returned to his stand-up comedy work. People generally freaked out – saying things like, your wife just died, how can you be laughing, and telling jokes, especially jokes about grief – which is about half of his stand-up act.
People often ask me how to be helpful to their friends, and family experiencing grief.
I tell them, two things (ok there’s a whole class, but the two most important things…):
first, just show up, even if you aren’t sure what to say or do. Just, keep showing up.
And second, remember, there is no one way to do grief – We grieve like we love –
in a thousand different ways. The paths to healing are many, varied, and hardly ever in a straight line.
This isn’t what we’ve been taught about the “work of grief” – as Freud called it –
like it was something you could do, or accomplish.
As if healing after the death of someone you love is a destination, arrived at after a relatively orderly process – step-by-step.
Many of us were shaped by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief – and despite even her own insistence otherwise, our society took these in as if an instruction manual for grieving: first deny, second, get angry, third, bargain about it, fourth, dive into a period of depression, and then finally, fifth, emerge into acceptance. Healed. Done.
Over time, we’ve realized that her five stages are not the instant formula for grief we thought they were.And actually, the expectation that we must cross these hurdles one-by-one – like, “I didn’t get angry enough!” or “I’m not depressed enough!” actually stalls our grief process, mixes it with guilt and shame in a big guilt-shame-grief spiral….
So remember: while our paths to healing after the death of someone we love may occur in clear-cut stages, more likely it will be a big chaotic blob of fits and starts, and maybe most surprisingly of all, we will most likely be generally ok throughout.
We’ve been taught that grieving is hard in the same way that running a marathon when you aren’t in shape is hard.
And so we dread it, try not to even think about it, yet often the anticipation of a death or loss is almost worse than the death itself. Because actually, we are hard-wired for grief in the same way we are hard-wired for love.
As George Bonanno says in his groundbreaking book, The Other Side of Sadness:
“The good news is that for most of us, grief is not overwhelming or unending. As frightening as the pain of loss can be, most of us are resilient. Some of us cope so effectively, in fact, we hardly seem to miss a beat in our day-to-day lives. We may be shocked, even wounded by a loss, but we still manage to regain our equilibrium and move on.That there is anguish and sadness during bereavement cannot be denied. But there is much more. Above all, it is a human experience…something we are wired for, and it is certainly not meant to overwhelm us. Rather, our reactions to grief seem designed to help us accept and accommodate losses relatively quickly so that we can continue to live productive lives.”
Too often we are, as Sean phrased it earlier this month, afraid to accept apocalypse,
afraid to lean in to grief, afraid to come in closer, afraid to face our pain – because we’re afraid the work of this grief would swallow us up, or hold us hostage, forever.
But even science is confirming what most of us who bear witness to the end of life have been saying for some time – in most cases, the resistance to the grief is what holds you hostage, not the grief itself.In most cases, by turning towards the grief, something incredible happens, something irrational – something that makes people say as Mary Oliver says,“Surely God had His Hand in this,” and she goes on – “as well as friends.”
Instead of being swallowed up, when we stay awake in the midst of the loss, we are lifted up,held in this grace – those healing rivers we sang about, this grace. That keeps us open to life as it continues to be mixed up with joy, and sorrow, beauty, love, and loss.
Many of us didn’t grow up with a Day of the Dead celebration in our community. Yet we find meaning and wisdom in its practice today – for many reasons, but maybe especially because it gets this understanding of grief – it invites us to come in closer, to go to the graveyards and to make candy out of skulls and to dance and play music of joy and life in the midst of death. It knows that life and death are best understood as a mix, all the time, mixed together – that there’s no final moment of healing, no return to the before-the-loss-life – because change is all the time, and grief can hit you in waves and take your breath away with its pain – but also still, always there’s the joy, also breathtaking, wondrous, joy.
And even more, joy isn’t it just side-by-side with grief, it’s actually integral to our healing process – studies are showing that laughter and smiling are as important as any therapy or grief group might be. Not fake laughter, or superficial joy – like, everything is fine, or don’t talk about unpleasant things like death– but more, the laughter that sent Patton Oswald back to the stage, that fueled his new show about grief – it’s the laughter that surprises you in the midst of the pain, that makes you go: Did you hear that? And even your mouth is startled to feel the joy, returning, healing.
Laughter like this is possible when we lean in rather than away from life, when we lean in to all of the shocking, unjust, stupid, overwhelming pain and loss, of life and yet still remain open to the beauty, the kindness, the rejoicing, the love.
Life – in grief, in gratitude, in the every day, is just about letting this much in, allowing our hearts to be this big, to take in this much complexity, to love it all.
We will help each other do this. However we carry our grief, we carry it together, bearers of grace. Practicing, and healing together, bravely, still admiring all the beauty that is always, everywhere available.