Sunday, December 14, 2014

On Grief (and the importance of self-care)

It’s mid-December and our rough draft is due in a few short weeks. I’m confident everything will come together in time, but it’ll be tough – especially with the adjustment from student to full-time employee at Duke (no winter break for me!).

A close friend of mine lost his dad around this time last year, and it’s been a tough last few weeks. The impending holiday season – his family’s first without his father – has thrown him into a tailspin. He’s been calling in sick to work. He’s stopped going to the gym and returning my phone calls. His grief has resurfaced, bigger and meaner than ever, and he’s struggling to keep his head above water.

During stressful times like these, as we chug through the meatiest part of our fellowship program, it’s so, so important to practice self-care. It’s important to remember that your mental health is crucial to your overall well-being. It’s important to care for yourself deeply and deliberately. My friend’s situation got me thinking about how we conceive of grief, how cultural conceptions about the way we deal with loss and sorrow shape our experiences. So I wrote this:

On Grief

When my roommate killed my puppy in a freak accident last summer, I didn’t cry. Not at first.

Instead, I carefully wrapped Meelo in his favorite blanket, loaded him into my car, and drove to my mother’s house, where we buried him in a thick bed of white and yellow daisies in the backyard.

I watched my stepdad kneel, gingerly lowering Meelo’s tiny body into the ground; heard the spatter of dirt as he filled in the hole, and willed myself to cry. But it didn’t happen. I felt nothing. 

At the time, my reaction troubled me. All I knew about the grieving process was what I’d seen on Grey’s Anatomy. There were the five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, eventually, acceptance. Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross proposed this model in the 1960s, and it has since become the dominant paradigm we use to conceptualize grief.

Why, then, wasn’t I feeling those things? Sure, Meelo was just a dog, but he was family to me. He was my baby.

Later, in a course on the psychology of aging, I studied grief in greater depth. I learned about the role that culture plays in grief processes – how societal norms dictate what we consider “appropriate” responses to death and loss.   

In parts of Egypt, for example, it isn’t abnormal for a woman to openly grieve her son a decade after his death. Studies conducted in China, where mourners regularly speak to their dead relatives, have found that the bereaved there actually recover more quickly than grieving Americans do.

A few days after Meelo died I found his stuffed fox, “Frankie,” in a bag in my room. I thought back to the first night I brought him home – how he’d refused to sleep on the makeshift cot of pillows and blankets I’d arranged on the floor. How he’d dragged Frankie over and crouched, whimpering and shivering, beside my bed. How he’d ignored my gentle reprimands, scratching at the wooden bedframe until I finally caved, scooping him – he was small enough to fit in one hand – up and onto the bed beside me, where he curled up and promptly fell asleep. How he’d occupied that spot every night since.

And I sobbed. For hours. I called my grandmother. I binge-watched Scandal and ordered B’Skis with my roommates. I dealt with grief the only way I knew how, and, gradually, I felt the tightness in my chest begin to dissolve like a block of melting ice. Though my grieving process didn’t follow the five stages, it worked for me – and that, obviously, is what matters.

In fact, that same class on aging taught me that Kubler-Ross’s model is kind of a sham. It’s based largely on anecdotal rather than empirical evidence, and didn’t receive much support in later studies. Kubler-Ross admitted as much in her final book, writing, “Our grief is as individual as our lives.”

The takeaway from all of this is simple: there’s no correct way to grieve, no model or flow chart that could possibly capture the messy and deeply personal experiences of loss in neat, sequential boxes. No one can tell you when it’s time to “move on” or “get over it.” The only person who knows is you.


To the other fellows: If you're ever feeling overwhelmed, remember there's a huge support system at WomenNC to help you. We got this. 

1 comment:

  1. Josh, you are such a great storyteller. It adds such impact to your writing. Hope you will be able to help your friend during this very difficult time, made more acute during the holiday season.
    Yes, WomenNC is here for support, as needed. Let us help.