2/25/12

Grief and Bananas - Let's Dispense with the God-Talk Platitudes


This post might get a bit heavy - not heavy in the "I can't lift it" sort of way, but heavy in the "that's serious" sort of way. Now that you have been warned, let's dive in.

Years ago Elizabeth Kübler-Ross made the phrase 'death and dying' popular (I've always thought it should be dying and death - I mean don't they come in that order more often than not?).  The fame of her work and the mission of the resulting organization - now widely known as Hospice - has brought many of the issues around death and grief to the forefront. In her trend setting "Stages of Grief" model, Kübler-Ross has helped us understand that all people must travel through grief (to a great or lesser degree) when faced with a significant loss. Our grief journey isn't usually direct, neat or painless - but it is necessary. I've included a brief recap of the 5 Stages of Grief at the end of this post - since I know you are dying to really eager to learn more.

Here's the deal. People with a theistic worldview often turn to god-talk to try and deal with grief - quickly. The guiltiest of this are those of us who are looking from the outside-in at someone else's grief. Our thoughts and comments seem loving and well intended (yes. We all the road to hell is paved with good intentions). Ever hear or say one of these:

"We can take comfort that they are in a better place now."
"It is part of God's larger plan."
"I know he/she will be celebrating in heaven tonight."
"At least they aren't suffering anymore."
"He/she's with Jesus now."

Sound familiar? What could possibly be wrong with saying stuff like this? Two BIG problems.

First these are statements that are being claimed from the outside of grief and most likely are disconnected from the current experience of the grieving person. It isn't typically helpful to others - and most likely is an expression of our own difficulty dealing with the complex and uncomfortable emotions and concepts surrounding loss, death and our effort to understand the world. It is, in a way, like telling the child who just dropped their only cookie into the mud that "That's the way the cookie crumbles." We might as well say, "Get over it, kid." We need to be allowed to move through each step of grief - not challenged to jump to the end.

Secondly, when we toss around well meaning references to our perceived larger truths, we may be assuming the person even has a similar faith tradition. In a recent article in USA Today | News, an atheist's perspective on well meaning people of faith bring this to reality.

"We are facing an absolute loss, so when someone projects onto that the idea that we are going to be able to hold our children again or communicate with them, it is essentially dismissing the magnitude of that loss." - Rebecca Hensler



Common respect for another's belief should give us pause before laying down well meaning platitudes. My point (and I thank you for hanging on to my ramblings long enough for me to make it) is that we should approach discussions about dying and death "with fear and trembling" and thus, a high measure of respect. I would suggest we allow ourselves to be in the real and necessary discomfort grief - with the grieving. Perhaps we can learn another phrase or two:

"I know grief is hard."
"Death is tough to deal with - more than we usually imagine."
"My heart hurts with your loss."
"I can't know what you are feeling, and I want to help in any way I can."

I remember when a good friend and mentor of mine died. I was speaking to his widow a few days after his death and said, "I know this is a hard time and that there really isn't anything I can say or do to make it better, but is there anything little thing you need?" She looked at me a said, "Yes. Bananas." I must have looked surprised, because she started to smile and then we both laughed. Truly, she needed bananas to make a recipe for her son's school the next day. Sometimes, the best thing we can do to help people through their grief and for ourselves - is to just walk through the days with them. Bananas. Go figure.



The 5 Stages of Grief, popularly known by the acronym DABDA, include:

1. Denial — "I feel fine."; "This can't be happening, not to me."
Denial is usually only a temporary defense for the individual. This feeling is generally replaced with heightened awareness of possessions and individuals that will be left behind after death.

2. Anger — "Why me? It's not fair!"; "How can this happen to me?"; '"Who is to blame?"
Once in the second stage, the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue. Because of anger, the person is very difficult to care for due to misplaced feelings of rage and envy.

3. Bargaining — "I'll do anything for a few more years."; "I will give my life savings if..."
The third stage involves the hope that the individual can somehow postpone or delay death. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. Psychologically, the individual is saying, "I understand I will die, but if I could just do something to buy more time..."

4. Depression — "I'm so sad, why bother with anything?"; "I'm going to die soon so what's the point... What's the point?"; "I miss my loved one, why go on?"
During the fourth stage, the dying person begins to understand the certainty of death. Because of this, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time crying and grieving. This process allows the dying person to disconnect from things of love and affection. It is not recommended to attempt to cheer up an individual who is in this stage. It is an important time for grieving that must be processed.

5. Acceptance — "It's going to be okay."; "I can't fight it, I may as well prepare for it."
In this last stage, individuals begin to come to terms with their mortality, or that of a loved one, or other tragic event.

9 comments:

  1. Having had the opportunity to attend a lot of wakes/funerals/memorial services/remembrances what have you, I personally am never good at finding the right words. I tend to be one of those that seeks out the person(s) I know and offer the "what can I do for you.'

    Having lost my father a few years ago, and several family members and friends throughout the years, I do know some of the pain the grieving person feels, but I do not know how they feel it.

    The comfort is that they know you cared enough to come see them. The whirlwind of the days immediately following the passing of a loved one can be foggy, and the words forgotten, but the contact and bringing of those bananas will be remembered forever.

    Good Post Kim!

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    1. Thanks, Paul. Many times just the right kind of attention hits the spot.

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  2. In my world, the hardest part of grief is not in seeking out the support, but in escaping it, at least until I have processed in what my heart feels is a safe environment. I recall vividly being at various funerals where tears came without control and emotions poured from me, and being acutely aware of the relatives and those that surrounded me staring on and looking. It felt, in those cases, like I was the only one with such emotion pouring forth, and therefore the spotlight felt all the more bright. In one case, I left the room, followed by my selected support folks of my parents. But well-meaning family followed behind and just stayed with us. I was torn between a desire to honestly tell them to 'get out' and a need to respect their desire to support me. My very real need to go through those emotions in a safe environment was crushed in these cases and a release that was necessary was often suppressed for quite some time.

    The only memory I have of a good and solid support that was given in one of these situations didn't come in words or tasks, but instead came in a long time family friend simply rubbing my back and patting it as I cried uncontrollably. She didn't say a word, but I honestly can still feel her hand on my back. A quiet reminder that she was there and didn't HAVE to say anything else. It also helped that I knew she would never judge me.

    There is a powerful sense of connection that happens when you get to see or let people see you in your moments of deepest grief. They are seeing you at your most raw and complex in many ways.

    Perhaps what we need to learn more than anything else about grief is that it takes time. People think that a few weeks or months pass and someone should 'be over' a death or loss, but years may pass before the process is complete. In some cases, wounds are ripped open with court cases and estate crap that won't go away. In others the ability to process what has happened simply takes more time than for others. In still more, it is the ongoing memory of the loss at holidays and occasions that brings it back to the surface.

    Yes, grief is not something that can be brushed to the side. And I do hope that folks would start to realize that grief is something that is highly personal for each person, learning to read what that person needs and respecting it.

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    1. CC - grief is, as many things, a process... a sacred process. it takes what it takes from each of us. thank you for your candid, detailed and loving comment. Namaste'

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  3. Boy did you nail that one. I know that those who have deep religious beliefs think that those phrases are helpful but if you're a person who ISN'T deeply religious, the reaction to those phrases are not good. That's a big challenge especially in this VERY religious area where the first question after "what's your name" is almost always "where do you go to church". When I have friends going thru the death process of a loved one, I'm more concerned with checking up with them after all the events have passed. They're usually pretty well taken care of during the process, it's after all the family and friends have left that they really need the help.

    Oh, and of course I cook. http://fourhensandarooster.com/southern-cooking/

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    1. Kristen - well said. I agree, we are often more neglectful of people once the drama and novelty of a crisis ebbs. Doing some care-giving later in the process is a great thing - of course you get that as evidenced by your Southern Cooking blog post (which I love, btw.)

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  4. LOVE the banana story. Brilliant post.

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    1. Dena - what can I say? I'm a sucker for a good tale. Thanks for the visit. I do hope you'll drop back in.

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  5. Love this, Kim! As someone who has been through a significant loss, I felt so frustrated by people who avoided sitting with the pain of what I was going through by saying the platitudes you listed above. Just saying, "I'm so sorry" and listening is often enough. And bananas. Tho for me it was cheeseburgers.

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Leave a comment. It's not like I'm asking you to write on a stone tablet or anything.