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On Grief and Comfort

A still from Eiichi Yamamoto’s 1973 animated film, Belladonna of Sadness.

Grief takes ahold of you. It overpowers you. You do not get to decide when you have had enough of grief. You will want to stop grieving. You will want to move on. You will wish you could process things faster or better or “more like other people,” but you will find that the precise amount of grief that is allotted to you is yours and yours alone. You do not get to say when you have grieved enough. It is grief, itself, which determines when it has had enough of you. Grief works from its own timeline, not the one you bring to it. And the timeline grief has for you is not the same as the timeline grief has for other people. Other people telling you that you’re taking too long to work through your grief is just as useless as you trying to tell your grief you’re done with it now. They don’t get to make that call. And neither do you. You must grieve your grief through all the way to the end uniquely set aside for you, wherever and whenever grief determines that end is. You must grieve passionately which, as with any passion, is something that requires endurance.

But enduring while held by overpowering grief is difficult. And so we seek solace. We desire to be comforted, soothed, and consoled. Going back to the etymological roots of the word “solace,” we wish to be reconciled with the situation we find ourselves in, with the losses we have experienced, with the self we have become, with the revelation of who others have been and, perhaps are no longer, and with the world as we now experience it after whatever events brought about our grieving. But solace is hard to come by and, as I have already said, grief decides when we get there.

Because we are held in a timeline grief imposes upon us, there is much to be said for seeking moments of comfort, periods of respite, brief times of rest and momentary consolation, distraction, or relief, in the midst of our grieving. But it is here that we must be very careful. Because it is very easy to slip into the habit of pursuing comfort—comfort here, comfort now—in such a way that it prevents us from seeing our grief through all the way to the end. Often, the way in which we comfort ourselves does not advance us along the road we must travel to move through our grief; instead, it simply pauses our grieving. Don’t get me wrong, a pause can be good. More than good, pauses are essential. Anyone trekking or traveling a long distance knows that you only get to your destination if you stop to rest, eat, and replenish yourself along the way. So part of traveling through our grief until we get to its end is knowing that we have to rest along the way. We have to pause. We have to be temporarily comforted before we can finally experience solace.  The danger is that we become so enamoured with being comforted, right here, right now, that we lose our ability to continue to feel and experience and live and journey through our grief so that we finally come to its end—or, if not its end, then the end of its reign over us. For there are griefs that will persist for all of our lives. Journeying through griefs like these does not mean we will ever completely stop grieving. It does mean, however, that they will cease to rule over us.

However, precisely because grief is so overpowering, and exhausting, and difficult to bear, we can lose hope that it will ever end. And so we seek comfort, comfort, comfort, wherever we can find it, and we often do so ever more compulsively. Some people do this with medications like opiates. Other people do this with work. Other people do this with sex. Other people do this with shopping. And still others do this with violence and causing harm to others. And yet, as soon as the thing causing us to feel comforted fades—the opiates wear off, we are away from work, nobody wants to fuck, the novelty of my new purchase wears off, or there is nobody I can lash out at—all of our grief surges back in. When this occurs, we often mistakenly think that this is proof that our grief is unending and can never be overcome and so we rush out even more desperate to be comforted so that we won’t feel this grief. But this is a misinterpretation of our experience. What this experience actually shows us is that the things or people we are using to comfort ourselves are actually freezing us at a certain place on grief’s timeline. I desire to only ever feel comforted right here, right now, ends up preventing us from seeing our grief all the way through and leaves us forever grieving. Not only this, but wanting to ever only feel comfort here and now actually risks multiplying the griefs we experience. If I find my grief so overwhelming that I will do anything to experience a brief moment of respite from it, then I can sacrifice other things I care about for that respite, I can lose other loved ones, I can harm people who trusted me to care for them, and when these things happens new griefs enter my life and they, too, have their own timelines and if I was overwhelmed by a single grief, how much more overwhelmed I find myself now with these griefs that are exponentially multiplying! This spiral is one that we tend to project onto and only associate with those whom we carelessly and abusively call “drug addicts” or “alcoholics” but, of course, almost everyone is doing something like this or has done something like this for a sustained period of time in their lives.

We need to do something else. But what? Well, I think we need to find comforters who walk alongside of us as we progress through our grief. We need comforters who don’t simply offer us moments of respite (although, as I mentioned above, we also need those), we need comforters who help us move more deeply into our grief so that we can see it through to the end. And this is where the idea of the wounded healer becomes so important. Those who have seen their own griefs through to the end or, again, through to the point where they are present but not overpowering, are those we are best equipped to journey alongside of others as they do the same.

Here, also, I think we have lost a lot by losing collective rituals and ceremonies that served exactly this purpose, and by becoming isolated in our own grief through privatized counseling or victim-blaming regimes of self-care that capitalist models of health and labour impose upon us. To be isolated within our own grief, to view it as a private matter related to my own personal healthcare, or my own need to work through my own shit, not only prevents us from finding public space or collective gatherings where we can grieve, it also prevents us from seeing just how deeply all of us are grieving. Were we to recognize this our focus might shift. We might begin to realize, hey, I’m not the one who is fucked-up because I am caught in the grips of a grief that has overpowered me. We are all in this situation. What is fucked-up is that our life together is structured in such a way as to make this an ubiquitous experience. It is only by collectively working through our grief to its end that we will, collectively, be able to transform our life together into one that does not make overpowering grief such a common experience.

This, then, is where I want to go next: finding ways to comfort others in a way that helps them move through their grief, instead of only comforting others in a way that pauses their grieving (although, again, that too has its place), and finding ways to open spaces for a collective working through of our grief. Let’s see where this takes us.

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  1. Very thoughtful and insightful, Dan. I particularly liked the idea of processing grief as a journey, with respite needed but not something to which we look to solve the grief. “I think we have lost a lot by losing collective rituals and ceremonies that served exactly this purpose….” Very true especially in this time of COVID limitations. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts!