When death comes, is grief the only option? Part I

Death comes to us all at some point in our lives.

by Moses A. Gayles III

On several occasions in each of our lives, death meets us all. In our society, we have come to believe that death and grief go hand-in-hand but is that necessarily true? The accepted assumption in most cultures is that grief most surely must follow once there is a death. Grief is known as a “deep sorrow, especially caused by someone’s death.” So indeed, we can see where the cultural connection between grief and death finds its inception. And regrettably, our socio-economic systems have enhanced this connection to monetizing the grief-dependent emotions to the greatest extent possible.

Almost as if on cue, grief starts directing the activities of the bereaved. “Are you ok?”, “Is there something we can do to help?”; “you have my condolences”; “I know that this is a difficult time.” By the time we get through the first wave of heartfelt expressions, we are already addicted to the grief we have been expected to experience. We move from being balanced, reasonable, well-adjusted persons to emotionally damaged souls needing a shoulder to lean on and tissue to cry. The decisions that are a part of resolving the death of a loved one seem at times to require more intellectual capacity than we appear to be capable of, and all the while, grief gets comfortable holding your hand as your loyal confidante. “I’ve got you,” grief says. “No one understands what you’re going through but me.” “Cry, feel sorry for yourself, “yours is the greatest loss that has ever.” Indeed, grief appears to have all the answers except one; is grief necessary?

As you begin to process your loss, is grief the strongest emotion you are experiencing? Aren’t you sad? Don’t you feel the absence, the loss, the missing? Is grief the only starting place when death presents itself in our lives? Is grief the only connection that these other emotions can share at a point of loss? I do not think so.

Disappointment can also connect sadness, absence, loss, and missing feelings. Disappointment is familiar to sorrow, anguish, heartache, and heartbreak. Disappointment seems to always assume a lesser position to grief when death presents itself in our lives. Rarely in our society is disappointment considered an emotion equal to grief when death comes calling. But with disappointment comes a different set of options and expectations.

Disappointment rarely is debilitating; it doesn’t demand your undivided attention, nor will it publicly mark you as a spirit deserving of pity and others.   “I’m glad it’s not me” expressions meant to make me feel good about not being you! I do not say that these are not heartfelt expressions, but these expressions are built upon a foundation of grief, not as grief tempered with the strength of hope.  

Grief can be damaging and optimistic, depending on how and when it is applied. When allowed to be used in a negative context, grief can establish an unnatural hold upon its victims. When applied in a negative space, grief is addictive, selfish, and unwilling to end its relationship with us quickly. But, when grief is present in a positive environment, it can be encouraging, nurturing, uplifting, hopeful, eager to escort us to a space where its presence is no longer required. Grief has a place in the efforts of man to accept death, but we need to understand better what that place can and should be. But I suggest that grief positively presented begins to look more and more like a disappointment.

As a child, my first training regarding death came from my grandmother. My uncle passed quite unexpectedly and tragically in a car accident when I was seven years old. At the time, my family shared a duplex with my grandparents. My grandmother was the matriarch of her/our family and always seemed to have an excellent command of affairs; personal, family, business, or otherwise. She was a very loving and compassionate woman as well. It was her only son who had passed. And while I am confident that she experienced grief at his loss, the look on her face and the sound of her voice seemed to a seven-year-old like me to indicate a sense of disappointment more than any other emotion.

In the hours and days that followed the loss of her son, grief appeared to have taken a comfortable back seat in the activities and processes my grandmother undertook to commemorate her son’s life. But disappointment, when attached to her strong Christian faith, seemed to hold her hand throughout as a comforting sort of friend. Disappointment seemed to say to her, “it’s ok to be sad right now”; “I understand how much you miss your son”; “and yes, you are experiencing some pain.” Her decision-making was not stifled or slowed. She knew as clearly as ever what needed to happen next; she was still in charge, and none of us ever had reason to question her leadership during this period.

The first line of the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling says, “If you can key your head while all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” Granma kept her head and then some. The poem goes on to say, “if you can trust yourself when all me doubt you.” She made allowance for our doubt. My grandmother’s grief was associated with disappointment. I learned a lesson here, and I look forward to sharing it with you in future blogs so that when death again presents itself in your life, you can remember that grief alone needs not always be your first option.

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  1. Erica Brown-Gayles says:

    Great point. Everyone seems to experience all the emotions that come with grief differently.