In wake of the police murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile,we are publishing this piece to remind you it is okay and necessary to grieve in whatever way that looks like for you. Black death by white officers takes a communal toll and we must allow ourselves to process and create safe space to do so.
“I will not say, “Do not weep,” for not all tears are an evil.” ~ Tolkien
Let me begin by saying that I don’t believe in comparisons of loss. The spectrum is infinite. There will always be someone better and less well off (especially if you look closely). Similarly, what one person easily endures can feel like mortal wounds to another. To say my losses have been greater or heavier or more devastating is to steal someone else’s right to sorrows of their own. If we both survive a car crash and you lose both legs, but I lose only one, am I not allowed to grieve my lesser loss in your presence? The weights of life that I can easily carry may be too heavy for you. And the puzzling events you easily comprehend I might find inscrutable. It is for these reasons that I try to (try to) avoid comparisons—in any venue. Loss is an opportunity for empathy, not comparisons or competition. As a person trying to love myself well, I shouldn’t let another person minimize my mourning, and I shouldn’t dismiss the mourning of others.
I believe in a community of loss. I endorse cooperative compassion. I don’t claim to have endured more, lost more, or suffered more than anyone else. I don’t try to puff up or tone down what I have endured. What I will do is hope that my grief carries me to new territories of empathy. Every time my heart breaks, I hope it grows better equipped to love others who mourn. At the end of the day, I believe that’s the best thing I can gain from loss—empathy and love.
Do I know how to grieve well? Probably not, but I do know that I need to grieve to be well. Is there such a thing as good grief?
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I don’t know, but I do believe that there is good to be found in all grieving. All emotions have a time and place and value. Denying anything that I feel isn’t healthy. However, it is my job to process and express my emotions in a manner that doesn’t put me or anyone else in harm’s way.
I have known loss. One Sunday morning, as I sat savoring a pre-Church brunch of Indian food in Cambridge, my mother was having a brain aneurysm in New York. I almost didn’t answer the phone, and when I did, the words I heard took all my strength from me. The air turned to poison and, as if someone had ripped the bones from my body, I could barely stand. A new and foreign pain enveloped me; it coated my skin, took root, and invaded my bloodstream.
I tried to get to New York as fast as I could, but as I prepared to board the plane I got the worst phone call I’ve ever received—the one telling me not to go to the hospital, to just go home instead. I understood that imperative’s grim meaning. Sitting alone surrounded by strangers on a forty-minute flight, I had to come to terms with the fact that my mother was no longer among the living. In that moment, I forgot death’s meaning—its definition leaked out of my mind. The word no longer made sense to me—not now that it was how my mother would be described.
I had been expecting death, but it still caught me off guard—coming from an unexpected direction. For months I’d been looking for death to come by way of my grandfather. He’d been gravely ill for a while, and over the course of the previous year, my father, mother, brother, sister, and I had each made the trip to Grenada to see him one last time. But he didn’t die—not then—not even after the second time I went to see him for the last time.
Six months after my mother passed away, my father, sister, and I took a trip to Fort Lauderdale to visit family. The loss of my mother was still an open wound. I think we all secretly hoped a change of scenery would be soothing. And just as the sun was beginning to do its good work, death again caught us looking the wrong way, finally coming to claim my grandfather while we were all still fixed on my mother’s passing. Exactly six months apart (to the day), my siblings and I lost our mother and grandfather; our father lost his wife and father. Even as I mourned, I was awe-struck by the unique enormity of my father’s loss—burying a spouse and a parent within half a year of each other. Mourning is a heavy burden, but watching a loved one mourn is only negligibly lighter.
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Each member of my family grieved differently. Some couldn’t sleep. Others couldn’t eat. Some wanted to talk about it, others didn’t. Each loss I’ve shared with a loved one has taught me that mourning doesn’t have to look a particular way. There is no need to feel guilty because you still have an appetite or sleep soundly. There are healthy and unhealthy ways to try to process or soothe your pain. However, how you feel in and of itself is neither right or wrong. Mourning will not look the same on everyone.
Embracing radical self love while grieving means doing what is healthy for you. This is not the time to compare yourself to others. Your grief is your grief. Just like you, it is unique. Some will want to cry on a shoulder. Others will prefer to be alone. Some people loose their appetite. Others eat more. As long as you aren’t doing yourself or anyone else harm, there is no right or wrong way to mourn. What I will advise is that you find someone you can confide in when you’re ready to talk—whether it’s a trusted friend, parent, mentor, or professional counselor. And when anyone gives you advice, take it to heart. But also remember that what works for one may not work for all.
Having lost what I’ve lost, I can’t say that I’m any good at grief, or have any strict advice for the grieving. But I do think there is something to be gained through loss. And I do believe there is good to be found in grieving. It is as natural and necessary as the seasons. It is the fall and winter of our souls. Every life will be touched by death and loss. Each one of us will be called to mourn—to experience grief. Whether we lose a loved one or a limb, whether it is our possessions or our dreams that are taken, losses will come.
The question I ask is not whether or when I will mourn, but how my grief can change me.
Can I mourn and still be loving—towards myself and others? I can pave over my heart and try to make it impenetrable—immunizing myself to the tougher feelings like sadness and anger. Or I can let my heart be softened and opened—my grief making me more sensitive to the grief of others.
And while I may not share anyone’s particular loss or unique experience of grief, I can join the community of mourners and hopefully be of service—even if by simply being present. That, in my opinion, is good grief—grief that attends to the grieving, loss that leads to giving, and death that gives life new (or renewed) purpose and meaning.