Exploring Grief and Coping Strategies

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We are a long way from the Stoicism of Seneca, but grief and how we deal with it is still a vital part of the human experience.
Almost two millennia ago, the Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger, wrote a consolation letter to his mother, Helvia, on the occasion of his banishment from Rome. Seneca, who had been sent into exile to Corsica on the charge of having an affair with the niece of the Roman emperor, Claudius, wrote that “a man lifting his head from the very funeral pyre must need some novel vocabulary not drawn from ordinary everyday condolence to comfort his own dear ones. But every great and overpowering grief must take away the capacity to choose words, since it often stifles the voice itself.”
Photo: A veiled window in a house in Lagos, Nigeria on August 12, 2018. Yagazie Emezi for The New York Times
Although most of us will never produce a rhetorical masterpiece that transcends the ordinary as Seneca’s does, we nonetheless try in response to grief to find words, in the moments, months or even a lifetime after a tragedy, that express what we find inexplicable.
As a teenager in Nigeria, I was ambivalent about condolence messages. Any attempt to find the right words felt futile. How could words possibly bridge the chasm that loss had cleaved between the bereaved and the well-meaning mourners? When a classmate lost his father, the cursive font on the card I picked out felt laughable, even vulgar. When he returned to school days after the funeral, my girlfriends and I went to sit with him, ready to reel out the heartfelt commiserations we had discussed.
In the end I couldn’t give him the card, and I mouthed my words of consolation with little conviction. I felt like a fraud, confronting his agony with platitudes when it was clear that anything short of reversing time to return his father to life would prove inadequate. I regurgitated predictions about a future when some as-yet-undefined purpose would overtake the pain he now felt, repeating almost verbatim the hollowed-out assurances I’d been hearing since my own father passed away.
Like most who have sat with a bereft friend, relative or even stranger, I wanted to say something that could give solace. Yet what I knew reeked of despair: Grief was a wilderness with no signposts, a desert littered with mirages that made progress impossible to evaluate. I couldn’t write that on a card; it felt more appropriate to pontificate about rainbows appearing at the end of storms. Besides, what I thought to be closer to the truth also felt inordinately personal: Since none of those who had commiserated with me had spoken about the utter bottomlessness of grief, perhaps I was the only one who had yet to see the rainbow, and nothing I’d experienced could be of use to anyone.
It would be years before C.S. Lewis’s question in “A Grief Observed” — Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral? — filled me with the relief of self-recognition, and made me wonder if perhaps I should have shared it with my classmate in addition to my more sanguine predictions.
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While much has changed about the world since Seneca’s time, grief and the ways we deal with it, both individually and as communities, remains a vital part of our human experience, inextricably intertwined with the highs of love and affection. In some ways the beloved is also the bereaved-in-waiting, and just as in the course of our lives we wish people well as they graduate, marry or reach some other milestone, eventually we will find ourselves struggling to find the appropriate way to commiserate with loved ones when a member of our community achieves that final, inescapable one.
Commiseration comes in several guises, and over the years I’ve become intrigued by a certain form. Many families open a condolence register when they lose a loved one. In Nigeria, the registers are often modest hardcover notebooks that mourners fill with cherished memories of the deceased: a colleague praises her acuity, a co-chorister rhapsodizes about that time he brought an audience to tears with his rendition of “Amazing Grace,” a neighbor recalls how she helped him pay his hospital bills. I often address the deceased directly in these registers, but of course I am the one who sometimes experiences a cathartic release after scribbling my gratitude, and I write hoping that my fond memories might bring comfort to the bereft should they ever open the register again. Our acts of mourning, even when intended to honor the dead, primarily comfort the living.
Photo: Caskets sit unclaimed by the roadside in Mushin, Lagos, Nigeria on August 12, 2018. Yagazie Emezi for The New York Times
Perhaps it is this well-intended effort to comfort the living that compels us to offer as consolation only hopeful anecdotes that glance off a tragedy, focusing instead on some point beyond it. Writing to Helvia, Seneca reminds her of distant and recent catastrophes, the death of her own mother while giving birth to her, the loss of her grandson and Seneca’s own exile. “I have kept away not one of your misfortunes from you,” he writes, “but piled them all up in front of you. I have done this courageously for I decided to conquer your grief, not cheat it.” His is an attempt to help his distraught mother find perspective through the adoption of the Stoic principles he lays out. While the idea that grief can be conquered is suspect, the unflinching acknowledgment of devastation that has already occurred, which he appears to view as an essential part of an attempt to conquer grief, remains worthy of consideration.
It is understandable that we seek to protect the bereaved by responding with hope when they express despair, giving our assurances of light at the end of the tunnel and rainbows after the storm. Contrary to what Seneca believed, sometimes that very distraction is a necessary part of the process. However while there’s no meteorological guarantee that those who survive a storm will sight a rainbow, they must at least deal with the reality of wet and slippery ground beneath their feet, and the labor of figuring out how to walk the path. Even if we don’t agree with his principles, Seneca shows us in his consolation to Helvia that we can offer a hope that acknowledges the reality of despair.
If, to paraphrase a quote attributed to Thomas Mann, a person’s dying is more his family’s affair than his own, the event is for most families cataclysmic and life-altering. Even in offering comfort, there is room to acknowledge that, and a willingness to contemplate this reality with the bereaved can itself be a consolation.
Source: www.nytimes.com
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