Tuesday, June 9, 2015

On Tempering Grief - or Learning to Sing the Blues

The thing with Social Media is that it allows us to share everything almost instantaneously. Venting of one's spleen is a regular occurrence, which is interesting considering how most of the actual emotion is stripped from text, emoticons notwithstanding. These posts, even if for information only, invite scorn, support and inevitably, some well meaning soul's idea of advice.

One sure way to get people on your side though is to 'share' your grief at some personal tragedy. The grief is real, the quotes around 'share' are because the word implies a reduction by distribution, but this isn't true. My grief isn't made less because you are aware of it, or even that you empathize. Sharing isn't quite the right word. Perhaps 'notification' or 'grief-telling' would be more appropriate.

The thing about grief is that most of the advice offered under the banner of genuine concern ring hollow in the ears of the griever. 'This will pass' and 'I'm sorry' and 'I've been there' don't offer much comfort.

Now before we get onto the old 'the deeper your grief, the greater your love,' there is no deeper grief than the one driven by regret, not love. The depth of grief is not a measure (nor proof) of devotion. Only devotion is the proof of devotion. (Tautologies for $500, Alex). Love is its own proof. Grief is a mark of two thing, which too often get blended together. An acknowledgement of irrevocable loss, and a refusal to acknowledge the inevitability of change.

Seneca says as much: "For to be afflicted with endless sorrow at the loss of someone very dear is foolish self-indulgence, and to feel none is inhuman callousness. The best compromise between love and good sense is both to feel longing and to conquer it."

You would think that in 7000+ years of recorded history, with griefs in the billions, that someone would have come up a way of actually allowing grief to happen naturally while providing a help of some kind to reduce its intensity.

And of course, many did. But here is probably the most striking piece of advice I have read.
Expose and reopen all the wounds which have already healed. Someone will object: ‘What kind of consolation is this, to bring back forgotten ills and to set the mind in view of all its sorrows when it can scarcely endure one?’ ... Offer to the mind all its sorrows, all its mourning garments: this will not be a gentle prescription for healing, but cautery and the knife. What shall I achieve? That a soul which has conquered so many miseries will be ashamed to worry about one more wound in a body which already has so many scars.
It is surprising, because it sounds like the very opposite of comfort. But think about it, really think about it. This is the kind of conversation that Seneca advises us to have with ourselves:
Your mother died? I am sorry for it, and I know it feels bad, but remember, that your father died not that long ago, and you have survived and gone on to honour his memory. So shall you do with this.
You have lost love/job/something that you valued? Feel the grief, but remember, you have been here, or somewhere like here, and you have come through, wiser, stronger, more experienced. This shall add to that. 
This requires something that seems counter-intuitive. We are often told to remember the good times, but here we are told to remember the bad times as well, and to treasure those memories equally. The first are a source of joy, the second a source of strength.

There is an entire musical genre dedicated to this practice. Signing the Blues is exactly about this perspective: remember when things were hard. You'll get by. You'll move on. You will continue to live and love and grow. Just learn to sing your own blues, from time to time.