By John T. Schwiebert, ThM
Human beings have invented multiple ways to avoid or postpone grief. These ways mostly involve denial that a loss has occurred or will occur shortly.
The process typically begins in childhood. Two children play a game and one loses. But it is hard for the loser to accept the fact of her loss or the brief episode of grief that is sure to follow. So the loser makes a proposal, “Let’s play three games and let the winner of two out of the three be declared the final winner. After three games the one who lost the first round in now the winner, so the new loser makes a new proposal: why don’t we say that the best three out of five games wins! All because neither child wants to have to grieve the loss of the contest (and experience the “big disappointment” that is designated by the smallest container of “tear soup!”)
A similar dynamic was involved when, on September 11, 2001, a small group of terrorists successfully attacked and destroyed symbols of American power and pride, and killed almost 3,000 Americans in only a few hours. By most standards this event could have been be regarded as a huge loss for the United States, a loss of life, property, prestige, and security, i.e. a loss that should have become an occasion for profound and prolonged mourning by the American public.
But the leaders of our nation chose not to regard the event as a battle that we had lost. Instead they portrayed the event as the opening salvo of a war against terrorism —a war that the American empire would by no means lose. Indeed we were encouraged to apply our energy not to grief, but to vengeance against any and all supposed enemies of the United States. Our future “mission accomplished” would be reason for a national celebration that would trump national grief, or so we were encouraged to believe.
Now, 13 years, trillions of dollars and thousands of deaths later, we still have little to celebrate, as some still call for prolonging US involvement in the conflict in Afghanistan and/or Iraq so that the time, money and loss of life will not prove to have been “in vain,” (and so that we will not have to grieve because of something we have lost!)
It would have been better, if we had acknowledged our original loss, shared a profound and prolonged period of national grieving, and then entered into a national dialogue about some better alternative ways for making the world safer for Americans and for everybody else as well.
Postponing grief by denying loss also occurs when individuals confront the reality of death close at hand, as when they, or someone close to them, receive the news of a terminal illness. I have been in rooms with families where a loved one is receiving hospice care when no one can bear to utter the word “death,” as if not acknowledging the inevitable will somehow ward it off. Optimism becomes the last defense against having to bear the pain of loss.
I submit that, in such situations, most of us would be better off accepting the reality of imminent death and get a head start on engaging the process of grief that we will face later anyhow.
Business and investors sometimes engage in a practice they call, “cutting my losses.” It means that when there comes a point that some exciting new business venture that they were counting on is simply not going to make it, they need to accept what they cannot change and starting grieving their loss while they look to a future without the failed enterprise.
Sometimes we need to do the same when we face impending loss of any kind. Call it what it is, and don’t pretend that it can be otherwise.
But, some will ask, especially when we are looking at a terminal illness, isn’t it presumptuous to anticipate a loss when there is still even a small possibility of recovery? How do we know that “cutting our losses” in such a situation is not the same thing as giving up the legitimate fight for survival?
These are difficult questions to answer, but I would suggest that it is still possible to anticipate the loss of a loved one and begin the grieving process while continuing to hold out some hope for recovery. The answer may lie somewhere in the following testimony by Olive Gallagher, an ethicist, life coach, and columnist in Portland, Oregon. In a recent column she wrote:
At 31, I was told I had six months to live. I had two small babies, and I remember the surreal, out-of-body feeling I experienced for months as I prepared to leave a life I had barely begun. While I was blessed to learn a year later that the doctors had made a mistake and I was given a reprieve, it changed everything. I’ve never looked at or experienced life the same way again. It also gave me a sense of acceptance that eradicated a lot of the fear I had felt about dying.
Personally I would like to experience that sense of acceptance and the consequent absence of fear every day. I hope to share many more years with my friend and partner. But I need to accept, and not deny, the possibility that I could lose her at any time. I also have the hope that I’ll be able to” cut my loss” if and when that becomes necessary, because I have already prepared myself for that very real possibility ahead of time!