Wear Your Grief on Your Sleeve
By John T. Schwiebert, MDiv
Earlier this month the quote printed below got me to thinking. I’ll tell you what went through my mind after you get a chance to read the quote for yourself. It’s from contemporary holistic and spiritual counselor Franco Santoro, who writes:
“Pain and grief have been kept buried for ages, bred in secrecy and shame, wrapped by an ongoing conspiracy of smiles and well-being. Pain and grief are most healing and ecstatic emotions. Yes, sure, they can be hard, yet what makes them most devastating is the perverted idea that they are wrong, that they need to be hidden and fixed. The greatest perversion I can conceive is the idea that illness and pain are a sign that there is something wrong in our life, that we have unresolved issues, that we have made mistakes. In this world everyone is bound to get ill, experience pain and die. The greatest gift I can give to myself and the world is the joyful acceptance of this. Today I want to be real. I will not hide my pain as well as my happiness. I will not care if my gloomy face or desperate words cause concern or embarrassment in others. I do not need to be fed with reassuring words about the beauty of life. The beauty of life resides in the full acceptance of All That Is.”
What I remembered when I read these words of Franco Santoro is that while he has identified a malady in our contemporary US culture, what he describes is actually a relatively new phenomenon. In earlier generations in this country, and in some other countries even today, there has been no conspiracy to hide or limit the expression of grief.
I do not know for sure when or why the change transpired and expressions of grief became a source of shame and discomfort in American culture rather than a natural and normal reaction to loss. I suspect it was sometime in the early 20th century because I recall that when I was a child every funeral chapel in my hometown had a curtain along the side wall behind which family and close friends of the deceased could sit during the funeral service without having to display their grief in a public way.
Also, later, when I was a young pastor, I sensed that some of my parishioners felt it was my duty, as the hired representative of the church, to reach out to those parishioners whose loved ones had died. In this way the “unbereaved” (except the pastor!) were relieved of the discomfort they expected they might feel if they contacted the bereaved persons directly, and saw the face of grief first hand.
Indeed their expectation was that the bereaved members would probably remain in seclusion for a few weeks after the memorial service, before returning to participate in church activities as persons who would once again appear “normal.” And the bereaved persons themselves participated in this “conspiracy of smiles and well-being” by staying away until they could appear again without embarrassing anyone!
By contrast, there was a time in some countries when it was customary for persons who had lost a loved one to death to wear a conspicuous black armband which declared to the world that they were grieving and that they were not ashamed to advertise the fact. The wearer of the armband could decide for himself or herself when it was time to remove the arm band, i.e. when the hardest part of the ordeal of grief had passed. Or some might chose to wear it for a much longer time to signal that grief is an ongoing process and that doesn’t go away and quickly as one might wish.
I would urge persons to have lost a loved one to death to revive such a practice. Let them proudly wear a black arm band, or by some other conspicuous means signal to others that they are moving through time of mourning. In so doing the bereaved will help normalize grief once more and begin to “unwrap” the conspiracy of artificial smiles and well-being.
Also, if someone asks you, as a bereaved person, “how are you doing,” a month, or even a year after your loss, it is okay to tell the truth, even if the truth is “I’m still feeling as lost and alone as I did the day John died, but I know I’ll get through this painful time even though it’s never easy.”
In situations like this “the truth will set you free.” And it will set others free as well.