Megan Devine’s new book is brave but not in the way people who haven’t been through a tragedy say that about those who have; I mean like putting your head in a lion’s mouth, brave.
She strides calmly into the howling abyss of the early days of grief, to meet the newly bereaved where they are. She is a psychotherapist and also a widow. She articulates what people in the abyss cannot, and helps clarify the confusion so they can choose what they need to stand up to. Most grief writers go there, briefly, but I can’t think of any who’ve stuck around to produce such a detailed map of the territory.
In doing this, she is giving a demonstration of her message to the rest of us, which is that we need to stop trying to haul people out of pain when they’re not ready and learn how to be of support while they are there.
There is more but these two things alone are steel-plated warrior moves.
I found myself, listening on audiobook to some of the more bleak passages, thinking, Don’t say that, you’ll scare people; it’s certainly bad but it’s not that bad. But then when I forced myself to remember more clearly, it was. In my case it wasn’t that I didn’t want to wake up in the morning, it was that I was entirely neutral either way. My survival skills amounted to not caring about how anything turned out: whether I made it across the road in one piece; whether that rash that looked a bit like meningitis might be serious; whether I was or wasn’t taken out by a bolt of lightning. Shrug. Whatever.
My emotions were too stunned at the time to register any of that as scary; it’s only shocking to look back and see it from the outside.
It is uncomfortable to travel back to there. To the place where you know nothing can help and nothing that you want to change can change. To a place of such powerlessness. It’s not a place you want to hang out in if you don’t have to. And to write a book like this and do the work Megan does must mean travelling back to there a lot. I wonder how many people tell her she shouldn’t, because they don’t want to be reminded of it either.
Part of why that bleakest of places is so bad is because of our grief-illiterate and help-illiterate society. Because we minimise or deny the existence of that place and demand that the people in it, play along.
I thought I was a good enough critic of this kind of thing but Megan’s stance is more hardline and as such, highlighted to me where I still inadvertently collude.
When someone says they miss being wolf-whistled at, I am the one saying, wolf-whistling is not about you. Men did not come up with wolf-whistling in a shared agreement on how best to compliment women. The ones who do it, do so to show off to other men or to their own internal sense of manliness. When men use that, I’ve just seen a fancy car, whistle, they are not flirting with the car, they are signaling their sense of taste so other men can approve of them.
Similarly, when our culture says we are each of us, all-powerful, immortal individuals; that ‘normal’ means not being knocked off course by anything and not even being upset by much for long, that is not intended for the benefit of those who have been knocked off course and are beyond upset. It is meant to bolster people who believe they are impervious. When they point to someone who has overcome great hardship and call it inspirational, they’re not seeing the reality of that person, they’re just signaling their idea of good taste to each other.
When we minimise our experience, edit it to fit someone else’s idea of good taste or resist accounts of the abyss – as I had done until I had a word with myself – we are supporting a system that doesn’t see us and failing to support each other. We are reducing ourselves to being shiny props in the background of someone else’s story.
Individually though, it does feel safer being part of the majority than the minority, even if you think the majority is delusional. Also, if you’ve ever tried to tell someone who’s helping you – because the ‘impervious’ people really do think they’re helping – that their action are a little wide of the mark, they rarely take it well.
To overcome these obstacles Megan says we need better stories. In our current culture, she says: “we only tell stories of how pain can be redeemed. We’re left with no stories that tell us how to live in it. We have no stories of how to bear witness. We don’t talk about pain that can’t be fixed. We’re not allowed to talk about it.”
She defines better stories as: “stories that tell the truth about pain, about love, about life. We need new stories of bravery in the face of what cannot be fixed.”
As part of Megan’s Refuge In Grief website, she provides courses in writing about grief. As well as enabling the bereaved to express their feelings in a safe environment, it also provides a community of fellow bereaved people. There are also free downloads and advice, an excellent blog and information if you’re wondering how exactly to support a friend when all you thought was right is apparently wrong. It is a good resource and exactly what you need to find when everything else feels like the same old blah.
The book also contains lots of practical things you can do when faced with specific obstacles. It is very good on friends who don’t get it and on strained relations with family. And throughout, there are constant messages of self-compassion; of how to honour, appreciate and defend your own wants, needs and point of view.
If recent years have taught us anything, it is that change – huge, previously unimaginable change – is possible. For the newly bereaved, caught in the eye of a storm of change, this book is a hurricane shelter. For the rest of us, thinking society needs to change, it challenges us to stop pointing our fingers at other people and start doing things differently ourselves. It is brave to place yourself in the vanguard of change the way Megan does but I hope the timing is right for her ideas to catch on.
First published in Widows and Widowers magazine Issue 17