The doctor who told me my 28-year-old husband was not going to live held a cup of coffee in her hand. She spoke for a couple minutes about how all his functions had shut down and he was living only because of a breathing machine.
My ears heard what she said but all my eyes could see was the cup of coffee. Today I wonder why she didn’t put the coffee down and speak to me human to human instead of doctor to almost-widow.
Doing so would have prolonged and drawn out the delivering of bad news. It would have required sitting with someone else's pain and discomfort without being able to fix it.
Maybe if she had, what I would remember so clearly almost 15 years later is not how the news seemed cold and rushed, but how the person who held my husband's life and death in their words handled them with care and delivered them to my heart with as much patience and humanity as could be mustered.
The bar on grief has been set low for too long. The most feared emotion along the spectrum of being human, grief, is asking to be welcomed back to the table of public life, where it can be seen and heard and learned the same way we see and hear and learn our love and our joy.
The unspoken-but-palpable barring of grief from public life, relegating grief to therapists' offices so that we who have not lost don't have to see it or feel it or deal with it is no longer acceptable. Neither is the hush-hushness that accompanies it; the subtle and not-so-subtle pressure to "get over it"; the feeling that when grieving we are not fit for or welcome in "normal" life.
A new paradigm for grief is emerging as more and more humans courageously choose to show up as whole human beings who are simultaneously full of love and full of loss. They are showing us that our outdated avoidance approach to grief is not healthy, does not support them, and that grief is not something we ever get over. Rather it is something that grows and changes with us throughout our lives.
In a culture that encourages happiness and comfort over almost everything else, it is no wonder that we have difficulty sitting with other people’s pain. No one teaches us how to do this. We spend lifetimes doing our best to escape any kind of discomfort whether physical or emotional, but there is no escaping grief.
When grief lands at our door we are often forced to face the most challenging of human emotions with almost no practice, not unlike being thrown off a boat in the middle of the ocean without knowing how to swim.
We feel like we’re drowning. We often want to die. There is no way back and appears to be no way forward. How did we get here? Why is the world still moving forward as if nothing happened?
Here, in this eternal pause, we are grateful for people who can sit with us without trying to fix us, who can listen to our words and our silence, who welcome both our laughter and our tears and who can allow us to move forward and backward, inward and outward at our own pace.
Sitting with someone else’s pain without being able to fix it is one of the most sobering and human experiences we are privileged to experience in a lifetime. The more we practice sitting with our own heavy emotions, the more comfortable we will get at being uncomfortable; the more we will be able to accompany another person’s pain and discomfort without having to run away or turn away.
This is how we raise the bar on grief. One human interaction at a time. Put down the coffee. Pick up your heart. Let’s survive these heartbreaking moments of loss together.