Cancer, Comforting Others, Depression, Empathy, Gratitude, Grief, Hope, Limitations of Language, motherhood, Offering Support
When I heard someone refer to the “gifts of grieving,” my visceral response, not surprisingly, was dark and cynical. I imagined a satirical flip-book with cartoon-like drawings animating the “benefits” of various traumatic events. Then I started making a snarky list in my head of salient sad moments and haunting emotional memories that could be recategorized and distilled into “generous” souvenirs of suffering. I pictured people curling back the spine of this farcical book, thumbing through images of monochrome, stick figures “moving” rhythmically in their vignetted worlds of sorrow.
My gut reaction to the mention of “gifts of grieving” (GOGs) was no doubt related to my discomfort with anything that sounds like a platitude. I tend to be skeptical of hollow, unproven beliefs in the power of positive thinking. When people smile and talk about “turning lemons into lemonade” in response to hearing about someone’s pain, I bristle. Sorry, I guess my motto is “When life gives you lemonadey, cloying cliches, make warped, biting parodies.”
Still, as incongruous as the idea of GOGs felt, it also intrigued me. The woman who had used the phrase didn’t seem like a particularly lemonadey sort of person, which meant I had to be missing something. And yet, if my grief was a gift, then not only did I need to learn to feel thankful, I also needed to direct that gratitude toward the “giver.” Frankly, imagining being indebted to some of the people and things that have “given” me grief made me feel, well…awful.
Because I wasn’t able to muster the sincerity that true gratitude requires, and I also knew that my sardonic list of GOGs was probably in bad taste and not funny, I decided to give up on solving the mystery, at least for a little while. But then, months later, while I was lying in bed unable to sleep, all of a sudden the GOG concept reappeared. I hadn’t been contemplating grief, though. I had been thinking about Kate Bowles.
Kate lives on the other side of the world, and we have never met. I only know her because, lucky for me, she happened to see a tweet of my husband’s with a link to my blog. When Kate decided to click on that link, she had just discovered she has cancer. As a result, she read about my depression and desire not to abandon my children at a time when she was also worrying about how her illness would affect her children.
Kate could have focused on all the differences between cancer and depression. Instead, she recognized we were both in the position of wanting to shield our children from the devastating loss of their mothers. Clearly, we would need to do very different things to prevent that loss, but our goals were the same. As Kate described it, we are both “really trying to find the language and the means for being well, while accepting that we are not well.”
Since reading my first post, Kate has sent me encouraging, thoughtful messages about my writing; she has recommended my blog to others; she has shared my posts on Twitter; she has written poignant comments in response to some of those posts; and she has even gone out of her way to stand up for me and others like me on her blog (see here and here). Kate has done all of this for me, even though I am a relative stranger/virtual friend who has very little to offer her. At times, her caring and consideration have truly cheered me, warding off some of my mind’s darkest thoughts. Yet, as I search for ways to thank Kate for all of these gestures, I know I will never be able to help her cure her body’s diseased cells.
Over these last six months, I had been trying to write about Kate, but everything I wrote felt insufficient. I kept getting caught up in thinking about how I couldn’t get it right with my powerless words that wouldn’t change a thing. Then the other night as I was berating myself for failing Kate, that phrase about “the gifts of grieving” floated up seemingly out of nowhere, and finally it dawned on me. I had been looking at the GOG mindset from the wrong perspective. The grievers weren’t the ones receiving the gifts; they were giving them.
Before I could manage to figure out how to thank or help Kate, once again she had helped me. I realized that Kate was offering me all of these gifts, in part, because she is grieving. Her generosity and empathy are “gifts of grieving.” Soon, I began thinking more about empathy and grief and was reminded of Andrew Solomon. I remembered that after listening to Solomon’s TED talk about his experience with depression, I had written down just two short sentences. When I went back to look at my scribbles, there it was. Solomon said, “Our needs are our greatest assets… It turns out I’ve learned to give all the things I need.” As I reread those words while contemplating Kate’s seemingly unwaivering empathy, I felt foolish. The ideas had been there all along right beside me; I just hadn’t seen them.
With my cynical, pessimistic tendencies, I almost entirely obscured or really inverted my narrow view of grief and giving. In my rush to dismiss the unfamiliar, I reduced my vision to a myopic spotlight that not only blacked out the world around it, but also turned what was right in front of me upside down.
Grief has the capacity to fuel empathy. And Kate’s tank is full. Kate could direct all of that grief inward, and then perhaps her sorrow would fester and turn to despondency or bitterness. Except Kate has hope. Not the sort of lemondadey, oblivious hope that scares me, though. Kate’s hope is the kind that Rebecca Solnit pictures as a
frilly pink dress that embarrassingly exposes your knees…uncertain, tentative, girlish. It faces uncertainty and unpredictability directly. It acknowledges that it knows it doesn’t know. It takes risks and sometimes it fails.
Kate’s grief engenders empathy and not acrimony because Kate cultivates hope instead of despair. She does this by searching for kindness while also calling out insensitivity, by believing in people and inclusivity while also refusing to follow along blindly, and by constantly acquiring knowledge while also tolerating not always knowing the answer.
I can’t fully explain why my initial response to GOGs was an ironic flip-book. However, I can say that it was probably the clothing metaphors, upside down points of view, and wrong perspectives that led my mind to Nick Park‘s wonderful Wallace and Grommit movie. As I sit here writing, Wallace’s voice is in my head repeating “It’s the wrong trousers. The wrong trousers!”, and I see those techno trousers carrying me away, turning me upside down, all in pursuit of that no-good desire for certainty.
Without those green robotic pants, I am not sure which way to go. So, I will try the most obvious direct route.
“Dear Kate, With all the grief, empathy, and hope in my heart, which *you* have taught me to acknowledge and appreciate, I want to thank you, and say that I wish I had more to give you.”
Be quiet said:
Sometimes all people need are a couple of words, and yours (and the feelings they transmit!) speak way louder.
As many others must be, I’m thankful for what you offer me.
Francesca Milliken said:
I am so sorry that I did not respond sooner. I have been foundering in my little world and hiding as a result. Despite my shortcomings, though, I wanted to let you know that I did and do really appreciate your message. Thank you for taking the time to comment with kindness.
Be quiet said:
Take your time! Yet, it’s quite nice to hear from you.
I have been missing your texts (already) ;]
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