If you are like me, this past month you have been trying to make sense of the senseless. When I first heard of the mass killings at the concert in Las Vegas, my first thought (after the initial shock of it all) was, what possesses a person to do such a horrible thing? The shooter must have been a terrorist, or mentally ill, or had some other depraved motivation. See, as humans, we want to believe that everything happens for a reason. Journalists and law enforcement personnel began combing the shooter’s background and associates, even flying his girlfriend back from the Philippines, to make sense of what happened. But everyone has come up empty. There was no clear motive; there was no underlying cause. In this case at least, the horrific act was just senseless. And now we grieve for the loss of at least 58 individuals that were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, not even knowing their killer. Las Vegas is now added to the other places we associate with mass shootings: Orlando, San Bernardino, Washington, D.C., Newtown, Aurora, Fort Hood, Binghamton, Virginia Tech, Columbine, Killeen, Jacksonville, Edmond, and San Ysidro. And these are only the ones that happened in America during the last 25 years where at least ten people were killed. Despite our desires otherwise, not all things happen for a reason. As Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize-winning psychologist, said, “After a crisis we tell ourselves we understand why it happened and maintain the illusion that the world is understandable. In fact, we should accept the world is incomprehensible much of the time.”
The title of this post is from one of my favorite musicals, Next to Normal. All of us have experienced loss because all of us have experienced love. But despite that heavy cost, we can’t exist without love, even though we know, regardless of the circumstances, it will ultimately end in loss. How do we handle that loss or separation? Unfortunately most of us do not do it very well. Grief is a part of life, and something we should embrace. As Rabbi Dr. Earl Grollman said, “Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.”
Simply said, we grieve when a connection is lost. It is often the result of a death of a loved one, but it can occur whenever we experience a change in a relationship, for example, a divorce, a good friend moving away, or even giving up the religion we grew up in.
In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross categorized grief into five stages. These have become well-accepted by psychologists and grief counselors as a general guide to the grieving process. But everyone grieves a little bit differently, so these stages are not necessarily linear; sometimes a person might experience more than one stage simultaneously or not experience a stage or two at all.
Stage One: Denial – This is the result of our attempt to try to make sense of the loss. Sometimes it comes in the form a shock, where we are so traumatized we can’t even do basic things for ourselves. Dallas Buyer’s Club[i] is the true story of Ron Woodruff, who was not LGBTQ, but who contracted HIV in 1985. Woodruff figured out how to work around the pharmaceutical industry and FDA to help AIDS patients get the medication they need. In this scene, Woodruff first learns he has contracted HIV. He doesn’t believe it for he doesn’t fit the stereotype of that time (if you are offended by F-bombs, you might want to skip this scene, although his reaction to the news is authentic):
If I were in Woodruff’s shoes, particularly back in the 80’s, I would feel the same way he does, and I’d probably spew a string of profanities, too. The news of a loss is never fun to hear, and our first reaction is generally some form of denial.
Stage Two: Anger – Life isn’t fair, and when something happens to us that demonstrates that, particularly when loss is involved, we get angry at someone, anyone, and often at God. In Rabbit Hole,[ii] a couple joins a grief support group following the death of their young son. In this scene the wife, Becca, never raises her voice, but it is clear she is not happy with God:
Anger, though, can be a good thing, as it often helps us get back to reality and to start effectively dealing with the loss.
Stage Three: Bargaining – Often, our immediate reaction when we learn we have lost or might lose a relationship is to attempt to bargain with a higher power to prevent the loss. It is our way of trying to take control of the situation. Religious people tend to bargain more than others, and often guilt is a part of the bargaining. “If I had only been a better person,” we tell ourselves, and then we promise God to be that better person. In House of Sand and Fog,[iii] a dispute over a house spirals out of control, ultimately ending in the shooting of a young boy. In the middle of this scene, the most gut-wrenching one of the movie, Behrani bargains with his God for the life of his son:
There is much we can learn from this movie, including this great example of how we are willing to promise almost anything to turn back the clock and prevent whatever is causing our grief. Unfortunately, we can’t roll back time, and more often than not, it seems that God is not listening.
Stage Four: Depression – We think of depression as bad for us, and clinical depression generally is. But it is common for someone grieving to go through a period of depression where they have a sense of hopelessness. But it is these sad feelings that help us understand our underlying grief. In Inside Out,[iv] it is through the emotion of deep sadness that Riley is finally able to come with grips the loss of former home:
As this clip illustrates, all of our emotions are important to our overall well-being, even though while we are going through periods of sadness, we would do almost anything to put them past us.
Stage Five: Acceptance – Acceptance does not mean that we are OK with the loss; it just means that we have learned to live our lives differently. After the loss of a relationship, we are never the same, and often have to remake our lives. The grief doesn’t leave us, it just becomes somewhat easier to bear. My sister died when she was 17 and when my mother was 50. My mother died at age 100, and I don’t believe there was a single day in those 50 years my mother lived after my sister’s death that my mother didn’t think about her daughter and grieved, at least a little. Like the emotions in Inside Out, we need to experience sadness to appreciate joy. Acceptance comes when we have learned to live with all our emotions and have added (not replaced) new or strengthened existing connections.
When we are grieving, we often hear we need closure; that somehow we need to pack up our grief, stuff it in a box, and put a lid on it; that we need to move on. But what we really need to do is face our grief head-on. Embracing our emotions keeps us alive and functioning, whether we are glad, mad, sad or scared. We can’t – and shouldn’t – move on from love. Instead, grief needs to be heard. As Nina Sankovitch said it: “The only balm to the pain of losing someone we love is celebrating the life that existed before.” And how do we celebrate that life? We share stories. A previous post on this blog talked about what movies can teach us about helping others to grieve (See, We Came Over to Sit dated June 16, 2016; here’s a link: https://lifelessonsthroughfilm.com/2016/06/16/we-came-over-to-sit/ ). It is hard to know what to say to someone who has lost a love one, but one of the best things we can do is simply tell a story about that loved one and ask the grieving person for a story in return. During these sharing of stories, if your experience is like mine, you will laugh, cry, ponder, appreciate, and celebrate together.
And don’t forget to keep your sense of humor. I love this sad, but hilarious, scene from Steel Magnolias,[v] which captures all of the emotions we go through when we lose someone dear:
I close with these words of Lin-Manuel Miranda from his hit musical, Hamilton:
- And when my time is up,
- Have I done enough?
- Will they tell our story?
- Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?
May we show our love for those we have lost by sharing their stories.
[i] Dallas Buyer’s Club
- Production Company: Truth Entertainment (II), Voltage Pictures, r2 films
- Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
- Screenwriters: Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack
- Starring: Matthew McConaughhey, Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto
- Release date: November 22, 2013
[ii] Rabbit Hole
- Production Company: Oylmpus Pictures, Blossom Films, Oddlot Entertainment
- Director: John Cameron Mitchell
- Screenwriter: David Lindsay-Abaire
- Starring: Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest
- Release date: January 28, 2011
[iii] House of Sand and Fog
- Production Company: Dreamworks
- Director: Vadim Perelman
- Screenwriter: Vadim Perelman (based on the novel by Andre Dubus II)
- Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley and Ron Eldard
- Release date: January 9, 2004
[iv] Inside Out
- Production Company: Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Pictures
- Directors: Peter Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen
- Screenwriters: Peter Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen
- Starring: Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black
- Release date: June 19, 2015
[v] Steel Magnolias
- Production Company: TriStar Pictures, Rastar Films
- Director: Herbert Ross
- Screenwriter: Robert Harling
- Starring: Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, Sally Field
- Release date: November 22, 1989