The way we deal with grief in our culture is broken. I thought I knew quite a bit about grief. After all, I’d been a psychotherapist in private practice for nearly a decade. I worked with hundreds of people—from those wrestling with substance addiction and patterns of homelessness, to private practice clients facing decades-old abuse, trauma, and grief. I’d worked in sexual violence education and advocacy, helping people navigate some of the most horrific experiences of their lives. I studied the cutting edge of emotional literacy and resilience. I cared deeply and felt that I was doing important, valuable work.
And then, on a beautiful, ordinary summer day in 2009, I watched my partner drown. Matt was strong, fit, and healthy. He was just three months away from his fortieth birthday. With his abilities and experience, there was no reason he should have drowned. It was random, unexpected, and it tore my world apart.
After Matt died, I wanted to call every one of my clients and apologize for my ignorance. Though I’d been skilled in deep emotional work, Matt’s death revealed an entirely different world. None of what I knew applied to loss of that magnitude. With all of my experience and training, if anyone could be prepared to deal with that kind of loss, it should’ve been me. But nothing could have prepared me for that. None of what I’d learned mattered.
The truth is, grief and loss happen to everyone. We’ve all felt misunderstood during times of great pain. We’ve also stood by, helpless, in the face of other people’s pain. We’ve all fumbled for words, knowing no words can ever make things right. No one can win: grieving people feel misunderstood, and friends and family feel helpless and stupid in the face of grief. We know we need help, but we don’t really know what to ask for. Trying to help, we actually make it worse for people going through the worst time in their lives. Our best intentions come out garbled.
It’s not our fault. We all want to feel loved and supported in our times of grief, and we all want to help those we love. The problem is that we’ve been taught the wrong way to do it.
Our culture sees grief as a kind of malady: a terrifying, messy emotion that needs to be cleaned up and put behind us as soon as possible. As a result, we have outdated beliefs around how long grief should last and what it should look like. We see it as something to overcome, something to fix, rather than something to tend or support. Even our clinicians are trained to see grief as a disorder rather than a natural response to deep loss. When the professionals don’t know how to handle grief, the rest of us can hardly be expected to respond with skill and grace.
We have this idea that there are only two options in grief: to be sad forever and never leave the house, or to put all this sadness behind you and go on to live a fabulous life. But the reality is far more broad: you are neither doomed to eternal sadness, nor forced into a model of recovery that can never fit you.
At a time when I most needed love and support, I felt alone, misunderstood, judged, and dismissed. It’s not that the people around me meant to be cruel; they just didn’t know how to be truly helpful. Like many grieving people, I stopped talking about my pain to friends and family. It was easier to pretend everything was fine than to continually defend and explain my grief to those who couldn’t understand. I turned to other grieving people because they were the only ones who knew what grief was really like.
Writing the Truth (Alone, Together)
I used to bristle at the word “tribe.” It’s Internet new-age speak, and I always hate that stuff. But having lived this myself, having found my own people, and having created places for people to find each other, I can’t argue with the word. We are a tribe. The Tribe of After. After death, after loss, after everyone else has moved along, the fellowship of other grievers remains.
Writing has always been my medium, so I created Refuge in Grief and Writing Your Grief courses to tell the truth about grief, with no sugar coating. I created it to give people support that actually sounds like them—something that speaks to their life, their minds, and their hearts.
I never promise that writing will make anyone feel better. On the contrary, I request that my students dive fully into their pain; nothing is off-limits; nothing is too harsh.
When I ask my students how writing has helped them in their grief, without fail, they say that writing the true reality of their loss has helped them survive. We have such censorship around grief—in the larger world, certainly, but even in our own hearts and minds. We’ve been so well-conditioned to not say what hurts. There’s a freedom in letting all your words out. There is freedom in being heard. On the page, everything is welcome.
As one of my Writing Your Grief students, Grace (who lost her brother) says, “Writing may not fix grief, but it may have given me the most important tools I have to live with it: a means to express the agony I’ve carried for fifteen years and a tribe of fierce and beautiful souls that not only honor that expression, but who also aren’t afraid of it. By extension, they aren’t afraid of me.”
My students have shown me, over and over again, the power in simply telling your own story, as it is. Your writing doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to be “right.” Through writing, grief and love, horror, and companionship weave themselves into this story of your life —the true story. You can write for yourself alone, or you can find places to share your words with others. What matters most is telling the truth, without censure, without apology. Words may be small, but they contain your heart, and your heart is always welcome to speak on the page.
Much of what is beautiful in my life now comes from the community of other grievers: it’s one of the few true gifts of loss. Every one of us would have traded the community we found for the life we’d lost, and we can say so without remorse. And every one of us will fiercely love, guard, protect, and honor the others we have met here, in this life we didn’t want.