Allowing grief to live

Inside Out

Aarthi  Ramachandran often works on the assumption that to feel is to believe @homernods

How long should we grieve for someone we love? Is there a protocol that grief at the death of a loved one must follow in our inner world, even if we may have found a way to parcel it into rituals and ceremonies in our social relationship with it?

A long conversation I had with someone in my family recently made me wonder about the nature of grief and how long it takes to process the feelings associated with it. The person whom I was speaking with recalled how her life had been interrupted close to five decades ago when her father had died suddenly. All these years later, she was still processing the emotions of a young adult forced to come to terms with that inexplicable loss. Those unbearable feelings had never really left her, and her father had continued to live as part of her life story in terms of what her life might have been, as opposed to what it had become, had he been alive.

So, if grief will hang around in our lives following its own course, then how should we relate to it? Is there something we must do with grief in order for it to be tucked away to a place from where it will not return to bother us again? The Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously postulated the five-stage model of grief involving denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But while her work, first published first in 1969 with the ground-breaking book On Death and Dying, was seminal, it’s now believed that the five stages do not adequately explain how different people process grief. The writer, psychotherapist and practitioner of Buddhism, Mark Epstein, in Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself, says: “Mourning has no timetable. Grief is not the same for everyone. And it does not necessarily go away. The healthiest way to deal with it is to lean into it, rather than try to keep it at bay.”

The recently released film The Sky Is Pink, too, raised questions around grief and attempted to answer them with a measure of honesty. The film is about a woman who loses her one-year-old daughter to a rare genetic disorder but comes to an unexpected understanding about the nature of grief. Faced with the prospect of the child’s death, she is able to acknowledge that the psychological pain she is experiencing is nothing compared to the physical pain the child is undergoing. Her openness to grief, expressed as a realisation about why the child must die, changes things permanently for her.

This trial gives her the strength of fearless when faced with suffering inherent in life and helps her make a difficult choice. Finding that she is pregnant again, she decides to have the child instead of ending the pregnancy, knowing fully well that this child, too, might have the same medical condition as the earlier one that died. In the film, based on a true story, the dreaded turn of events does come to pass. The parents struggle to keep the child alive, but she dies at 18. But by then, she has experienced a full life of ups and downs and joys and sorrows.

The film’s key question is whether or not the woman should have had the second daughter, knowing fully well that she might not live very long. The answer that emerges – in the voice of the child who has had a chance to live, even if it was a brief life – is a resounding ‘yes’.

When I go back to the conversation I had about grief with the person in my family, I feel like there is something to be said for making grief a part of our lives in a legitimate way. Recognising that it will continue to stick around and want to be acknowledged is, perhaps, important. Maybe we must not be afraid to say to grief, like the woman in the film, faced with the possibility of having another child die in her hands, did: “Come along, it’s fine. I’ll let you do your thing and you let me do mine.”

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