In the last few years, as a result of the increasing age of myself and everyone I know, death and grief has increasingly become dinner table talk and has led to me drawing a few conclusions on the topic I’d like to share. Obviously, if you’re looking for something funny to read, this ain’t the place. I suggest you pop over to Youtube and do a search for “Triangle Sally”. That’s some funny shit.
I will preface the following by saying that my firsthand experience of grief is limited, so I could be talking out of my ass. These are opinions only. I have, however, been in close contact with many grieving people so I am not talking 100% out of my ass. 85%, perhaps.
Firstly, I believe it’s a misconception that grief is wholly personal. It is obviously personal in the sense that each person is an individual and the relationship between two people (and its conclusion) is particular. However, our emotions are a construct rooted in our biology, caused by the firing of a variety of electrical currents and chemical interactions inside our brains. Just as you can take the entire human population and group people per physical characteristics, we can also be grouped by our emotional characteristics.
We’ve got to start with the understanding that our brains are, practically speaking, the same. They consist of the same type of cells and are almost uniform in shape, form and construction. The first major difference is one of gender- men have 6.5 times more grey matter, women have 10 times more white matter- which essentially means men have more neurons, whereas women have more connections between the neurons. Women have larger frontal lobe regions (responsible for problem solving and decision making) and a larger limbic cortex (responsible for regulating emotions), while men have a larger parietal cortex and amygdala, responsible for space perception and sexual & social behaviour respectively.
Beyond this our brains individualise by increasing or decreasing particular components until we are left with us, the individual being. It may appear that I am pointing out how unique we are (and hence how personal our grief must be) but I am not. My point is that we all have the same components in our brains, just different combinations. We are all capable of the same emotions, it is which emotional reactions we are more predisposed to that is important.
Regarding grief, your predispositions and personality type will affect your ability to grieve successfully (whatever “successfully’ means). Specifically, whether you are predisposed to sentimentality and romanticism or if you are more practical and a realist. It is also important to understand what your default emotion is.
I will use myself for an example. I am practical and a realist. I am not prone to sentimentality or romanticism. My default emotion is anger- all frustration will be funneled into anger or frustration, undoubtedly.
From this I can deduce the following: It is essential that I give any grief I feel the full spectrum of emotion it requires. When my emotions build (typically signposted by a flurry of practical thinking and anxious processing) I must take the anger that arrives and ask myself what it is I’m actually feeling, what is causing my default emotion to appear. Almost always, I need to stop confronting and controlling the exterior world and befriend my sentimentality for a moment. Or a day. I will make the decision “Right- today is sentimental day!” and go for gold in the sentimentality Olympics. On goes the melancholy music, out comes the wine.
Alternately, suppose you’re a sentimental person. Know what your default emotion is and when it appears, break it down into what you’re actually feeling and then befriend your rationality. Tell yourself that you haven’t the time right now to be sentimental, it’s hindering you, you don’t want to be hindered so nope, no thank you, no sentimentality right now, thanks. Your interior world is your habitat, so get out of it and get into the exterior world.
Your mind will listen. An extreme of any emotion can most successfully be treated with its antidote, the opposite. Knowing what type of person you are, practical or romantic, is key to starting your new life together with your grief.
Which brings us to another point: you have either never experienced grief or you are grieving. It’s a milestone, a moment of maturing. I liken it to becoming a parent; once you are a parent, you are never again not a parent. Even if you outlive your children, you are still a parent. Don’t expect it to end, it won’t. It will change, adapt, frustrate you and comfort you for the rest of your life. It will find a comfortable place in your psyche where it will work together with you, if you let it. It’s a child. You have given birth to your grief, now it’s up to you to teach it how to be a responsible adult.
Another misconception about grief is the feeling that grief is somehow externally created. Grief is felt, universally, as an imposition of emotion that we have no control over. We interpret it as an unwelcome guest that inhabits our mind, whose moods and grievances we have to endure with until it decides to leave (which we incorrectly assume it will, or demand that it must). This is untrue as it’s your mind. There is no external input.
It is emotion that is subconsciously created, groomed, fed and nurtured by you. This notion is essential in understanding your grief. The child analogy can come into play once more. Your grief can be viewed as a petulant child you’ve been tasked to look after. If it’s hungry, give it some food. If it’s being a pig, tell it it’s had enough. If it’s running around the house inside your head and driving you nuts, tell it it’s time to go to its room and give you some peace. It’s your mind- you’re the boss.
This is a skill taught to people suffering anxiety, to understand that your anxiety is not external but treat it as though it is. When your anxiety is building you treat it as if it is a person, rationalise with it and remind it of who is in charge.
With time and persistence, the subconscious part of your brain learns who is the boss. I have firsthand knowledge of this experience, having suffered years of anxiety attacks as a younger lad. Eventually though, through time and persistence, I learnt that my subconscious self may have created my anxiety but my conscious self is in control of it. Which doesn’t mean it’s purposeless- if it builds up I know this is a message to myself to stop and assess why it’s appearing. It has a valuable opinion in monitoring the stress in my life.
This tactic is, in my experience, wholly applicable to grief. Your subconscious self is your instinct, sending you messages in code that require interpreting. Your conscious self is the interpreter. Your subconscious self is reckless. Your conscious self is not and, obviously, the reckless should never be in charge.
I have one final point to make. Julia Sweeney, the fantastic American monologist, said in one of her performances that “every great act of maturing involves basically one thing: accepting what is true, over what I wish were true”. Being the rational chap that I am, this has become a sort of mantra for when I encounter difficult times. In order to process my own grief I constructed a kind of rational deduction, which went:
1. There is no greater act of maturing than dealing with a death.
2. An act of maturing means accepting what is true, over what you wish were true.
3. The truth is that I cannot wish for anything to be different, for it can’t be.
4. I cannot be happy not accepting the truth.
5. I choose to be happy.
6. I am happy the way things are.
Oddly, this works for me. When I’m feeling blue, I say it to myself. My rational disposition can’t argue.
Remember people, 85% out my ass.