“Please don’t tell me what to think.” There is a stage – or maybe it’s an age – we reach when that’s what we say. We have all been that headstrong teenager who knows best, has been in the world for only a short few years, yet somehow knows it all. Then we reach a point where we can say, “Tell me what you think and I’ll listen. Maybe it will influence me, and maybe it won’t.” And then there are collective truths: long-held views in the public consciousness that we daren’t disagree with; societal truths that you just don’t mess with. And they may not be true at all. I don’t mean scientific truths; I mean long-held agreed and universal viewpoints that become the perceived wisdom du-jour, something we are supposed to accept, unquestioning.
Here’s one that has been in my thoughts a lot lately, for it is something I’m living through. Time and time again, people say: you never get over your grief, you just learn to live with it. I did accept this as one of these universal truths, a fact borne out by those who had already walked the path. But now, as time passes for me, I wonder how responsible it is to sustain this message. I was awakened to it again recently after watching a short clip online from a public broadcaster designed to help and educate people living with grief. Its message was that one’s grief does not fade, get smaller, or change, but that one’s life gets bigger and we just learn to tolerate the grief, carry it around, work with the load, and become stronger at bearing it. I’m paraphrasing, but this was the basic message and it made me really sad, and maybe a little frustrated, that such a negative and hopeless viewpoint should endure.
If one is told to feel like a tragic victim who will never mend, who will always carry a weighty invisible cargo, then one probably will fulfil that role. If we are told we have been cheated from experiencing happy times in the future, rites of passage that all lives deserve to experience, then we’ll probably fixate on what might have been to the detriment of what’s happening in the here and now. If we buy into the collective mind that tells us that loss is only ever pain, suffering and sorrow, then of course it will be hard to see the chinks of light when they come. And come they will. I’m in it. I’m living it. I’m climbing out of it. And, for me, this narrative is just not true. Grief does fade if you loosen your grip and believe that it will. Maybe people think they are doing a disservice to the dead by saying this, that it is an affront to their memory, that society would judge them for saying their grief is no longer black, but light grey.
The insight that comes from experiencing the heartbreak of loss cannot be bequeathed, it can only be gained through experience. And we shall all experience it, and the inevitable neurosis that comes with it. You can’t reach a place of restoration by looking backwards, regretting, wishing away what has happened. You will pull yourself out of the rubble. The load will lighten. And death will teach you how to live, if you let it. Broken hearts gradually mend. They really do.
‘If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking’, by Emily Dickinson
“If I can stop one heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching.
Or cool one pain,
Or help one lonely person
In happiness again
I shall not live in vain.”