Hers was a telling admission. After three years of regular interaction during which she avoided mentioning our family’s loss, she was now moving away. First, though, she said she needed to talk to me: “Privately, please? I need to get something off my chest.”
When she approached me that last day, head low, trying to smile, I saw regret in the tears that quickly filled her eyes. I listened. At first, she tried to laugh (her defense mechanism), but couldn’t quite hold that smile in place as another part of her began sobbing. Right there, in a pew at church.
“Dang!” she giggled, her hand to her mouth. “I can’t believe this. I’m such a boob!”
And I sat, staring, waiting.
Then she shook her head, smiled briskly, and took the breath of someone ready to dive off a cliff. What she shared sums up a whole host of complexities that are part of facing, acknowledging, and entering into another’s grief: “A parent’s worst nightmare,” she shuddered, “I hope you’ll forgive me, but I just didn’t dare get close to it, to you.”
Ah-ha. Now I understood her months of unease around me. Her nervous chirpiness. Her bursts of laughter. She wasn’t afraid of me. She was afraid of my Grief Beast.
The Grief Beast, for lack of a better description, is a hybrid of Jabba the Hut, Sasquatch and Grendel. His head scratches any twenty-foot ceiling and he does not speak; he swills. He is warted and hairy and lumpy – a shaggy, matted, slate-khaki thing with fur balls and sodden patches formed from sitting for long stretches in pools of tears and mucus.
The Beast emits a sharp-sweet rotting compost odor that can make your eyes burn, a fact that makes me wonder how others – the non-grieving – cannot smell him out; or if they do smell him out, how they can pretend he’s not there. He trails you everywhere, tethered to your heart, shedding molting fur and spreading his sickly aroma wherever his deep sloppy footprints leave their trail. His breathing, if you want to call it that, is gravely and loamy –subterranean – with moistness that slithers right down your collar suffocating you when you have to go out in public or respond to the flip line, “So, tell me about your kids!”
When you awaken day or night, he is right there, squat at the side of your bed, glaring. When you try to move, he insists on moving with you or even climbing on your back, which makes every effort arduous and weighted, like slogging through tepid, thigh-deep oatmeal. He skulks and overbears, his shadow spreads to every corner, even those inaccessible, private ones. He appears one day like that, and is there for the longest, eternal time. But in those first days – and this is the dilemma his presence creates – you are still learning how to live with him and how to respond when others ask, even if just with their eyes, what on earth the matter is.
Well, clearly, he is the matter. He is the matter with the earth and the whole universe. He is something that really matters.
Grief matters. He is real. And he is bigger and more obstinate – more dangerous and more uncomfortable – than most of us would care to know first-hand.
Some of us, when we encounter someone else’s Grief Beast, react to it like we are face-to-face with a grizzly bear: we slap our hands over our eyes and run, shrieking.
Others of us freeze then tiptoe away slowly, unable to breathe a word, straitjacketed.
Others grab for weapons. We want to do something to beat it back, beat it up.
Others think, “Hold on now here. I’ve seen Beasts something like this one before. Maybe I’ll do the same thing to this one I did to that other one to get rid of it.”
Others size up The Beast, concluding that, heh, he’s not such a big deal after all. A bit exaggerated in all our minds, if anything. A big, Spielbergian Special FX.
Still others pretend The Beast is a wooly apparition that will skulk off into a forest if he’s just ignored long enough.
On the whole, we are either scared stiff and begin fidgeting, laughing, juggling, whistling in the dark – whatever our learned defense mechanisms might be, or we spectacularly underestimate just how vicious The Beast is.
All these knee jerk reactions are human. And we humans, by nature, are really not all that courageous.
It takes courage, a special kind of courage, to face The Grief Beast.
We might have learned some forms of faux courage along the way – toughness, callousness, brazenness, dare-deviling our way through life – but those are lower forms of courage because they are in their most elemental particulars (if you could check out their ribosomes under a microscope, let’s say) self-preserving, not self-giving. And self-giving is the most elevated form of courage.
(Voilà, and there you go. Melissa’s philosophy in a nutshell. Take it or leave it.)
If we’re self-preserving in the face of another’s Beast, we’ll react in certain ways: Is this thing dangerous, am I going to get hurt? Infected? Shredded? Just like him?
Or, if I reach toward him will I get the Beast riled and he will run amok?
And what if someone. . .well, what if someone. . . what if I should cry?
So, to avoid all of the above we do not acknowledge the distress, no matter how huge it might be. We never bring up the horrible, sad thing. We don’t say a single word. Not even the name of the thing that summoned The Beast in the first place: the name of the deceased. We make the tragically wrong assumption that that must be what the guy with The Beast hanging on a thick iron chain wants, too. Although it’s his Beast for a while and he’s chained to it, he wants to forget the Beast, wants to talk about anything — snow tires, the best antacid medication, Snooki’s lipgloss – anything but The Beast.
Fearing for everyone’s lives, we sidle away graciously, deftly, eyes darting, chins dipped, heads turned slightly to the side, hands steadied. Surely we don’t want anyone around here to get their heads grizzled off. Under our breath the bereaved can almost hear our whispers, “Easy boy, Eeeeeasy.”
Yes, it takes a certain breed of courage – a courage-in-vulnerability – to address and enter into another’s pain, to look right into the eyes of someone’s Grief Beast, acknowledging its presence. This courage is not casual or flippant; it’s not the kind of pretended courage that tosses its head back cavalierly, dismissing with lots of proverbs and greeting card couplets the threatening dimensions of the Beast.
In fact, I’m not entirely sure that real courage needs to talk that much.
What might it do, then, this kind of courage I’m advocating for? I’d wager it’s counterintuitive for some of us. It is, at least, for me:
I think this kind of courage will walk up. It will look at the guy, his chain, his Beast. It will reach for the chain, asking to hold it, weigh it. (He had no idea, until he held it in his own hands, just how heavy that sucker was.)
And then Courage will take a seat next to the guy. There, Courage can feel the struggling unevenness of the guy’s heartbeat, the coldness emanating from his skin. Courage will certainly sense the Beast’s muggy breath, its putrid stench, its murky shadow. Courage might ask, after a spell, “Please. . .can you tell me?”
Or. . . it might not ask.
Because this is the secret: Courage is able to sit. It is able to wait right next to the guy, right beneath The Beast. It will sit, in fact, as long as both guy and Beast allow, and in that silent sitting Courage will discover that its most pressing questions are somehow, wordlessly answered. Courage won’t need to ask a thing.
From Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward
The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them—words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried as you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.
—Stephen King, Different Seasons, 293