Sunday, 29 May 2011

Grief/madness, illuminated by Franzen

From "Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen:

"...the early-morning walkers left Walter alone again - less, perhaps, because they were disturbed by his extremism than because his hermit-like existence now strongly smacked of grief, the terrible sort of grief that it's safest to steer clear of; the enduring sort of grief that, like all forms of madness, feels threatening, possibly contagious."

Spot on. We go a bit mad when we're grieving, and people steer clear because they think they'll come out in grief, like coming out in spots after kissing someone who's brewing up the measles. And yet grieving people sometimes/often want - just some company. Grief isn't contagious, though sadness may be - but surely we owe them a little sadness, the gateway to compassion?

Maybe it's just someone there with them that they want. Sometimes they don't want anyone for a bit, so I guess one should ask. But "is there anything I can do" doesn't go far, does it? What, like, mow the grass? Occasionally, yes - run errands, cook a meal, that's the best thing, but it's not Bob-a-Job Week. (apologies to younger reader/s)

I know at least one person out there who knows a lot, professionally speaking, about grieving, so: What's the right question?


  1. I'll nip in first GM, before the 'professional' comes along!
    In my humble opinion, I don't think there is one definitive question that will cover all eventualities. Because no two experiences of grief are ever the same. There are, as you say, the obvious compassionate and supportive responses of "I'm so sorry... would you like some company... do you feel like talking... do you need help with anything". Provided, of course, you mean it and are happy to be there/talk/listen/mow the grass, if the answer is "yes".
    The best thing you can do for someone who is grieving is just let them 'be' – I don't mean stay away, I mean let them say, do, feel what they want in the company of someone who isn't going to judge them or tell them to pull themselves together, and in an environment where they can be themselves and not pretend or put up a front. Having permission to unravel for a while is, I think, their greatest need.

  2. Thanks CB, that's it, question answered - though of course other views also welcome, now we've got some clear sight of the area.

    So the collection of worst things to say might include:

    "I think you're..." (i.e. judgements, opinions on how to grieve)

    "I know how you feel, I remember when..." No you don't know how she feels, and already you're talking about yourself.

    "You need to get a grip on this.." or "you don't seem very upset, are you sure you're not.." whatever. She'll do it her way, I guess.

    "Just let me know if there's anything I can do." (My bet is she won't, because middle-class Brits over a certain age would rather disintegrate in their front rooms than 'be a nuisance' or 'make a fuss.'

    Any or all of which may be said with the best will in the world.


  3. Absolutely GM... also avoid "You'll get over it... time heals... the first year is the worst... time to move on".
    But whatever happens, don't avoid THEM. I've spoken to bereaved people who have seen people they know literally cross over the street in an effort to avoid talking to them. One assumes this is because they don't know what to say, rather than anything more sinister. But even so, you can't, as Franzen says, 'steer clear' of grief. Ever. However embarrassed or nervous you feel about finding the right words, you'll never feel as bad as they do. Especially when they watch you cross the street...

  4. Heart-breaking. On TV I heard a recently-bereaved woman talking about exactly that happening to her at the school gates at going-home time. She took to wearing dark glasses because being avoided like that made her ashamed of her grief - they'll see I've been crying....and it seriously damaged one of her formerly close friendships.


    Her friend said she hadn't known what to say. The woman said in that case, a hug would have done just fine...

    Our frightened responses, in such cirumstances, are truly mordbid, i.e. such avoidance is the deathly thing in our lives, not that poor soul's lonely grief.

    Wise words, CB, thanks

  5. There's a good piece here, whose concluding sentence advises:'I am very sorry for your loss. May I bring you some tea?'

    If one were to be a devilish advocate, one might observe that a grieving person is likely present a strong, pathological negative and decidedly not engage in life-enhancing conversation -- and we really have to make a big effort for those, the depressed, the self-absorbed, the difficult. We seek instead those who gladden us; we even cross the road to find them.

    Having said which, I have never belonged to that tendency. But that's not relevant. In an age which sets great store by social gratification, social duty ain't a concept -- so there's no machinery of manners, no familiar courtesies. Is that it? Grief is the new leprosy?

  6. Welcome back from hols Charles, with your wise words - yes, it's much harder to find the right behaviour without a "machinery of manners," and when the courtesies are not held in common. And yet, seems to me often people find ways of knowing what to do, and often they make the effort. Maybe we only notice it when people crumple and get it wrong, didn't knows what to say etc, whereas there must - surely? please? be a lot of quiet compassion going on. And when there is no machinery, maybe it can mean even more when we do get it right? After all, social forms can be just that.
    And so on round...

  7. I think some people get it right - but only some, and not enough. And it's not confined to those who grieve. Years ago a colleague's daughter had a kidney transplant. It was touch and go and everybody was stepping round it. He was very isolated. I couldn't understand it then, because I was young. I think I do, now. Quiet compassion is not enough. It has to vocalise!

  8. Thanks, BTW Charles, for the link to a very good article.In it, we get, with that typical insightful C18th compression:

    'While grief is fresh,' said Dr. Johnson, 'every attempt to divert only irritates.'

    Quite so.

    This follows on from the thought that grief is love for the dead person, so of course we resist attempts to short-circuit it.

    So we need to be sensitive about the best approach. Sitting down with a good cup of tea is a pretty sensible start in most cases, wouldn't you think?