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I need to start this post today with a clarification.

I thank all of you for your condolences, and they are very much appreciated, but I wasn’t actually depressed or despairing. 

I do get depressed and despairing, but not usually off this kind of thing.   For better or worse, what really gets me depressed is failing to do something I think I should have been able to do.  I did go through a period, when Bill was sick, of thinking (subconsciously) that I should be able to cure cancer, but that passed, and I didn’t think that this time.

What was bothering me the other day, what is bothering me now, what bothers me on and off as it comes up, is this incredible, pounding need we all seem to have to convince ourselves that “it will be all right.”

If it was just the secular people who were doing it, this would make a certain amount of sense,  but religious people do it just as often, and what’s odder, they do it in exactly the same way.

We not only put an enormous amount of effort into denying that really bad things  happen and there’s nothing we can do about them, but into “managing” the “experience” once it happens.

And the “management” is always the same.  An entire “grief counseling” industry has grown up in this country (and, for all I  know, outside it) whose purpose is to provide “guidance” to make the pain not so bad, or the utter wreck of hopes and dreams palatable enough to let us go on living.

If you read any of these books–and I have read several, usually recommended by people I like and who have been good friends to me, and whom I know mean well–you’ll find a tone of advice about how to “work through” pain, but the “working through” tends to be a kind of deflection.  Feel the pain–wall in it, even–because eventually you will get tired of it, or inured to it, and then you can get on with building your life back up, or justifying it to yourself, so that you can accept it, or even embrace it.   The idea that accepting some of the realities of life might be wrong–and embracing them something worse than wrong–seems not to have occurred to the grief counselors.

The idea that either of those things might actually be impossible is, as a matter of dogman, ruled out of hand.

To a degree, but only to a degree, modern grief counseling is sort of like ancient Stoicism.  Stoicism recommended a kind of apathy–learn not to care much for the things of this world, it told us, and you will not feel pain when you inevitably lose them.  Stoics cultivated a deliberate emotional alienation from every part of life.  They strove to be as indifferent to pleasure as they strove to be indifferent to pain.

Grief counseling is more like the afterthought of Epicureanism than it is of this, in spite of all the calls to “embrace” and “accept” loss and pain.  The Epicureans believed that the meaning of life was to be found in the pleasure we got out of it.  Unlike a lot of modern  people who pretend to take up their philosophy,  the Epicureans didn’t define pleasure as “as much sensation as you can cram into every waking minute, no matter what that sensation is.”  They sent a lot of time talking bout the “pleasures proper to man” rather than the ones “proper to beasts.” 

Even with a more sensible definition of “pleasure” than that common to the denizens of Studio 54, Epicureanism ended up hitting the same brick wall all attempts to ground the meaning of life in “pleasure”(or “experience”) do–the fact not only that we all die, but that almost all of us die only after a long period in which life diminishes.  It is not just death that is in the future of all of us.  It is pain and decline.

Okay, I know, I know.  I’m sounding enormously depressing again.  But this is the reality for all of us.  And this is the single issue that every human philosophy and religion must try to solve.  If we cannot confront this honestly, if we cannot explain it adequately, then no matter what else we can find that is good in our philosophy, that philosophy is essentially trivial. 

Grief counseling, it seems to me, is a declaration of surrender on the part of modern secular philosophy.  The ultimate question, having een met, is incapable of answers.

The problem is, grief counseling also seems to be a declaration of surrender on the part of religion these days.  Go into any Catholic parish or theoretically “conservative” megachurch these days, and you will find pastors and ministers “trained” in grief counseling techniques. 

On one level, of course, this makes perfect sense.  It’s human nature, and common sense, to want to avoid pain.  That’s why the Bible contains the book of Job with its decades-later, tacked-on happy ending, instead of the original version, which left Job devastated and destroyed with no recourse but to a kind of radical trust:  if  God wants this for me, then I have to accept that it is good, even if I can understand none of it. 

The religious connection notwithstanding, though, I can’t help thinking that grief counseling is one of the worst examples of the scientification of everything.  John Donne understood more about death and dying, grief and loss, than any grief counseling book anybody has ever given me.  Start with Meditation 17, and go from there.

But while I’m in the middle of recommending things to read, try Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self Help Book.

It’s not a self help book.

It’s usually filed under fiction in bookstores, but it isn’t a novel in the usual sense, either. 

I don’t know how to explain what it is.

But it’s Walker Percy, the guy who wrote The Thanatos Syndrimne.

So it’s interesting.

And it addresses these questions exactly.

Written by janeh

September 13th, 2009 at 10:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Desperate'

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  1. Oh, I know what you mean about the grief counseling. When Mom died, my company was going through a period of sending one of those how to grieve books instead of flowers. I looked at it, looked at my husband, and said, “you know, in my experience, people know how to grieve. It comes naturally”. And it does.

    Bad things happen. My father, who was raised in a middle-class family in a small town in Wisconsin, really never had anything bad happen to him till Mom was diagnosed. Now he’s got health problems too, and in the last two weeks both of his cats have died.

    Obviously, he’s less broken up over the kitties than he was over Mom, but it’s all mixed up for him because they were her cats too. Since December of 2006, his life has been difficult, and it’s not going to get better. He has memory problems (not Alzheimer’s, but still have an effect on his life).

    And I can’t convince him to move back north so we can be nearby. But one thing he’s never done is try to convince himself that it’s going to be all right. He seems to know that life’s not going to be easy for him any more.


    13 Sep 09 at 11:18 am

  2. I think it’s probably fairly recently that most people died after a long decline. There have always been diseases that acted like that – TB to name an obvious example – but a lot of the things we suffer long declines from killed a lot faster in the past, and many a long decline was averted by one of the numerous infections that were a fatal threat to anyone of any age who had a minor injury or bad flu.

    I also think it’s quite normal for people to want to make things better, even though they won’t. It’s probably even instinctual – it’s uncomfortable to see other members of the same species suffering. Maybe it’s catching. Maybe it’s a threat to me or indeed my family or species.

    I went to one of the monthly ‘bereavement seminars’ given about monthly in a local hospital by one of the pastoral care team. In spite of the ‘pastoral’ it was non-denominational. The session I went to was given by, I guess he’s a social worker now. OK, he’s an ex-priest, but the session itself was just a basic description of grief. I found it helpful. At that point, I had begun to suspect that I (and at least one other person) was on the verge of a complete mental breakdown. It was comforting to be told that such reactions are normal; that just possibly, if one was suffering from “complicated grief” (from a suicide, murder etc) and was unable to function normally after 9-12 months, professional help might be called for. But the rest of us would probably go through the grieving without needing therapy.

    In a similar vein, I also had some counselling unrelated to grief. I say it helped. Certainly, I’m far better off and far happier and healthier than I was before. But I really don’t know if the counselling encouraged me to keep going through a very rough patch in my life, or if the various activities actually improved the bits of my psyche that they were supposed to. I suspect the first, but I really don’t care, because my life is a lot better anyway.

    I think I’ve wrestled with the questions of aging and death myself as I age. And for various reasons (not limited to the fact that everyone I know who is still alive has aged), there are a lot more fairly elderly (70+) people in my life than in the past. Most of them seem to have accepted their decline in health and strength. Oh, some don’t like it, not at all. They actively resent not being able to do what they used to do, having more aches and pains than before, but they do mostly seem to accept that this is what life is. You’re born, you grow up, (usually) marry & have your own children, people around you start dying, and then your turn comes to age and die. That’s life. Unless you die young, of course. I don’t know if this is stoicism or not.


    13 Sep 09 at 11:54 am

  3. OK, I never read a self-help book other than those which promise me a less cluttered home. (Those don’t work for me, either, by the way.) My response to serious trouble is to crawl into a dark hole–alone, thank you very much–until I’m ready to go deal with the new situation.

    Still, I’m prepared to cut the modern world a little slack on “grief counseling.” Obviously as a profession it’s pretty well bogus–though I expect a lot of governments will insist it be covered by insurance–but in a world in which the normal network of friends and relatives is worn terribly thin, maybe it makes sense to pour out troubles and worries to complete strangers. We’re verbal, and sometimes talking helps.

    Fifty years ago, I knew the nearest 10 houses–who lived there, where they came from, where they worked. When there were troubles someone would bring over food, watch the kids and be a sympathetic ear. Now I couldn’t name a single other resident of my apartment building. I have to hire someone to watch the cat when I go on vacation. Maybe hiring someone to listen or asking the church to provide someone makes sense.

    Yes, they’ll have delusions of grandeur, and think they can fix things no human agency can set right, but they’re not the only ones who think their profession or obsession will save the world, and at least they’re not mandatory. Would that I could say as much about some of the others.


    13 Sep 09 at 12:06 pm

  4. My brother was a grief counselor (and in fact ran a center). It’s not for people who, like MaryF wrote, “know how to grieve naturally” – which is probably the majority of people. It’s for people who fall apart and can’t function. They can’t get out of bed or back to work. They think their life is over and consider suicide. Sometimes they idealize the person they lost; sometimes they demonize the person and either feel guilty and “abnormal” or can’t tell their relatives or friends that they’re relieved the bastard is gone. Sometimes they’re so terrified of dying themselves they are paralyzed. Sometimes they do have support and friends, but there is one secret thing they need to tell someone (like infidelity, or relief after 24/7 caring for someone). Sometimes their friends and family don’t know what to say and deflect any attempt at conversation. Sometimes they have unfinished business they need to talk out. With kids it’s often that they feel somehow guilty or responsible for the death.

    I agree that it has become an industry and there are lots of charlatans. It is a bad counselor who says “it will all be fine” or “you’ll forget” or “life will be filled with joy again.” My brother also worked in hospice for many years and with people who had debilitating diseases. He never told anyone that it would be fine. To the contrary, he was sometimes the only person who said that it wouldn’t be fine (families tend to hope for miracles).

    Russians don’t have anything like this. I know some people here who have a very healthy attitude about ageing and dying. They expect that things will be bad and are kind of ready for it. It’s just part of life to them – probably a bad part, but it is what it is. I know other people who were real messes after a death, and their friends and family, to whom they told everything, were no help at all. I also know of a case when a young grieving widow tearfully asked a priest why her husband had died and he said: “Because of your sins!” I certainly wish he’d had some training.


    14 Sep 09 at 11:14 am

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