Today is someone’s worst day. Have you ever thought about that? Not the “work sucks, and I have five loads of laundry to do tonight” kind of bad day. This is someone’s worst day ever—the kind that is heartbreaking and life-altering.
Just as we’re heading out the door to begin the workday, coffee in hand and laptop bag swung over our shoulders, someone is holding their favorite person’s hand beside a hospital bed for their final moments. Someone else is standing dumbfounded in a bedroom closet, staring at a lineup of clothes wondering which black outfit is best for a funeral. And someone else is marking a somber anniversary, wondering how to honor a loved one on the date he or she died.
Grief is universal. This vast sea of emotions and memories accompany each of us who experience a significant loss. Even if we put it off for years, it will always rise to the surface—just ask Prince Harry. But universality doesn’t automatically translate to understanding or the support needed to sustain the all-encompassing journey.
When coping with grief, older generations subscribed to the popular yet ineffective “push it down” method—don’t talk about it, ignore it, and it will go away. Anthropologist Margaret Mead summed it by saying: “When a person is born we rejoice and when they’re married we jubilate, but when they die we try to pretend nothing has happened.” Elisabeth Kübler-Ross made waves when she introduced the five stages of grief in 1969, but many unknowing grievers began to only see their private experience in the confines of a linear path. Which stage am I in? Is this the angry stage? Am I at acceptance yet?
But today, hushed whispers about a once-taboo topic are evolving into carefully laid conversations. From Facebook exec Sheryl Sandberg’s memoir Option B to tear-jerking, so-real-you-can-feel-it episodes of This Is Us, to local support groups and broad-reaching social network groups, grief is finally emerging from the shadows.
We're talking about death differently.
Of the approximately 73,000 children that die in the U.S. each year, 83 percent have surviving siblings, according to the Moyer Foundation. I am one of them. When my only brother, Michael, died at age 13 from a rare genetic disease, I felt isolated walking the hallways of my suburban high school. I was drowning in my grief, despite the army of dedicated extended family members and friends and an overflowing freezer of casserole dinners. I needed someone my age to look into my lost green eyes not with sympathy but with true empathy and understanding.
That fall, I joined the Fairview Youth Grief Services teen support group. Sitting in an awkward circle as strangers, there was still an innate understanding as we glanced hesitantly around the room. Our losses were different, but we shared a camaraderie—grief has a way of creating new bonds, just as others are torn in two. After each week of sharing memories, complaining about clueless friends, and recounting the sacred moments that bookend a death, I grasped a little more air. It was my life preserver.
That experience was many years ago. Now, thanks in part to a greater focus on mental health and holistic well-being, children and adults are beginning to get more of the widespread support they need. There’s little stigma now in seeking the counsel of a therapist or exploring ways to cope with life’s challenges like a series of restorative yoga classes or a stack of self-help books. In light of devastating tragedies both here and abroad, there’s renewed emphasis not only on those we’ve lost, but the silent survivors left behind.
“Tell your stories, your stories of loss, your stories of disappointment, your stories of fear and ask childlike questions with kindness and be open for the answer,” Rebecca Peyton, whose sister was murdered more than a decade ago, urged in a TEDTalk.
The loved one didn’t “pass away,” which signifies they went somewhere and could come back. They died. And while grief can come in stages similar to Kübler-Ross’ theory, it’s more commonly a circle of emotions that cycle endlessly through every season, every day, every hour. There’s no ending, only growth and lessons learned. These are lessons all of us should take to heart.
Committing to the conversation is key.
Just as more grievers are beginning to share their stories, we’re also starting to talk about death and dying differently. Now, I'm a volunteer facilitator with Youth Grief Services in the same teen group that I participated in years ago. As leaders, we talk about how to best discuss grief, especially with kids. And the answers are surprisingly simple.
I’m always struck by the resiliency of my group members. They’ve experienced devastating loss at the same time they’re getting their driver’s permit and attending their first prom. They bravely journey through their grief and honor their loved ones with every story shared or tear shed. One teenage girl whose dad died only months prior from cancer said pointedly, “I love to brag about my dad.” Who doesn’t love to brag about someone they love, either on this Earth or not?
It’s our responsibility to build on the grief conversation that has already started and allow grievers the chance to heal. Grief doesn't end when the funeral does. It’s only just the beginning. This is when the acquaintances and casual happy hour crew drop off the radar, and the real friends show up on your doorstep with a bottle of wine and a package of Oreos to say, “I may not understand, but I’m going to walk alongside you through this.” And they keep showing up.
We keep grief out of the shadows by entering into the difficult conversations. A comforting word, a thoughtful question and one of the most profound tactics of all—a listening ear—brings the universal reality of grief out of the deepest recesses of our beings. Vocal leaders in business, Hollywood, and mental health circles have championed the grief conversation, and now it’s time for all of us to join in. Meet someone on their worst day and be ready in the years that follow, so when they step forward on the arduous grief-laden path, they find it’s paved with love, support—and an endless supply of ice cream.