Megan Devine, It’s OK That You’re Not OK
12 years ago my 39 year old brother was killed in a car accident. I can not describe the grief except to say it was horrible, the worst experience I have ever had (and I’ve had some shockingly bad experiences over my 53 years). And yet, there was a dimension to this loss that I never expected. Besides all the pain involved with grief and loss, there was pain incurred by other people. Many friends, especially those in my peer group, were incapable of saying anything appropriate. Practically every comment, however well meaning, jabbed deep into the quick of my grief. I was stunned by lack of sensitivity displayed by some people. There were those who tried to tell me that I should forget about him and get on with my life and concentrate on my family. There were the friends that I lost because they just avoided me, as if I had a contagious disease. I even had friends who refused to remember that my brother had passed away. They would literally act as though they had no idea what I was talking about when it would come up month after month. I even worked for an employer who insisted that after taking two weeks off, I should be, “over it.” People sent cards with platitudes that I, no doubt, had used in the past, but those felt empty at best and hurtful at worst. The worst was, “He’s happy where he is.” And I thought, “How could he be happy away from me and Mom and Dad and his wife and kids?”
So, in addition to the loss of my brother, I had to endure the loss of friends, friends who said hurtful things and then could not understand why I was not falling all over myself to thank them for supporting me.
Meghan Devine lost her life partner at 39 and she experienced many of the same awkward interactions with people who she thought would be there for her. Devine, a writer and counselor, took it upon herself to spread the word that we as a society do not properly support those in grief. She wrote the book It’s OK That You’re Not OK to address the experiences that shocked her after her experience of untimely loss of someone she loved. She admits that, as a therapist who sometimes counseled grief stricken patients, she used to say many of the hurtful things that she heard after her partner’s death. She decided that it was necessary for her to completely change how she viewed and spoke about loss. Then she decided that we all need to change how we view loss and relate, as a society, to those experiencing grief.
In her book, Devine provides a handy list of do’s and don’ts for people who want to support others who are in grief. She explains why certain things, though they sound right to the person outside of the grief, are hurtful to a person in the midst of integrating a massive loss into their life and worldview. The list of pointers on how one can support someone in grief are concrete and insightful. I wish this book was around when I lost my brother. I would have bought dozens of them and handed them out.
Another problem with how we manage grief, Devine points out with disappointment, is the wholesale misinterpretation of the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross five stages of grief. Kubler-Ross developed a framework for observing and tracking grief so that it would be possible for therapists and grief counselors to offer assistance to those experiencing the upheaval of loss. But toward the end of her life, Kubler-Ross bemoaned the fact that people have come to use her theory in ways she never expected or thought of as healthy. She maintained that she never meant to suggest that the stages of grief need to appear in a specified order. She certainly never suggested that the stages were something that should be “gotten” through in order to “resolve” grief. But this is how the framework has been co opted and, in some cases, hijacked. The theory and the stages have been absorbed by society as a set of milestones, perhaps because we are goal oriented in nature. The thing is that grief does not work on a timetable or bend, obedient, to plans.
Devine argues strongly against the notion that one must “solve” grief. She maintains that this erroneous belief has led to many of the insensitive comments and the platitudes that are spouted along with the “well meaning” advice. She maintains that many people, even those who are trying hard to be helpful, feel the urge to “help” a person along in their grief. They think that if they help a grieving person move more quickly through the stages, all the better. As Devine points out, these folks are probably also trying to reduce the discomfort they feel, being around the despair and grief. But at the heart of matter is the fact that friends and supporters lives are not the lives that have been ripped asunder.
I like the points that Devine makes about becoming part of a separate tribe of people who have experience with death, especially in the face of traumatic loss. I recall how very few (if any) of my peers (at 40 years old) were able to relate to me and I could not talk to them without getting looks like I was nuts. No matter how sensitive and caring my peers were, they simply did not have a death reference point at that age (most had parents who were still around.) At that time, thankfully, I was the only male member of the Palo Alto Women’s Auxiliary (another very interesting story) and most of the women I worked with in that organization were 65 and older. So, naturally, they had all lost someone. Those women carried me through a good part of my grief at the sudden and traumatic death of my brother and only sibling. They knew what to say, what not to say, and how to provide just the right amount of comfort. I eventually realized that it was because I was part of the same tribe as them. The same club of people who had lost someone close. The ‘death club’, we called it.
Devine introduces a new approach to grief. This is necessary and dearly needed because our society has a strong tendency to treat grief as a disease or a project to be worked on and resolved. Devine maintains that this is the wrong way to look at this critical aspect of love infused human existence. She explains that this notion that grief must be “solved” is what drives much of the insulting and dispiriting behavior and comments that those in the despair of loss experience. She says that because our society thinks of grief as something to be solved, people who really want to help, and think they are being supportive and sensitive, will make comments in an attempt to urge the grieving person toward “resolution.”
The problem is that, as Devine says, grief is not something to be solved. It is there and the grieving person is experiencing it and there is a type of grief work, but it is meant to help the grieving person become more comfortable and less tortured by their loss over time. It is a rebuilding of a person’s world and reality, which has been shattered by loss. It takes time to rebuild our instantiation of our reality. Devine’s belief is that, since the loss does not go away, the grief does not go away. I have found this to be the case, in my experience with the loss of my brother. The feeling of loss became softer and more cottony over time; a change from the jagged edged hole in my heart that it started as. But the grief is still there. I am just able to carry it with less disruption to my life than there was right after my brother died.
Meghan Devine has devoted her life, after the loss of her partner, to fixing the broken views of grief and loss that pervade our culture. If you have lost someone or know someone who has, get her book and read it. You will be better prepared to live with your grief and to help people who have experienced a traumatic loss. Devine also operates the Refuge in Grief organization, “an online community and resource that helps people survive some of the hardest experiences of their lives.” With these and other activities, Meghan Devine is driving much needed change in how we as a society address grief and come to the aid of those who have experienced loss.