Dr.: We all had to stop pretending we were fine [first].
Capt.: We are not, are we?
Dr.: How could we be? But we’ll get there.
—from Star Trek Discovery (11/2020)
Grief. Sigh. Sometimes I think the only things that have connected us in the past four years – but especially this year – have been anger and grief. Anger at the opioid poisoning deaths of especially young people; anger at the fires raging due in part to climate change and also due to human policies; anger at police; anger at immigrants; anger at the “Other Party” and so on. And grief at the incredible fear and divisiveness that most of us here in the US just aren’t used to, frankly. It’s been a real challenge to navigate these “Waters from Hell” for many of us, especially those of us who are deeply sensitive to such strong emotions eliciting behavior(s) that scares us. However, have the experiences of this year (and perhaps more) pushed us closer too? Possibly. Many of us have found new ways of connecting to each other (hello FaceTime and Zoom!) which has been crucial in our personal grief processes and allowed us to begin to heal in some slow small ways. That healing will not be pretty, but it will be.
“Without the valleys, there can be no mountains.”
— Uncle Pete c. 1990
Sigmund Freud first talked about grief as “mourning [that] comes to a decisive end when the subject severs its emotional attachment to the lost one and reinvests the free libido in a new object.”1 However, after the loss of his beloved daughter, Sophie, to the Spanish Flu, he changed his views which can be heard in this excerpt from a letter to Ludwig Binswanger, one of her best friends and colleagues:
“We know that the acute pain we feel after a loss will continue; it will also remain inconsolable and we will never find a replacement. No matter what happens, no matter what we do, the pain is always there. And that’s the way it should be. It’s the only way to perpetuate a love we don’t want to give up.”2 (emphasis mine)
I admit that I never thought of prolonged grief in quite that way. Well, not until recently. I have a client who went through the breakup of an important relationship in his life and has been struggling with his pain. One of the things we recently discussed was this idea that to NOT be grieving – strongly, painfully – would have to mean the relationship wasn’t particularly important. And that was certainly not the case for him. Which led our conversation to ask a couple of existential-type questions: “What life can come from death? What good can come from the painful?” I think we’re collectively – as well as individually – forced to consider these questions now.
So what is grief and are there really five stages to getting though it? First of all, grief comes in different forms and in different ways for each person. The celebrated psychiatrist, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, whose work with terminally ill patients led her to conceive her now-famous five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance)3 never meant for these stages to be boxes and certainly not for all people – or even any single person. Her point was that most of us go through some process (the five stages) that may include all of these stages or only one. Bottom line: grief is a process. Borrowing from an article by David B. Feldman, PhD, in Psychology Today,4 I would agree with his suggestion that three general principles hold true about grief. And we can see these in our sometimes inconsolable sadness from the loss of an election to the loss of a job/career to the death of a family member, and more: 1) denial is natural; 2) faith can be lost or shaken; 3) acceptance usually comes – though perhaps more slowly than we’d like or expected. Ironically the loss of an addiction can also bring on grief as it is typically an important relationship in the life of a problematic drug user even if also destructive. Acknowledging both the grief and the meaning of the relationship can be hard for the drug user, as well as other family/friends, to admit.
Another side of grief can be positive, even encouraging. Grief can inspire us to make positive changes in our lives. It can also instill faith, some hope of the promise of change on the horizon. We must believe that things will get better ultimately or there’s little reason to try to change. And therein lies the rub, to misquote Shakespeare!
So where are we today, November 9, 2020? We have awoken to a new President/Vice President-elect (most agree on this but not all). Things may change quite a bit come January 20, 2021 – or not. We’ll have to wait and see. That’s the hard part with change: the waiting. An old friend of my son’s (and me) is a popular actor (Jesse and I met her when they were both young teens in Hollywood). She posted something yesterday on social media about how pleased she was to be able to share with her young daughters that a woman was just elected to one of the highest offices in our country; that they too could become Vice President – or President – or anything else they want to be just for seeing Senator Kamala Harris be part of this new administration. People screamed at our friend; called her names; swore at Senator Harris and called her all kinds of names; unfriended this actor – all for simply posting that she was happy to share this positive and empowering moment with her daughters. This is what grief looks like. It’s not pretty but it’s real. And we need to deal with it.
I worry that the millions of us who voted to keep the current administration in government will be dismissed, called names, pushed aside. I have heard many derogatory names applied to these “others” and while I admit that I too have made some rude remarks, I actually want to be sure that most of these voices are heard and honored. Their pain and grief is real and they need help to heal. This has reminded me of what it feels like to be the “bad kid” who uses drugs – or the “bad parent” whose kid uses drugs. These black and white views aren’t useful and they’re not accurate. We humans are far more complex than that. Just as we as a nation need to begin to heal, we can’t even begin until we acknowledge that we’re grieving. One cannot happen before the other. And the same holds for families and other loved ones when it comes to how you see your loved one who also happens to use drugs for a variety of reasons: you must admit your grief and sadness before you can begin that long trek of healing. Neither will be easy; both are absolutely necessary to our survival as individuals and as families.
One of the main reasons I love harm reduction practices is because in harm reduction we not only acknowledge the relationship we drug users have with substances (and other behaviors) but we get to the heart of them in our work. We don’t shy away from looking directly at the root of these behaviors: the good, the bad, the ugly. Our friends and families must also take a hard look at their relationship to less healthy behaviors they’ve developed as coping mechanisms gone awry. After all, it takes a village to raise us – including our less healthy behaviors!
Grief is also something we don’t discuss or honor well in our greater American culture. Traditional bereavement leave is three days. Three days! My mother died nearly 40 years ago, and I still grieve the loss of her. Mostly I grieve the loss of what could’ve been, the life we might have had together; her growing up with Jesse and watching his spectacular life unfold. Seeing me make huge changes in my life and then helping others as she always insisted was the right thing to do. These thoughts and dreams still make me incredibly sad. They should. As Freud discovered, if they aren’t still painful, even after nearly four decades, then perhaps the relationship just wasn’t that important. I won’t accept that, so I maintain my grief, though the pain of it has lessened over the years as it usually does. So how can we be expected to grieve the loss of a behavior that had great meaning to us in just a few weeks or even months? And what if we’re not allowed to grieve because we are told we and our families/friends can only view our drug use/behavior as negative? And what if we never find an antidote to that pain?
We’re all grieving something right now: economic loss; election results; racial and sexual injustices; stigma and shame; family/friends’ death from COVID, drug use, or something else. It’s something we can either turn away from and deny (the first stage of grief) or we can be brave and turn into the uncomfortableness of it all. I vote for turning in: let’s feel every ounce of grief and sadness, let’s mourn our losses, and continue to work to experience our feelings fully; let’s honor all these relationships with people and places and things that we’ve had, or wished to have. Let’s use this collective grief, whatever the cause, as the connection between us. I believe if we can do the latter, our individual friends and family members – as well as our collective American family – may just be able to begin the incredible journey that will be the start of our grief and healing. We don’t need to do this alone; we are all connected, whether we like it or not. And like the Captain said, “We will be alright.” If we try.
NOTE: Exciting News! Look for my Families Matter/Family Matters FSDP Fundraiser e-Book – coming soon – on our brand new website! Carol, Mary Kay, and the whole Team FSDP and I wish you a happy and healthy holiday season. Thank you for your support this giving season and always! See you back here in the New Year! 2021, here we come!!!
1“Mourning beyond melancholia: Freud’s psychoanalysis of loss,” Clewell, T. (2004) J Am Psychoanal Assoc. Winter 2004;52(1):43-67. doi: 10.1177/00030651040520010601.
2https://exploringyourmind.com/when-sigmund-freud-lost-his-daughter-sophie/. July 8, 2020.
3Kubler-Ross, E. “On Death and Dying.” (1969)
4“Why the Five Stages of Grief Are Wrong.” Feldman, D. July 7, 2017. Psychology Today. Accessed on 11.9.2020. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/supersurvivors/201707/why-the-five-stages-grief-are-wrong
5This quote has been attributed to the Dalai Lama, Haruki Murakami, and M. Kathleen Casey.