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December 16, 2012

On Grief and What's Okay

Kate Hart
When I was fifteen, a good friend hung himself.

We gathered in the ICU waiting room, in what we thought were hopes of our friend waking up from a coma. They let us in his room two by two, and we said whatever it is fifteen-year-olds say when they find out they're not immortal. I think I said "We love you," but I'm not sure. I mostly remember wishing I knew what to say.

I do remember that there were kids in the waiting room that I didn't know, and their presence annoyed me. I didn't know their connection to my friend, so their grief seemed inauthentic and unjustified. And I do remember that before we left, we all gathered around his bed to say a group good night. I said something cheesy. A girlfriend made a cringe-worthy joke. Most of us couldn't say anything at all.

I was embarrassed for us all. I had no idea what response was okay. Even the ones that made sense seemed wrong.

Later, I found out the adults had given us that chance to say goodbye knowing life support was futile. One of the adults was Miss Julie-- mom of another friend, and a child therapist. After we left the hospital, she knew we needed to be together, and opened her house to us the way she did any other weekend. We goofed off and roughhoused and made fun of each other and probably made cookie dough just to eat, because that's what we always did. We were loud and obnoxious.

I don't remember this next part. As an adult, I worked with Miss Julie, and a co-worker told me this story, not knowing that I was one of the loud kids. But when her oldest son walked in, he was reportedly horrified, and asked Miss Julie how she could let us act that way, given the circumstances.

She told him there's no right way to grieve. Whatever we were doing was what we needed to be doing.

It almost doesn't matter if that story is true, because I've seen her wisdom proven true many times since. When I thought I was miscarrying my first child, my sister cried, because her reaction to most strong emotions is crying. I was mad at her for crying, because my reaction to most strong emotions is anger. When friends lost their daughter this year, they found comfort in prayer, and the idea that her short life had made others value their own. But when another friend's wife was undergoing cancer treatment, prayers felt insulting to him-- full of pity with undertones of "thank God I'm not you."

My friend died. He got a two-line memorial in the yearbook. My sister's friend died. The school lobby filled with mementos.

Wailing at a funeral is stifled, or comforted. In other cultures, silence indicates a lack of grief.

A hundred years ago, we took pictures of the deceased. Now, we take pictures of the bereaved.

Expressions of grief are not uniform. They're varied and unpredictable. And that's okay.

When tragedies occur, some people look immediately to solutions, and find inaction an insult to the victims. It doesn't mean they have "an agenda." It means they're dealing in the only way they can.

Some people look immediately to prayer, and find skipping that step abhorrent. It doesn't mean they're "too lazy to do anything 'real'." It means they're dealing in the only way they can.

Some people can only deal in small steps, and have to focus on other things in the meantime to stay sane. It doesn't mean they're sticking their heads in the sand. It means they're dealing in the only way they can.

Do what you have to do. Light candles. Write a blog post. Make a donation.

But don't tell me how to grieve. Because there's no right way. And that's okay.


  1. I was 18 the first time I experienced the unexpected death of someone close to me, and I dealt with it by getting in my car and driving for several hours with music blaring until I ended up in another state. People who reacted with prayer pissed me off at the time, but you're right – there's no one way to deal. You just deal however you can.

    Love you.

  2. Oh this post hurts, it's so true. We rarely talk about the minute-by-minute grief that comes after terrible, tragic things. There's no social script. Yet some people have strong opinions about what's not appropriate. It's easy to point fingers or be upset or judge in the wake of something that uproots our sense of stability, and the fact that death is accompanied by so much ceremony really puts that in relief. But discouraging people from experiencing grief in their own way is such a bad idea.

  3. Thank you for this post. Exactly what I needed to read tonight.

    I'd never thought about it like this, but extending understanding to others, no matter their manner of grieving is always a good thing. And not worrying about whether or not we're grieving appropriately is good, too.

  4. Thank you for writing this, a friend recently lost her child in the late stages of pregnancy and she has been struggling with well-meaning people who keep saying things she finds painful to hear. We were discussing the personal nature of grief. When I lost a close friend at 18 I asked my friends to just let me be near them, but not to talk to me and if I started crying to just continue whatever they were doing. My friend who lost her child finds the same thing helpful when she is around other mothers with new babies. It's is such a strange and unique process to grieve.

  5. I'm sorry, Kate. It's true, there is no single form "right" form grief should take. It also has a different form when we're alone than it does when we're with other people. When we're grieving it's impossible to know how we're "supposed" to feel because we just feel overwhelmed. At times like those it can be so much easier to focus on how other people are (or seemingly aren't) doing it "right" than it is for us to acknowledge our own confused feelings. Especially, when we’re the ones being watched by others.

    My heart breaks for the families in Newton. I can only hope, with so many people watching them, they can find the private times they desperately need to grieve their loss in whatever way is right for them.

  6. Thanks for reading, you guys. I've struggled all week with how to respond individually and haven't found a way yet, but I do appreciate you all. <3<3<3

  7. Thank you for this. I'm behind on blog reading and just now seeing this a couple weeks after you wrote it, but I appreciate your words - not only for national/world tragedies, but for close to home personal ones that I'm struggling with - it has felt like just too much lately. Take care.

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