Last month the emergency department paged me when a patient coded and died. The social worker and doctor wanted me present when they notified the family. The patient was a 60-something father and grandfather who had been battling cancer, but to all appearances had been “doing fine.” His large, extended family gathered in a private waiting room taking turns talking, pacing and sitting in silence. The doctor came and gave the terrible news and the oldest son quickly gathered his two brothers into a bear hug. They wept in this tight circle for several minutes and I thought — how refreshing to see a family openly grieve together. I thought too soon. The moment the circle broke, the new head of the family squeezed his brothers’ shoulders and declared, “We have to be strong now; we have to be strong for the family. Let’s pull it together.”
When I took the family to say their goodbyes, the youngest son, a gentle-rebel type stamped and studded with tattoos and chains, could barely hold it together. Suppressed sobs and adrenaline shook his body. He was constantly running his hands down his long hair to grip his shoulders. The veins in his neck stood thick and pulsing against his sweaty skin. He held his breath and then blew it out between his teeth. I wondered if this boy, if he was not allowed a way or a place to pour out his grief, would combust before me into a cloud of ash.
Who made this stupid rule that we have to be strong when unspeakable horrors erupt and burn across lives? If I knew, I would hunt him down and then scream and cry and snot all over him to prove that I would not only survive my outpouring, but I may be better off for all my weeping and wailing. In three short months at the hospital, I’ve butted heads with this idea of necessary strength so many time my scalp is now calloused. In all I’ve observed and experienced of grief, being strong doesn’t help anyone, not the strong man, nor those he supports.
Imagine this — as time spreads through the days and weeks of the strong man’s life, the lava of grief burns beneath the surface, causing fissures and underground rivers in his spirit. He runs the risk of a Vesuvian explosion where the cap blows off the strong man’s life and his molten grief pours down on others, burning paths across others’ lives. The explosion of grief may not look like grief at all; it may be masked as anger, violence, illness, depression, despondency and break down. I know these things sound incongruous with grief, but if you don’t believe me, I invite you to shadow me on any given day in the hospital.
So what is the alternative to being strong when we are grieving? It’s simple — to grieve. Imagine what would happen if we would allow ourselves to break the rules of strength and propriety to experience and express our grief? I certainly don’t want someone who is grieving to harm another, but crying, yelling, curling up in the fetal position on a hospital floor…who is that harming?
What would happen if we lean into our pain instead of banishing it altogether? Could that be a clearer path toward consolation? For me, it’s the difference between riding atop the turbulent waves till you reach a smoother horizon and trying to clamp down the ocean, halt the tides and banish the wind.