We were reminded of how powerful—and strangely beautiful—the act of grieving can be when we saw artist Taryn Simon’s piece, “An Occupation of Loss,” which was performed by professional mourners from around the world. Of course, no such role exists in our culture, and grief remains one of the darkest, most difficult emotions to take in. Brilliant, LA-based depth psychologist and therapist, Dr. Carder Stout, says that nothing had prepared him to process the overwhelming grief he felt when he lost his mother. Stout’s understanding of grieving radically shifted as a result: Rather than reducing grief to solely a response to tragedy, he now sees it as a lifelong process. He also shows that grief interpreted as a natural state of being can bring both joy and meaning to our lives. In his intimate, thoughtful essay below, Stout suggests powerful ways to honor our greatest losses—as well as the small things we leave behind everyday.
My mother died nine years ago. She fell down a narrow flight of stairs in our New England farmhouse. Her body had grown weak from thirty years of distilled vodka. She drank it for breakfast and pretended that it was water. We were powerless to stop it.
I remember her differently: She was beautiful. So full of light and empathy that my friends would visit her instead of me. They would come in droves to sit with her, and tell the jagged stories of their teenage rebellion. Her bright colors stained everything she touched like a warm tapestry around the shoulders of anyone in need. She had nicknames for everyone and would sing funny songs in her deep voice instead of speaking. Her name was Muffy. I used to call her when I was feeling blue, and she would take my sadness from me. Perhaps she took too much of it.
I heard the news of her tragic death while I was driving to work. I pulled off the freeway and nearly crashed into an oncoming bus. I drove for an hour with tears streaming down my face. My body hurt and I was having trouble breathing. How could I live without her? No one had prepared me for a moment like this, told me how to feel or behave. I felt utterly alone. My hair turned grey and I lost several pounds in the first week after she died. I missed her so terribly that I could think of nothing else. Could I have done more to save her? Was she really gone? I felt angry at the world. I was inconsolable. I was broken. I was lost.
In 1969, psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross wrote extensively about the stages of grief in her seminal book, On Death and Dying. Her theories have been widely adopted by professionals in the healing community ever since. She surmised that when people experience the loss of a loved one they move through five distinct phases of emotion: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It was her belief that these feelings could happen at any time and in no particular order. So, in a sixty-second period, a grief-stricken person could experience all five stages. This could continue over a matter of days, months, or even years.
In my case, her framework of stages seemed to be true. I was overtaken by the notion that I could have been more proactive, done more to help my mother. This was the bargaining phase. It is marked by ruminating thoughts of self-blame and judgment that focus on creating endless scenarios with more positive outcomes. If only I had made that phone call or forced her to go to treatment—maybe things would have turned out differently. I had written her a letter just days before her death; a part of me still wondered if she would write back. I was in denial. I pointed my finger at the enabling, selfish behavior of my stepfather: anger. Ultimately I was depleted, sad, and without hope—I had fallen into a depression.
The emotional weight of grief is a heavy burden to carry. It impedes our ability to move forward like a giant boulder in the road. There is no way through this mass of sadness except to feel its presence, and let time take it from us. In the United States, though, most of us have no idea how to behave in the first year of grieving. We do not have the benefit of a collective healing experience; instead, we have adopted the phrase, everyone grieves differently, as a slogan that allows people the freedom to respond to their feelings on an individual basis. With very few grieving rituals in the U.S., people must rely on their own intuition for guidance, and that lonely and confusing time is usually not aided by a shared understanding of how to respond to grief the way it is in other cultures. The people around us walk on eggshells and are afraid to intervene. We try not to appear too disheveled, for this would be a sign of weakness. We are told to be strong, and we walk through fire, but yearn for a marker in the distance. We search for some sort of bearing, scanning the horizon in vain.
The absence of grieving rituals is not singular to modern-day America. It is a global phenomenon, but there are still places that draw on a rich cultural history to follow a well-defined grieving process. In South African townships, for instance, the family does not leave the house or socialize for a period of several months after someone dies. During this period, there is no sexual activity permitted, no loud talking or laughing, and the family wears black clothes. In Sicily, a widow is expected to wear black for a year after her husband dies and to limit interaction outside her family. In certain Balinesian tribes, it is not acceptable for a woman to show any sign of sadness, whereas in Egypt, it is expected for a woman to weep uncontrollably. In certain Muslim traditions, a man is expected to grieve for forty days at the loss of his wife, while a widow is expected to mourn for four months and ten days at the loss of her husband. In many Latin cultures, men are expected to keep a stoic front to be strong for the family.
Still, despite differences across cultures, we universally accept the idea that severe loss, like the death of a close friend or family member, requires some kind of grief response. But what about the small losses that we experience on a regular basis? Perhaps we should begin to look at grief through a more translucent lens—not only as a response to tragedy, but an archetypal experience we all share regularly. What if grief was a natural state of being? This shift would radically alter our perception and prepare us more aptly to grieve all of life’s inevitable losses.
The truth is that life is a grieving process. We lose things that we cherish almost every day. As children we are faced with the emergence of new ideas. We outgrow the teddy bear we loved so much and place it high on a shelf; we miss how it feels in our arms. We say goodbye to the old house and move into a new one. The backyard looks different and we long for the old tire swing. We untangle the myth of the tooth fairy and catch our mother depositing a dollar under the pillow; we figure out that Santa Claus couldn’t possibly come down the chimney. We are shattered by the idea that our parents lied to us for so long, and we lose a bit of our innocence. Summer days of running down the slip ‘n slide are replaced by the beginning of the school year; we daydream about the next vacation and mourn the loss of our freedom. We have a crush on a girl in our class who fails to give us a Valentine’s Day card: devastating. Later, the moment arrives that we have all thinking about for so many years: Our virginity is taken and we cannot ever get it back. We feel older, but realize that a piece of us—our innocence—is missing.
As we grow into adulthood, we search for the perfect mate. We experience heartbreak. We get hired and let go. We finally get hitched and have a glorious wedding day but soon remember the fun we had when we were single. We try to slim down, and give up gluten for Lent. We dream about bagels. We give up weed and promiscuity and lying. We embrace parenthood and stash away the thought of a leisurely afternoon nap—but, man are we tired.
Yes, life is full of change and when we move forward, we have to leave things behind. But there is beauty in all this movement. So let’s celebrate.
Kübler-Ross gave us a wonderful template to follow but she failed to recognize that there is a sweetness stowed inside the heavy walls of grief. Grief allows us to memorialize the moments that profoundly changed us—it works through the richness of experience. Grief has the ability to conjure great swells of triumph, exaltation, and glee. It allows us to consider the vastness of the events that shape our existence, and pay homage to the wonderful people who guided us through our own darkness. Grief connects us to humility and demonstrates that nothing in life is permanent. It forces us to reevaluate the outdated perspectives that hamper our emergence into new and uncharted territory. Grief fosters self-reflection and often leads to a change of heart. We miss the things we have lost, but excitement grows as we evolve into a better version of ourselves. The people that are gone create an imprint that unmistakably alters the course of our lives. All of the small losses we encounter help us to gain momentum in our search for meaning. There is joy in grief, the kind of joy that helps us to remember who we are by incorporating the wisdom of generations that came before. It is our responsibility to ritualize our past (and the people who filled it) with our own ceremonies and self-created liturgy.
I encourage you to hold on to the defining moments in your life. Don’t forget that the past has shaped who you are. Immortalize blips in time by constantly observing their significance. Write a story about them in your journal. Read it aloud and let your imagination take you back. Create an altar in your home. Adorn it with the relics of your past and present. Crowd it with the things that matter: tattered photographs of your ancestors, a blue ribbon from the third-grade science fair, a bedazzled hairclip, a promise ring from your first boyfriend, your grandfather’s watch chain, a few candles, the hospital band from the delivery room, two ticket stubs from a Kiss concert. Pile it high with the glue that that has kept you patched together for so many years. Spend time at this altar each day in your own ceremonial way. Close your eyes and remember all of those glorious moments and days. Whisper to the people who had a hand in them. Connect to the energy of everything that has come before. You may feel lost in moments of deep sadness, but search for the overarching joy that binds your life together. I promise it is there.
When my mother died, I tumbled deep inside a wave of heavy grief. I wanted to be left alone in the midst of unimaginable heartache, but my siblings immediately arrived at my doorstep and surrounded me with love. We laughed and cried long into the night as we unraveled the stories of our childhood and spoke of her lopsided elegance (she would search the house for her sunglasses while she had two pairs perched on the top of her head). We sat and talked and held each other as the sun came up over the Santa Monica Mountains and we decided to go skinny dipping in the Pacific Ocean at dawn. Over the next month, it was my family and close circle of friends that eased my suffering. Feeling connected to them diffused the pain of my loss. We met in the afternoons and spoke of my mother; we immortalized her with our words.
If you are experiencing the loss of a loved one, I encourage you to reach out to your natural support system, your immediate family and close friends. Your inclination may be to isolate, but this delays your ability to begin the healing process. Take it slow, allowing yourself time to adjust to a world that is now significantly different. When your feelings arise (even the painful ones), do not push them away. Sit with them and invite them to the surface. If you try to repress your feelings, you ultimately create more negativity and fear. By letting them out, you clear a path towards regeneration and wholeness. And when you are together with your beloved(s), speak of the person you have lost. Conjure them into the world with the wonderful tales of their being. Talk about how much they touched you with their kindness; extend their legacy. You can find joy in celebrating them.
Every night before turning out the lights, I tell my two-year-old daughter, “Sleep like a log and snore like a frog.” I then ask, “Who used to say that to Daddy when he was a boy?”
“Grandma Muffy.” She smiles.
And in that instant my mother is holding her—her silly words passed on through me. She is there in the room with us like snow falling on our shoulders. And my heart is full of happiness.
Carder Stout, Ph.D. is a Los Angeles-based therapist with a private practice in Brentwood, where he treats clients for anxiety, depression, addiction, and trauma. As a specialist in relationships, he is adept at helping clients become more truthful with themselves and their partners.