Good Grief

Ways to help those around you who are suffering

Apollo and Artemis Attacking the Children of Niobe by Jacques-Louis David, 1772 (public domain - Wikipedia)

"Grief, loss, regret are not the end of the story. They are the middle of the story. Memory does not look backward, it looks forward." — Anne Michaels, 2020

I had some bad news over the weekend.

A friend of 25 years shared an update regarding an illness she's been battling—news that was startling and unsettling to read. In particular, I was struck by her ability to tackle the subject in a matter-of-fact way, without a plea for pity or intercession, nor with an attempt to side-step reality.

In a few short sentences, she was able to state the facts, anticipate our emotions, and share her grace and peace about the situation. It was truly one of the most remarkable notes about a pending end-of-life issue I've ever read.

It was shocking and difficult to absorb the message, but as I've reread it dozens of times, I find myself reassured and in some ways content with the gift she gave to her friends and family with  it. She left us reassured that she has led a full and happy life, that she is at peace with the prognosis.

It reminded me of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's famous model for the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Clearly my friend is at the acceptance stage, which is strangely comforting at the same time it's sad.

If you are getting a sense of dichotomy in my descriptions above, it's no mistake. I'm conflicted about how I should feel; perhaps it's simply a matter of grief consisting of competing factors. Grief hits us at times when we're forced to square our hopes with reality. When we need to move forward despite feeling like we have a weight placed on our chest.

It's as if we're caught between two worlds, forever connected with a warm hug of the past that we knew at the same time we're thrust into the harsh and cold atmosphere of future.

One of the most poignant examples of a historic or literary figure suffering grief is in The Iliad. In Book 18, when Achilles is told of the death of his mentor Patroclus, he screams so loudly that his mother hears him across the sea, he tears at his hair, ultimately falls into a deep depression and loses the will to live. He tries to trade his life for Patroclus', bargaining to bring his friend back, before finally accepting the reality.

It's a cycle of the human display of grief that goes back nearly 3,000 years.

In a more modern era, when faced with digital reminders of friends and family members who have died, I can't even seem to get myself to plant my feet firmly in the present. It's with the greatest reluctance that I unfollow someone's Twitter handle, or delete them from my friend list on Facebook. Their accounts are frozen in time, sometimes reminding me of the lively conversations or memories we shared together, and at other times acting like a growing scrapheap of digital rubble from forgotten temples to friendship.

"We have created a technology that leaves no place for the dead. It is a realm of perpetual present, a realm of simulation, where the past is as fluid as the future." — Anne Michaels, 2020

I look at my contact list in my phone, wondering when it's okay to remove a grandparent—that address I visited so many times in my childhood, that phone number I once knew by heart, that postal code that heralded the arrival of a birthday card with a few dollars in it—does the act of clearing them from a digital address book mean I've relegated their memory to the trash bin of my heart?

My head tells me no, but it's difficult to consider such an act of digital finality as anything but that. It's not like the extra bits and bites of one entry are taking up vital space on the phone or in the cloud. We have traditions to honor our dead, from funeral masses to memorial services, burial in family crypts to the spreading of ashes in meaningful locations. But what's our process for grieving digitally? Do we even need one?

Pandemic Grief

In the spring of 2020, we were all forced into a situation in which we had to mourn for the loss of the normal: we abandoned our offices, we stopped commuting, family events had to be postponed or canceled, and even funerals were put on hold or limited to parties of no more than ten.

In the essay "Mortal Soul, Moral Soul," Anne Michaels wondered about this collective grief that we're now facing:

"What does it mean when one's most private, most profound experience, the cataclysm that shapes one's life, is also the most intimate experience of thousands of others? What place can be found for our private grief when set against the losses of entire nations?"

There are those who have suffered the loss of friends and family members to this pandemic. In one degree or another, we've all lost something. As a parent, it's been difficult to watch our children deal with the new reality, being separated from classmates while doing virtual learning, hiding their disappointment of not having a graduation ceremony, and missing out on typical rites of passage of young teens. These are small losses next to the families and friends of the 185,000 or so Americans who were taken too early, including some children.

As a parent, I can't think of anything more devastating than the loss of your own child. We're supposed to grow old, making memories and leading fulfilling lives along the way. When a young and promising life is cut short, upsets the natural order of things.

When we're left behind as a parent, spouse, friend, or even fellow employee who avoided the furloughs and layoffs, it's not uncommon to experience a unique form of grief called survivor guilt, known to affect certain survivors of combat, epidemics, murder, natural disasters, rape, terrorism, and among the friends and family of those who have died by suicide.

The pandemic has unleashed not only a virus among your workforce, but aspects of grief as well Whether through depression, loneliness, anxiety, stress, or survivor guilt, it's more likely than not that members of your team may be dealing with grief.

What To Do for a Grieving Colleague

There is no question that grief is real, and has physical as well as mental impacts. You may be able to pick up on this from your team. Indeed, if you're doing regular video calls, you should be attuned to their demeanor, picking up on the nonverbal cues as best you can.

You don't need to be their therapist, but you do need to be there for them: Simply asking them, "Hey, how are you holding up?" is enough to let them know that you're sensitive to the current situation. Acknowledge it and allow them to have their feelings.

We've all got different scenarios and we each need to deal with our unique grief in our own way; not everyone processes things at the same pace or in the same manner. Iris Murdoch reminds us:  "Bereavement is a darkness impenetrable to the imagination of the unbereaved."

If you feel like this is beyond your ability to handle, let them know what resources are available to them, or offer to help them track down what they need.

If we come together in times of grief, we'll find that it unites us and brings us closer. Having a shared experience—particularly one that is typically private—might seem awkward at first, but it's a gift. A wonderful unifier.

Sharing grief and showing support for each other when we're down builds trust. It takes vulnerability on the part of those who are suffering, and empathy on the part of those who want to help. Think of those who reached out to you when you were at a low point, and how that made you feel.

And here we are at that dichotomy again: what was once intimate is now a shared experience, and what was pain and grief becomes joy and trust. What you might call “good” grief. And that’s not the end, either.

We’re still in the middle of the story.

Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet

About This Week's Image

Apollo and Artemis Attacking the Children of Niobe depicts a scene out of The Iliad and ancient Greek mythology. Niobe was the daughter of Tantalus and the queen of Thebes. She had 12 or 14 children (depending on which story you read) and she showed her hubris by chiding Leto for only having two children. Well, when you're a daughter of Titans and your two children are the gods Apollo and Artemis, you don't take well to being put down.

Leto sent her children to teach Niobe a lesson: Apollo killed all of her sons and Artemis killed all of her daughters. Niobe wouldn't eat for nine days, and her children went unburied during that time. Finally, the gods buried them on the tenth day, and Niobe was turned into stone, perpetually weeping. She is supposedly represented by the nearby Weeping Rock on Mt. Sipylus in Turkey, which looks like the face of a woman and features a natural spring.

Did this resonate with you? If so, please consider sharing it. Also, please consider supporting the newsletter with a subscription to the paid version, where you get three links of current stories, three timeless articles, a book and podcast recommendation, and more great quotes — all tied to the theme of the week.

This week’s companion piece is Paradise Lost: an essay about the grief associated with lost honor; you can also read about the results from a study on the future of the office, who the unexpected hero of our time is, and Joan Didion’s most popular book.

If you’re struggling right now for any reason and you’re still interested, just email me (scott [AT] and I’ll take care of you with a free subscription. And if you’d like to underwrite this effort, consider giving a gift subscription.

Give a gift subscription