Grieving Ourselves Whole

I WAS RECENTLY IN a corporate office when a thud interrupted the whir of strategic planning.

“What was that?” someone asked.

“A bird hit the window,” said another.

There were a few sounds of sympathy, and one woman said, “I want to go hold it.” Another woman spotted it on the ground one floor below, and, her voice lilting hopefully, said, “Its wing is still moving.”

At this point things seemed to shift. Compassion, nurturance, and mourning were hurled against the staid wall of workplace norms. Who can practically weigh the life of an injured bird against the collective inertia and consensus of repressiveness among coworkers needing to pay rent?

“It’s just a pigeon,” announced the first voice, interjecting a mechanistic perspective. It was well timed. It seemed to quell the uncertainty of emotion and the complexity of empathy, returning an air of rationality to the initial out-pouring that could be described—albeit momentarily—as healthy grieving.

Just like that, nature collided with a culture that provides an illusion of our dominion over it—and lost handily. An event went from potentially being a reunion of compassion to a group exercise in suppressing grief by stuffing loss and challenging questions into a file cabinet drawer.

Library of Congress

This story illustrates the confounding human capacity to override our sorrows and losses. Consumer culture, and the corporations that fuel it, benefit mightily from this capacity. This is because grief is as powerful an aspect of being human as the ability to love, and quelling it separates us from our most resourceful and capable selves, making us easy prey to the manipulation that underlies overconsumption.

The Value of Loss

Grief, notoriously hard to define, is the engagement of loss. It’s a process that looks different for everyone. It’s not completed by checklist or through Kubler-Ross’s five stages. To engage with loss—the death of a loved one, but also the passing of a moment—is to feel one’s connection to life and to define one’s experience of love. Grief drives us to intimate connection, brilliant creativity, and our clearest thinking when we allow it to. It is the foundation of love because it frames relationships for us.

But grief is ostracized in a culture of material accumulation where loss is to be avoided. The systematic disengagement from the biosphere that began with agrarianism and grew exponentially through the production and consumption practices of capitalism has reached epic proportion. And now the natural world, like an ignored partner, is protesting with increased volatility and unpredictability to the extent that we are approaching the brink of extinction. To heal this crisis we must grieve our lost connection: engagement with this loss means examining our consumption habits and rethinking what is acceptable behavior in the workplace and outside of it. To do this meaningfully is to reexamine capitalism—or any other economic system that doesn’t incorporate grief.

Would the workplace be more innovative, healthy, and productive if employees were encouraged to express themselves fully—including their grief—instead of being coerced into narrow roles that center around optimism, competition, and growth? Would schools and neighborhoods be safer, and the politics of hatred vanquished, if grief were a celebrated part of our educational and cultural systems? We tend to view our differences as granting us power, proclaiming ourselves special by virtue of ethnicity, possessions, test performance, or other distinctions that separate us. I wonder how our relationships might shift if we were willing to lose our identities even a little. When we hold on too tightly, we fall prey to the delusions of identity; if we could grieve our lack of dominion, we wouldn’t have to draw such hard lines around everything that defines “us” versus “them.” Grief denied is augmented, perverted, and passed on.

At its core, war is about survival. Armies concurrently ply violence in an attempt to project loss onto each other. To escape death—or the illusion of it, through our threatened faith systems, exploitation of resources, or a territory grab, to name a few methods—we kill instead. If we could fully accept loss—meaning to face and to grieve it—it is hard to imagine we would be so easily driven to the rage and hatred necessary for war. But if left to fester, unattended grief around the perceived loss of what we hold dear can be manipulated by warmongers. Misappropriated grief after 9/11 propelled the “shock and awe” campaign that followed. The subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have, in turn, become recruiting tools for ISIS. Grief denied does not lose its power; it powerfully reemerges in another form. And if war’s victims—and its heroes—don’t grieve, the cycle continues into the next generation.

How to Read the Rest of This Article

The text above was just an excerpt. The web versions of our print articles are now hosted by Duke University Press, Tikkun‘s publisher. Click here to read an HTML version of the article. Click here to read a PDF version of the full article.

(To return to the Spring 2016 Table of Contents, click here.)

WILL HECTOR is a therapist and writer living in Oakland, Calif., with his wife and two four-legged companions. In his therapy practice, he works with couples, individuals, and children, and offers a group for ecological grieving.

Source Citation

Tikkun 2016 Volume 31, Number 2: 44-45

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