Sometimes, We Grieve By Not Grieving

Sometimes, We Grieve By Not Grieving

We feel guilty about not being melancholy, about seemingly not grieving. And this terrifies us. "The mourner who asks, Why am I so preoccupied with the normal? is asking, really, Is this normal now?"

Ryan Fan
Ryan Fan
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This week, I'm writing another meditation, this time on Emmett Rensin's "The Alien and Mundane," published in The Believer on June 7, 2017. An in-depth look into the "alien" and "mundane" ways we grieve, it starts off, like most of his articles, in a very riveting way: Rensin had a friend at the University of Chicago whose mother died when she was little, and although she finished mourning long ago, "she had not yet overcome the need to mourn. I never saw her more disturbed than on the day she realized...it was the anniversary of her mother's death. She had nearly forgotten." She wasn't crying for her mother, but rather Rensin "saw her cry for her guilt."

He labels these types of mourning "guilty mourners." On forums all over the internet and self-help books all over Barnes & Noble bookshelves, people all over the world grieve not for the lost or the tragedy, but for their guilt. They are "worried that they are heartless freaks. They worry because they believe they are getting over total disaster with too much ease. The world has changed forever, they insist, but they keep forgetting. One woman on a message board wrote about her first response to the Twin Towers burning on September 11, 2001, as the towers were still burning on TV: "Oh, this is really going to fuck up my date tonight."

Everyone, in these forums, asks the same question: "Is there something wrong with me?"


Sigmund Freud in "Mourning and Melancholia," examines the question of grief. For him, this condition of banality and mundane is the "redirection of the conscious mind"and "a work of mourning." This is described as "healthy mourning," where we "divest the dead of their importance." "The fact is...when the work of mourning is completed, the ego becomes free and uninhibited again." We start to worry about food, work, and other everyday concerns. Freud explains that the only alternative to feeling this way is melancholia, and melancholy is "the failure to mourn" which sometimes results in suicide.

However, if we applied rules of Freud's work universally to the human condition, we would clearly be in a lot of trouble. But we can learn from his differentiation between healthy mourning and melancholy. "The guilty mourner is troubled, more troubled than they are by death itself, because there is something narratively backward in their healing." Simply put, it's not what we expect from mourning - to be mourning our own guilt instead of what actually happened. The Freud narrative is the alternative, that "the return of the mundane is not the failure of action, but the action itself."

Rensin returns with another example, this one one of the extreme. He uses a case from when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a "catastrophe for which there was no language....not a violence anybody knew to be possible." Even in this, as shown in John Hersey's "Hiroshima," we see the mundane form of grieving in one character, Dr. Fujii. Dr. Fujii was in an extraordinary amount of pain from his burns, but his first remark to another person was that "he looked like a beggar, dressed as he was in nothing but torn and bloody underwear."

Another character featured in "Hiroshima," Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, walked across a ruined street in the middle of the burning city. He saw that houses were destoyed, people were screaming for help under many of the ones that were burning. But he ran past them to find his wife - and the only thing he says upon seeing her is "Oh, you are safe." Reverend Tanimoto and his wife go their separate ways, and Tanimoto realizes that he pays more attention to the mundane of his family than to the devastation of the city. "After all of this, it is odd to remember that he has an ordinary life. But he does."

Rensin then references the story of Jo Ann Beard, a colleague of five people who had died in the 1991 University of Iowa Shootings. She goes into work on Friday and has to leave work early - she needs to take care of her dog, who is old and sick. After she leaves, a graduate student then kills five of her colleagues and then kills himself.

Beard knows that "the word changes," but nevertheless, the shooting is only "a brief intrusion. It is a brief atrocity, dispassionately related in a single section, up-ending the whole essay." After the brief moment of terrifying grief, life goes to a new type of normal - she returns back to the couch she's sleeping in, still taking care of her dog, "just as they were before."

"We don't struggle over the pit of melancholia, tempted by our grief. Ordinary life can't help digesting tragedy. The mundane sees the alien and consumes it, just swallows it up." Rensin goes on to note that the mundane conquering the melancholy of the alien is not a distraction, but a sign of something more.


The mundane is not the absence of grief, but the processing of it before we are ready to actually be melancholy. "These banalities are at odds with whatever catastrophe is at hand, and the fixation on them functions as a distraction, or as a necessary element of mourning, or as a sin, until the catastrophe can be processed and absorbed into a reunified experience of life." In both stories of Hersey and Beard, life goes on, regardless of whatever catastrophes happen, but there are two different ways that life goes on. For Hersey, "life goes on, but there is no 'return' from something like the atomic bomb." For Beard, "one returns to the mundane because there is nowhere else to return."

We feel guilty about not being melancholy, about seemingly not grieving. And this terrifies us. "The mourner who asks, Why am I so preoccupied with the normal? is asking, really, Is this normal now?" This guilt is not a trap to not grieve, but rather a warning. Tragedy is around us everywhere. How much time would we truly have if we were to mourn every single injustice and devastation in the world, from school shootings seemingly every other week to tsunamis and earthquakes that kill thousands? The mundane, for better or worse, teaches us to survive. "Has the world changed so much and so suddenly that I can no longer even feel the difference? the guilty ask. The answer is yes, and it is happening, has happened, all the time."

I distinctly remember last December when I came home for winter break. My mom picked me up from LaGuardia airport, and immediately I noticed there was something different - her voice was more hoarse, there were new scars around her neck. "I have thyroid cancer, and just had surgery," she said.

"Oh," was all I responded.

We moved on, and I talked about what it was like at school, and how things were at home, from topics as mundane as the latest issue with our car to whether I was eating well at school. I know now that that was how I grieved upon finding out the news. The mundane is a survival mechanism - not a lack of empathy.

"Things are fine," she said. "Just worry about school and make sure you're eating right."

"Oh. Okay," I said.

I woke up at 3 a.m. the other night, shaking, uncertain what about but just with the sense that something was dreadfully wrong, that the new normal maybe shouldn't be the new normal. For me, the mundane is the precursor to the melancholy - and sometimes, we grieve by not grieving. We feel guilty about our lack of mourning. We put off the melancholy for a later time because sometimes we're not ready yet.

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Austin Alexander Burridge, Volunteer Advocate, Shares 3 Great Reasons to Volunteer and Help Others

Austin Alexander Burridge is an avid academic who studies Environmental Science at Winona State University and believes that work in the service of others is a key pillar to personal development.

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Sometimes it's easy for someone to adopt a "me, me, me" attitude. While focusing on oneself, a person may feel nice in the moment, but serving and helping others will bring lasting benefits. While there are many great reasons to serve and help others, there are three universal truths that resonate with volunteers around the globe.

Austin Alexander Burridge's 3 Reasons to Volunteer:

1. Accomplishment

Often, people fall into a trap of focusing on themselves when they are feeling down. Maybe someone did not get a job they wanted. Or perhaps a person gets dumped by an expected lifelong companion. Maybe someone feels they have underachieved after looking at Facebook and seeing great things a high school classmate has accomplished. When feeling down, helping others is a proven way to improve one's mood and attitude, and it can provide a sense of pride and accomplishment. The act of giving to those in need is an inherently good action and leaves people with a wonderful feeling of joy.

2. Gratitude

One can become more appreciative of life by serving others that have less. Whether volunteering at a soup kitchen, visiting the elderly at an assisted living center, or helping families after a natural disaster, service enables people to be grateful for what they have. Seeing people who have fewer advantages, especially those who are spirited and thankful for small things, allows one to realize just how fortunate he/she is in life.

3. Friendships

Volunteering is a great way to build meaningful friendships, not only with other volunteers but also with those who are served. One of the most profound and fascinating aspects of these relationships is how volunteers will learn from those served and vice versa. As these special bonds are built, they lead to impactful connections that last for years to come.

Of course, these are just a few reasons to volunteer and serve others. One can never go wrong by helping others as opposed to merely focusing on oneself. Volunteering invariably and inevitably contributes to personal growth, development, and satisfaction.

About Austin Alexander Burridge: Helping others has been of paramount importance to Austin, and as a part of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), Austin gave back to the community around him. He also has participated in annual peanut butter drives, The Minnesota Sandwich Project for the Homeless and collected canned goods for local food shelters. Additionally, Austin has a passion for the environment, which he pursued when visiting the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, and the Amazon Rain Forest while studying at the School of Environment Studies, which investigates ecological systems and their sustainability

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Saying You "Don't Take Political Stances" IS A Political Stance

All you're doing by saying this is revealing your privilege to not care politically, and here's why that's a problem.

bethkrat
bethkrat
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I'm sure all of us know at least one person who refuses to engage in political discussions - sure, you can make the argument that there is a time and a place to bring up the political happenings of our world today, but you can't possibly ignore it all the time. You bring up the last ridiculous tweet our president sent or you try to discuss your feelings on the new reproductive regulation bills that are rising throughout the states, and they find any excuse to dip out as quickly as possible. They say I don't talk about politics, or I'm apolitical. Well everyone, I'm here to tell you why that's complete bullsh*t.

Many people don't have the luxury and privilege of ignoring the political climate and sitting complacent while terrible things happen in our country. So many issues remain a constant battle for so many, be it the systematic racism that persists in nearly every aspect of our society, the fact that Flint still doesn't have clean water, the thousands of children that have been killed due to gun violence, those drowning in debt from unreasonable medical bills, kids fighting for their rights as citizens while their families are deported and separated from them... you get the point. So many people have to fight every single day because they don't have any other choice. If you have the ability to say that you just don't want to have anything to do with politics, it's because you aren't affected by any failing systems. You have a privilege and it is important to recognize it.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people."

We recognize that bad people exist in this world, and we recognize that they bring forth the systems that fail so many people every single day, but what is even more important to recognize are the silent majority - the people who, by engaging in neutrality, enable and purvey the side of the oppressors by doing nothing for their brothers and sisters on the front lines.

Maybe we think being neutral and not causing conflict is supposed to be about peacekeeping and in some way benefits the political discussion if we don't try to argue. But if we don't call out those who purvey failing systems, even if it's our best friend who says something homophobic, even if it's our representatives who support bills like the abortion ban in Alabama, even if it's our president who denies the fact that climate change is killing our planet faster than we can hope to reverse it, do we not, in essence, by all accounts of technicality side with those pushing the issues forward? If we let our best friend get away with saying something homophobic, will he ever start to change his ways, or will he ever be forced to realize that what he's said isn't something that we can just brush aside? If we let our representatives get away with ratifying abortion bans, how far will the laws go until women have no safe and reasonable control over their own bodily decisions? If we let our president continue to deny climate change, will we not lose our ability to live on this planet by choosing to do nothing?

We cannot pander to people who think that being neutral in times of injustice is a reasonable stance to take. We cannot have sympathy for people who decide they don't want to care about the political climate we're in today. Your attempts at avoiding conflict only make the conflict worse - your silence in this aspect is deafening. You've given ammunition for the oppressors who take your silence and apathy and continue to carry forth their oppression. If you want to be a good person, you need to suck it up and take a stand, or else nothing is going to change. We need to raise the voices of those who struggle to be heard by giving them the support they need to succeed against the opposition.

With all this in mind, just remember for the next time someone tells you that they're apolitical: you know exactly which side they're on.

bethkrat
bethkrat

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