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Social Dynamics

This essay talks about grieving, mourning, and love.

How do those ideas relate? How have I learned to define those words to be meaningful? What have I learned about doing those properly, deeply and effectively?

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Suffering a Wound

Tears are the silent language of grief.
    - Voltaire

cartoon coyote leaves a hole in a wall

Grieving is about loss and pain. A person is gone and there is a hole in the world. There is also a hole in our psyche. These can feel similar to how the cartoon Coyote leaves a hole shaped like his outline when he goes through a wall.

Our habits and desires prompt us to continue to relate to the missing person, but we cannot connect. Again and again we would have talked with them, shared with them, seen them in a certain place, and felt their voice or touch—but instead of them we only see an empty space.

It usually feels like the person was ripped from our lives suddenly and violently, even if his or her health was poor and death unsurprising. There is pain from the wounding, as well as the wound.

Animals can grieve. When two dogs are best friends for many years, when one dies the other grieves. My friend is gone! The place next to me, where they should be, is empty!

Funerals help us recognize that many people share in the loss. So many lives have been disrupted. So many other people are grieving. An community can grieve with shared loss and pain.

Exploring the Wound

Then he told Thomas, "Reach out your finger here, and look at my hands. Take your hand, and thrust it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."
    - John 20:27

Grieving is also about healing as best we can, during and despite the continued loss and pain.

Part of healing is metaphorically exploring the boundary of the hole in our psyche. This work is more difficult and painful than when doubting Thomas reached out his finger. The hole is inside us. The hole is not physical. Often God seems unusually distant instead of especially close.

That is another place I would have seen them and smiled at them, but now cannot.

That is another time I would have talked with them, or called them on the phone, but now cannot.

That is another activity I would have done with them, but now do it by myself.

That is another situation in which I would have relied on them and drawn strength from them, but now cannot.

That is another decision I would have made with them, or trip I would have taken with them, but now I plan and travel alone.

Because this work is difficult and painful, everyone who grieves will sometimes avoid it. We instead distract ourselves with work or recreation or drink. Many cultures have traditions and rituals designed to minimize this avoidance, especially when grieving for an immediate family member. Usually this period of focused and intense grieving lasts a few days, perhaps a week.

We stay home. We do not work. Friends and extended family visit once or twice a day to bring us food and clean up the kitchen. Friends and extended family take care of young children. We are allowed time to feel, time to imagine how shattered pieces could be put together, even if imperfectly. We talk when we feel the need, but are not even expected to speak with the visitors helping with meals. It is appropriate to dwell on sentimental things such as family photos and journals and cookbooks—but if we turn these into a project to distract and numb our thoughts then our visitors will notice and guide us back to the work of grieving. If we dive too deeply into a book or a game then again our visitors will notice and guide us back to the work of grieving.

Filling the Wound

Fear is the path to the dark side…fear leads to anger…
    - Yoda

The initial period of focused and intense grieving fades and in some ways life resumes. The person who grieves returns to work, socializing, and the business of living. It once again is appropriate to acknowledge visitors, and to express thanks and gratitude when people help.

Our psyche does not like having a hole. It wants something to fill and patch the hole. It is completely natural and expected for the hole to initially fill with anger.

Anger is a natural reaction to fear. Fear is a natural reaction to loss and hurt. So after suffering a loss and hurt it is normal to feel anger. (The fear is often a middle step rushed through too quickly to initially be noticed.)

A person who grieves is often angry at life, angry at God, angry at the missing person for leaving them, and angry at themselves for not doing something. Because much of the anger is an unconscious attempt to patch the hole, it may be noticeably irrational and therefore confusing. I should feel sad about the person's departure, not angry! I did everything that I could for them while they lived, so why am I blaming myself for not having done more?

The anger is not a long-term solution. Transitioning out of the initial period of focused and intense grieving involves shifting the work of grieving from exploring the extent of the hole to find better ways to fill the hole.

I have established places where I see people and smile at them in a way that reminds me of how my loved one did smile.

I have built new habits and rituals with family and friends about times to call each other and things to talk about.

I have learned new ways to put depth and meaning into the activities we used to do together but now I do by myself.

I have found ways to be inspired by the memory of my loved one, some of which allow me to provide strength to people who need it; I have found other sources of strength for situations when I need that.

I have learned to make decisions that honor my loved one, and learned ways to bring his or her memory into the present as I travel.

The feeling of grief might never end. The loss is permanent. We will always miss the people who are gone. We can replace the ways we connected with the person, but we do not replace the missing person. We can find new ways to infuse life with peace and joy, while retaining sentimental fondness for the old ways that death has taken away.

But the process of grieving should end. The hole gets patched in healthy ways. The person who grieves resumes participation in life's normal waves of joy and sadness.

Many cultures have recommended time limits for this second stage of the work of grieving: perhaps several months, often one year. During this time the transition from anger and confusion into health and peace is expected and accepted. A person who is grieving is exempted from attending weddings and other community celebrations. They might be excused from saying prayers that praise God, or encouraged to say those prayers even though they cannot say them wholeheartedly. They might be excused from communal meditation or brainstorming sessions.

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Love Problems

Where there is love, there is pain.
    - Spanish proverb

Time for a family story, from the perspective of my older son. The annual childhood December travels to visit family were really, really depressing in 2017.

First was not being able to celebrate Chanukah with his great-grandmother. She had passed away two years before. He still remembered when she and her house were parts of our annual holiday family times.

Second was how this would be Grandma's last Christmas. She was dying from congestive heart failure, and would probably live a few more months but certainly not an entire year. So everyone tried hard to include all of her favorite cookies, other foods, songs, and everything else to make this Christmas the way she loved. The days with her were festive, but also bitter-sweet.

Third was a brief visit with a great-aunt whose ranch house had recently burned down in the Ventura county Thomas Fire. That house had been the solid place for generations, as everyone else on that side of the family had moved multiple times over the decades, but could always gather at the ranch house for weddings, Christmas, and other family reunions. The great-aunt had shared how she had loaded her vehicle with her most treasured and sentimental possessions but neglected to take any clothes; after fleeing the fire and finding a place to stay, she really wanted to shower and sleep but could not rest because she first had to purchase some clothes that were not so dirty and sweaty!

Finally, at a New Years' Eve party his first pet, a beloved Siberian dwarf hamster named Daisy, who had done great traveling with us, was stepped on by a friend-of-a-friend's three-year-old and crushed. A young boy should not spend New Years' Eve holding a dying pet, crying as he kept it clean and warm and tried to offer it water. Daisy was visibly comforted by being held. After midnight Daisy finally fell asleep, and so he did too. But Daisy did not wake up, and the long drive home that we started the next day was quiet and sad.

Where was love in all those situations? How do you love a great-grandmother who is gone, or a grandmother who you might not see again? How do you comfort a family member who is is starting over without her home or possessions? What good is love if it cannot save Grandma or Daisy? Since we do not really expect miraculous healings then why do we feel so betrayed when they do not happen?

What is Love?

We teach them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun-the finely graded differences that run from "my boots" through "my dog", "my servant", "my wife", "my father", "my master" and "my country", to "my God".
    - C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Some English words are broken. C. S. Lewis noted that the word "my" can mean "that thing thing completely belongs to me" or its opposite "I completely belong to that thing", as well as many intermediate types of belonging.

Is the word "love" also broken? People use it to mean four things.

Love can be an emotion like strong fondness or enjoyment. "I love chocolate ice cream!" "I love spending time with you!"

Love can be a desire. "I would love to do that!" "I hug my wife to show her how much I love her." When two lovers speak Spanish they do not say "Te Amo!" (I love you) but instead "Te quiero!" (I want you).

Love can be a state. "I am in love!" Robert Heinlein famously wrote that "Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own."

Love can be an action. "I love her even when she is acting unloveable." The Greek word agape is used for sacrificial actions. John wrote, "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends."

The word "love" means four things, yet we somehow know that the word is not broken. We recognize love when we encounter it, and love itself is a unity.

The secret to defining love is to recognize that love is not a thing but instead a modifier. Love is a kind of spice, seasoning, or style we put on things to add depth and meaning to life.

I enjoy chocolate ice cream. But there is more. The way I make eye contact with my friends, and the facial expressions I make while eating it, add a playfulness that reveals my love for the chocolate ice cream.

I use hugs to say hello or goodbye to many people. But when I hug my wife there is more. My desire for my wife is communicated subtly even in our hello and goodbye hugs. The details change from hug to hug, and an outside observer might not notice them. But these hugs have a different seasoning or spice than when I hug other people.

When I offer comfort to someone who is sad there is a difference if the person is someone I love. I might say the same things, put my hand on their shoulder in the same way, or sit beside them with apparently identical silent support. But my desire for sad people to have comfort is deeper and more magnified for people I love, and my actions are flavored by subtle details of style that convey more intensity and priority.

I like cooking food to share with people. I share treats with acquaintances: my math students and co-workers, the teachers and office staff at the kids’ elementary school, and the people at the library or the stores at which I shop. But even if the food I share is the same, there is something different when I share with the family and friends I love. An old saying claims, "Love is a spice that flavors our food."

Love can help all stages of grieving. Love can soften the impact of the loss and wounding. Love can refill our depleted fortitude during the difficult work of exploring the extent of the hole in our psyche. Love is a component of the new perspectives, habits, inspirations, and decisions we develop to fill the hole.

Grieving is different when person who is gone was loved, and not merely an acquaintance. But the process of grieving, although affected by love, is really about loss and pain, not love.


Now it was time for him to move out. She wasn't there, so he must go for both of them. It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength.
    - Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia

Bridge to Terabithia photo

Mourning, as I use the word, is all about love. Perhaps in popular English mourning and grieving can be synonymous. Yet the loss of a loved one causes a very distinct second effect, so let us use the two distinct word for these two distinct effects.

Mourning is a life-long process of increasing in wisdom about love—especially how to show love despite distance. It is too philosophical for animals. Its pace is accelerated during times of grieving, but it is always present to some degree in the background of mature and thoughtful living.

How do you love a great-grandmother who is gone? How do you love a grandmother who you might not see again? How do you comfort a family member who is is starting over without her home or possessions? Those are profound questions! We might think about them more while grieving. But we continue ponder them throughout our lives, and our answers will develop in breadth and depth we mature.

What good is love if it cannot save Grandma or Daisy? Since we do not really expect miraculous healings then why do we feel so betrayed when they do not happen? We just explored how love is a kind of spice, seasoning, or style we put on things to add depth and meaning to life. In other words, we use love to change normal things for the better. The purpose of love is to change life and improve it. That is why we feel betrayed when love cannot change and improve life. Love's role has failed, even when we do not realistically expect a miracle in a certain situation.

Most cultures have ceremonies for both grieving and mourning (separately or combined). There is both a burial that focuses on loss and grief, and a memorial or wake for sharing the examples of love between the community and the person who is gone.

The most meaningful stories at a memorial are ways people share their wisdom about mourning. Humor and eccentricities can be important parts of the spices and seasonings of love, so often the silliest vignettes reveal the deepest insights about mourning, even as they lighten the burden of grieving.

The cloud of grieving has a silver lining. The work of grieving highlights how the person who is gone connected with family, friends, and community. It identifies the "loose threads" hanging off the edges of the tapestry of the departed person's life. As we recall that person's personality, virtues, stories, habits, priorities, values, projects, prayers, and inspirations we notice new answers to the questions of mourning.

Thus grieving and mourning support each other as we ponder how to incorporate parts of the loved one's life into our lives. While grieving we see more breadth and depth in the issues mourning. While mourning we discover other, deeper answers about how love works, to use while healing the loss and pain of grief and filing the hole in our psyche.

Sometimes we decide to change ourselves so we can better carry the "vision and strength" of those we have admired. At times we might try on various changes, like clothes in a store's dressing room, when with friends and away from any judgmental or public eye.

Mourning Those Who are Present

Mourning is growing wiser about how to love despite distance. So mourning happens when there are types of distance other than the death of a loved one.

Some distance is created by a breaking our sense of self. Even a toddler will gain a bit more wisdom about love as it develops a self-identity apart from its mother. A teenage crush can be a wake-up call about our egocentricity, when growing emotionally closer to somone reveals our youthful lack of experience at seeing things from others' points of view. A religious epiphany can peel away layers of lies we unknowingly believed about ourselves. We can mourn the loss of an old, simpler, easier self-identity.

Some distance is physical. Absence can make the heart grow fonder. Long-distance relationships can teach us a lot about love. We can mourn the lost proximity of our loved ones.

Jim Henson and Kathryn Mullen filming The Dark Crystal

Some distance is inherent to the human condition. Gelflings can merge minds to share a memory with what it means to them, but people are doomed to some mental and emotional separation and misunderstanding. We remain more apart than melded, no matter how much we want to work as a team or unite as a couple. We can mourn while experiencing the loneliness of our inability to share perfectly. Much wisdom about love is how to be together fully, despite only coming together incompletely.

In contrast, closeness is great! Being close can teach us about fondness, enjoyment, desire, happiness, and self-sacrfice. Being close gives us the best opportunities to act with love. Yet the deepest wisdom about love comes from mourning. We are more distant than we like to think about, and we must learn ways to overcome that distance to truly love ourselves and others.