Dear Madam Radio Host,
Around Christmastime you interviewed me on the Ageless Media Network, a group of radio stations that provides “upbeat programming” for… well… older people. I’m one. The subject was “grief during the holidays.” Grief happens to my area of expertise. I didn’t choose it. It chose me when my three-year-old son, Michael, died seventeen years ago.
You’re nice folks there, at the Ageless Media Network, even though your name is one of those doublethink euphemisms so common in the land these days, and what you’re really doing is trying to help those of us slipping helplessly into our dotage feel better while doing so, which, let’s face it, is an existentially impossible goal. Still, I was happy to be asked back. I vowed to emit an air of authority on my subject, say something useful and earnest, and not to stutter, say “um,” or make any bad jokes.
And then… whoops, you said something about the bereaved having to find “closure.”
Okay, so lots of folks say spectacularly stupid things on radio and television (not to mention on the Internet and in life), and other folks just sit there nodding. Why, just last month I heard Mitt Romney say he was severely conservative. Is that like severely anemic, severely depressed, severely disabled? Then, the other day on the radio I heard a man say, “My profession is I go around with a video camera and get people to do embarrassing things.” Seriously? This is a profession?
Anyway, I hope I was gracious, but I may have had a brain bomb and I’m afraid I might have said:
“Closure is for doors, windows, annoying books, open mouths…”
Actually I’m not sure what the hell I said. I may have disassociated. So if I said that part about the open mouth, I apologize, and I accept that you may not ask me back for another interview.
In case I said any of those things or babbled, I would like to go back and say this: Radio Lady, I’m relatively certain you meant well, nearly everyone who says stupid things in connection with grief does. There are, of course, exceptions. For example, Ann Coulter, who said—on the Today Show no less—that 9/11 widows were “enjoying” their husbands’ deaths, and someone calling himself 12th Monkey, who made the following comment in reference to Cindy Sheehan, the woman who became a political activist after she lost her son in Iraq:
“She [Cindy] reveals [in her book] that her son’s death almost drove her to take her own life. ‘Every night,’ she says, ’I had to restrain myself from taking my entire bottle of sleeping pills instead of just one.”
To which 12th Monkey replied:
“Cindy, please reconsider.”
I know, Radio Lady, that you weren’t raised in the gutter with Ann and 12th Monkey, and you would never say anything like that—even if you didn’t like my politics. This doesn’t not mean that you should be allowed to continue making spectacularly misguided remarks that are heard by other people and then repeated as if they made sense. The bereaved, who are already hurting, are seriously upset when people make comments that delegitimize their feelings, and I have to tell you that the pervasively used “C” word is a doozey of an upsetter. As if someone who’d lost a child would even want to forget that child. Ever. I wish there were some sort of eject button I could press for every reporter, pundit, luminary, bubblehead, celebrity, radio host, friend, ex-friend, relative, sister, brother, cousin, mother, or politician, who has ever said that word in the context of loss, as if it’s meaningful, or helpful, or a useful way to think about loss.
We don’t get “closure” on our losses. We incorporate our losses into our lives and try to find the way not to become embittered because of them, and even to make meaning out of them. The fact is, if we don’t try to make meaning out of all our experiences, from the profound to the ridiculous, we’re probably just standing still.
You, Madam Radio Lady, are not alone in offending here. I constantly find myself shocked by this culture’s ignorance about grief. I still cringe when I hear people offer advice to the bereaved, as if they have a clue about what one should do, or how to feel better. I weep when I hear religious platitudes, and when I hear them express their ideas about the mind and intentions of God, such as, ”God must have wanted him,” or “He’s with the Angels.”
One should not say such things even to believers, because at that moment, the bereaved person may be really mad at God, or may even be questioning his faith, his belief, the very basis of her (or his) existence. Seriously, I almost lost my mind when I heard Sarah Palin say, after the Gabrielle Giffords shootings in Arizona last year, “May God turn their grief into joy.” Ah. Joy. My child in heaven with Jesus, instead of here with me. As if God wants us all to be smiling Disney characters.
While I’d certainly want to have my son back (though I can’t even imagine him now, at age 21), the truth is that life cannot be undone, it only goes one way, and we humans have no choice but to learn the lessons our lives present. The truth is that there are lessons to be learned from the experience of great loss, ways of being the world that are different than before, a way of understanding others you didn’t see before, ways of empathizing with others’ pain, ways of learning to “be with,” and so on.
But let me assure you that “how to get closure” isn’t one of those lessons.