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Grief Shaming: Why some people believe your grief over Robin Williams is misguided

My social media feeds have been spattered with statuses such as this:

“People need to wake up!  He was JUST a celebrity!”

Or this:

“Why are so many people grieving over Robin Williams when Mike Brown was shot and killed for NO REASON!!!”

And then there’s the complaint that we forget crimes against humanity, like those atrocities being committed by ISIS against the innocent:

“The media covers celebrity deaths, but they totally forget that ISIS is slaughtering children.”  

And I admit, I’m guilty of the same type of grief shaming and grief measuring.  There’s been a few times when I’ve walked into a nursing home, hospital or home to see the grandchildren and children weeping over the body of a 90+ year old deceased person.  And I want to say, “You know last week I buried a 15 year old boy who was struck by a car … that family has a right to grieve, but this person that you’re crying over … this person has lived 90 full years of life.”

Or, something like this: “Most people never get to see their parents live into their 90s.  You should be celebrating that fact that you shared so much time with your loved one.  STAAAAPH CRYING!!!”

And, from a level of objectivity, I (we) are right.

I mean, have you read about the recent Mike Brown tragedy?  An eighteen year old unarmed black male gunned down by a white cop in Ferguson, Missouri.

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And the ISIS stories are so horrific that it’s difficult to recount.  ISIS is slaughtering children.  And turning other children into monsters.

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ALL THIS IS GOING ON IN THE WORLD AND YOU’RE MOURNING THE DEATH OF A COMEDIAN???  A COMEDIAN WHO COMMITTED SUICIDE???

The problem with grief shaming and grief measuring is this: there isn’t objectivity.

See, grief is proportional to love and intimacy.  The more you love someone and the closer you are to them, the more you grieve.  And telling someone that their grief is misguided is as wrong as telling someone their love is misguided.

Sure, the death of a 90 year old isn’t as tragic as the death of a 15 year old, but that doesn’t make the grief for the 90 year old any less real or any less valid.  You grieve because you love and we all love differently.  We love different people.  We love those people in different ways.  And our attachments are as varied as we are unique.  I’ve learned the grief NEVER deserves judgment, but it ALWAYS deserves compassion.

My friend Tracy, who has an incredible way with her words, wrote this:

I saw a thing today complaining about the focus on Robin Williams’ death instead of the horrible atrocities in Iraq and around the world. Can I tell you something?  Mr. Williams’ death HAS affected me more deeply.  Even if that makes me a bad person.

I think it’s because I understand something about depression and have no concept of being a refugee.  I think it’s because I’ve considered suicide at one point in my life but I’ve never needed to climb into a rescue helicopter to escape genocide.  I think it’s because I’ve been touched more than once by mental illness and addiction in the lives of those around me but I’ve never had to see a neighbor child cut in half. I think it’s because I can’t do absolutely anything at all about Iraq or Sudan or DRC, but I can look in the eyes of the people around me and make sure they are actually ok and not just pretending.  Step up to my own war against profound and crushing grief and sadness.  Do something small to release the stigma of mental illness in my own corner of the world.

I’m not one to really care much about celebrities and their divorces/affairs/babies/movies/whatever, but this one hits me.  And instead of lashing out at those who mourn a suicide by calling their attention to “more important” deaths, maybe we need to check in with the people who are mourning Mr. Williams and make sure they’re ok. (I’m ok, really.  Thanks.)

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Many of us grew up with Robin Williams.

He was the Genie in Aladdin that made us laugh.

He made us believe in the magic of Neverland.

Williams sparked our imagination in ‘Jumanji’.

He somehow softened the blow of divorce in Mrs. Doubtfire

And now, he’s making many of us reconsider our understanding of depression and suicide.

Instead of shaming and measuring other people’s grief, isn’t it more helpful if we open up a space in our hearts for compassion and empathy?  And maybe, if we show others empathy for their grief, they will in turn show empathy for ours.

The key to solving problems like ISIS and the injustice of the Mike Brown tragedy doesn’t start with shame and judgment.  The key to solving problems big and small starts with showing compassion.  It is love, after all, and not judgment, that covers a multitude of sins.

 

 

Robin Williams’ Suicide: Why I hurt for the Williams family

Yesterday I wrote a piece entitled, Robin Williams: Finding the Silver Lining.  I rarely address celebrity deaths on my blog, but I found Williams’ death affected me more than I expected.

This morning I woke up and as I scrolled through my news feed I was surprised to see the details of Robin’s death trumpeted on nearly every news outlet.  And again I found myself strangely affected.  So I wrote this piece — from my perspective as a funeral director — on why Robin’s death, more than most, needs privacy.

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Church funerals often cause a proxemics dilemma. The dilemma comes into play in rare circumstances when the family wants the open casket in the front of church sanctuary.

Sometimes, when the time comes for the family to say their last good-byes before the lid’s closed, they have to do something incredibly intimate and tearful in a public setting, with often a hundred or so onlookers watching as they cover their deceased loved one with the blanket, give a final kiss good-bye and say their last “I love you.”

The way we solve the dilemma is by having the pall bearers come forward and surround the family, creating a human wall so to speak, which allows the family to let all their humanity out before the lid is closed.

Celebrity deaths create the same dilemma.  Grief that is meant to be private is watched and consumed by the public.  Ideas, thoughts and feelings that are meant to be processed within the context of family and friends are now processed within the context of the public eye.

For instance:

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We, the public, have also been told the manner of Williams’ death (suicide).  I’ve been in this business for years and we’ve buried many people who have committed suicide without the public EVER knowing.  If the family we were serving wished for it to remain a private topic, it was kept private by us and by the authorities.

Suicide is SO complex.  It’s not easy for anyone to understand and so there’s times when privacy is the most psychologically healthy way to approach a death by suicide.  Because while suicide isn’t easy to understand, the VERY LAST THING the survivors need to experience is judgment of any kind from others.

This approach from Shawna Morrissey’s blog is one of the best ways to understand suicide.  Shawna writes,

Twelve years ago this month, I lost my Uncle Jay to suicide.

At his funeral, Jay’s bishop addressed us. The words he spoke are burned into my mind.  He said, “I feel impressed to tell you that Jay spent his life struggling to survive.  Suicide was not a choice he made, but rather a choice he happened onto when his pain was greater than his ability to cope.”

This man, who took his own life, was a survivor in every sense of the word.

I imagine that such is true of many who leave the world in this way.

But not everyone is so compassionate towards those who take their own life.

Not only have we been told the manner of Williams’ death, we’ve also been told the cause (hanging).

Why?  Why?  Why have we been told this?

Suicide through overdose, gunshot wound and carbon monoxide asphyxiation are considerably timid forms of suicide when compared with hanging.

Overdose, gunshot wounds and carbon monoxide are one step methods that sometimes result from impulsive moments of considerable darkness.  But, hanging oneself.  This is a whole different method of suicide.  In many ways, it is the most premeditated form of self-murder.  Suicide by hanging is a statement suicide. Suicide by overdose and gunshot is usually an “I just want to end it” method … not so with hanging.  And all this gives more reasons why Williams’ death is so complex and complicated.

Grief is sacred.

This sacredness of grief is the reason so many of us hate the Westboro picketers, who picket the funerals of fallen soldiers, and any other funeral that can grab them some limelight.  We dislike what they’re doing because it transgresses one of the most sacred aspects of both our love and our humanity: the grief that comes from the loss of personal love.

I believe transparency is helpful.  But, in times like this, privacy is what Robin’s family and friends need and deserve.  And I wish they would have received it.  I, for one, hurt for his wife and kids and hope they find the space, compassion and love they so desperately need.

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Robin Williams: Finding the Silver Lining

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Most celebrity deaths don’t affect me too much.  For some reason Robin Williams’ death has.  When I first heard of his death I nearly broke into tears, prompting me to immediately reflect on why his passing elicited such an emotional response.

As was public knowledge, Williams suffered from severe depression, which caused him to both cope through various forms of substances, but it also seemed to inspire his comedic genius.  In fact, I always had the sense that his comedy somehow poured out of a deep current of pain … that the laughter he inspired was his way of brightening the darkness he saw in the world.  That in his depression, he fought back by inspiring laughter.  And I think that’s why so many — including myself — loved him.  With Robin Williams, you just had the feeling that his humor was deeper than the Vince Vaughns or the Jim Carreys of the world.  You had the feeling that his humor was genuinely meant to inspire your happiness … that his desire to make you smile was inspired by his pain.

Here’s a small story that acts as an example. Robin Williams and Christopher Reeve (of Superman fame) were roommates at Juilliard where they studied drama and became lifelong friends.  After Reeve had his devastating accident (that caused him to be a quadriplegic) and Reeve was in the hospital preparing for a surgery, this happened.

Reeve was approaching operation to reattach his skull to his spine (June 1995).  Reeve recollected that the surgery “was frightening to contemplate. … I already knew that I had only a fifty-fifty chance of surviving the surgery. … Then, at an especially bleak moment, the door flew open and in hurried a squat fellow with a blue scrub hat and a yellow surgical gown and glasses, speaking in a Russian accent.” The man announced that he was a proctologist and was going to perform a rectal exam on Reeve. It was Robin Williams, reprising his character from the film Nine Months. Reeve wrote: “For the first time since the accident, I laughed. My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be okay.”

For those of us (like myself) who struggle with depression, some days it can be hard just to get out of bed.  But Robin Williams — somehow — in his pain inspired millions to laughter.  Thank you, Robin, for making the world brighter.  Thank you for finding the silver lining.

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“Real” Men and Mourning

Coach Andy Reid having his tummy rubbed by his late son Garrett.

I’m a big fan of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles.  I read their website every day, watch all their games and follow the off-season stories.

Exactly two years ago the Eagles’ former Head Coach (current Head Coach of the Kansas City Chiefs), Andy Reid, lost his 29 year old son Garrett to a battle with drug addiction.  Garrett died on a Monday.  Garrett’s funeral was the following Tuesday.  And Andy Reid — Garrett’s father — was back to coaching the Eagles THE DAY AFTER the funeral for their first preseason game.

I don’t comment on a person’s grief work, so if Andy Reid thinks that going to his job the day after his son’s funeral is the right thing for him and his family, then so be it.

Men will often attempt to use work as a way to process their grief.  We will also attempt to care for others as a means to process our grief and may neglect our own needs for the sake of one’s family, or — in Andy’s case — his team.  So, as I said, I’m not judging Andy’s grief work.

But I do want to comment on HOW Reid’s quick return to work is being interpreted by his players.

Jason Kelce, the Eagles starting center, had this to say some two years ago:

“I think this is just Andy.  We’ve got guys who lose relatives all the time on the team, and they’re gone for a significant amount of time, and Andy’s talking about being back already.  That just goes to show his level of professionalism — his level of manhood really.  There’s no question it’s eating at him inside.  To be able to not show it, to be able to hold it down just so the team doesn’t see him like that, that’s impressive.

To be able to not show his grief over the tragic death of his son … to be able to hold it down so the team doesn’t see him “like that”, that’s impressive?  What?

What is Kelce implying?  Is he implying that Reid’s “level of manhood” would be in question if the team saw him grieve … if the team saw him cry?  Is Kelce implying that manhood equals emotional repression?  Yup, I think that’s what Kelce means.  And Kelce is implying that showing one’s emotions IS NOT manly and would not be good for other men to see.

Seriously?  Are our young boys still being taught this crap by their male role models?

Let me clear a few things up for Mr. Kelce.

1.  While it may be true that men are generally less emotional, manhood is not increased (or decreased) by one’s ability to repress emotion.

2.  You may want to be strong when a death occurs, but strength — like manhood — isn’t determined by one’s ability to repress emotion.

3.  There is no “manly” way to grieve, so don’t let someone (especially another man) tell you how you should feel or shouldn’t feel.

4.  Mourning IS manly IF it’s performed by a man.

5.  If you show grief in front of other men, and they judge you or attempt to diminish your mourning, find other company so that you can work through your grief in a more healthy environment.

Whether by nature or nurture, men and emotions have a difficult relationship that is farther complicated by a highly complex and uncontrollable experience like death.  The bottom line is this: there isn’t a RIGHT or WRONG way for men (or woman or children) to grieve and mourn.  But, it is healthy if you can find a place, space and group that can allow you to work through your grief on your own pace.  Ideally, look for a group of people who can walk with you through the valley, and if you find that place and those people who can allow you to work through your grief, you are on a healthy path.

The Tragic Story of the Generous Funeral Director

The following is a fictitious story based on all too real trends in the funeral industry.

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I sit down in Larry’s office and do a quick look around before we start.  Framed pictures of his three girls, a couple grandchildren and his wife are standing scattered on his desk.  Golf clubs lie in the corner.  A giant professionally drawn water color of the “Wellington Funeral Home” hangs on the north wall.  And directly behind Larry’s desk a certificate is prominently displayed stating, “The State of New York Board of Funeral Directors hereby Licenses LARRY WELLINGTON to Practice as a Funeral Director.”

That photo, and others, are a couple weeks away from being removed.  The “Wellington Funeral Home” had been the last of the family owned funeral homes in this town; that is, until Larry sold it to a corporation.  And that’s why I was here.  To cover the story for our county newspaper.  An economically depressed region, Larry’s business represented one of the few success stories in our area.  He was well loved by our town, respected by his business peers and his thundering golf swing had become a tall tale at the local courses.

Larry sat behind his dated metal desk and I in front of it, we know each other well enough that I bypassed the bull and got straight to the point, “Why are you selling?”

“I can’t do it any longer.  After 30 years of service, it’s become a business.  And I’m done with it.”

“Let’s start from the beginning,” I interrupted.   “Why does a 20 year old Larry Wellington decide to become a funeral director?”

“Thirty some years ago my mother died.”  Larry told me how his mom – a single mother (his dad was absent all throughout his life) – had been his rock.  “She was everything to me” were his exact words.  Worked two jobs as long as he could remember and sacrificed everything for Larry – her only child.

“When she died suddenly on that warm July evening – God, I can remember that phone call as clear as day — I had absolutely no idea what to do.  Someone suggested that I call what used to be “Thomas Funeral Home” up in Hamilton County.  So I called Dale Thomas and he guided me through the whole process of arranging the funeral, settling Mom’s accounts and he would even check up on me months after the funeral was over.”

“About six months after Mom’s death, I had her life savings in my name and I knew what I wanted to do.  I wanted to be like Dale Thomas.  I wanted to be a funeral director.  And I used Mom’s money to go to the McAllister Institute of Funeral Service.  I soon met my wife, I graduated McAllister and we moved here – Joan’s hometown – and I started a funeral home with the heart of an angel.”

At this point, Larry became reflective, his face relaxed in a pensive stare.  He had been telling me his story like he was reading it out of a book … the facts of his life.  And we had reached the point in his story where the facts began to blend with his current reality.

“I started this business with angel’s wings.”  He waited, looking at nothing as though he was looking at a vision of himself that only he could see.  “After years of being too generous, I’m tired.”

Slowing moving back to a fact teller, Larry explained how his lower prices both helped the success of the start up funeral home and laid the foundation for its demise.

“No professional service charge for children.

If they didn’t have money, I’d work with them.

If there was no insurance policy, I’d trust them.

Before I knew, I had a target on my back, “If you can’t pay, go to Wellingtons.”

At first, I didn’t mind getting beat out of a funeral.  Over time — with nearly 7 percent of my customers not paying their bills — it started to wear on me.  So, if I didn’t know the family, I’d ask them a litany of questions about payment and money.  I then started asking people to pay all the cash advances up front.  And even with the unpaid bills, I was still making a sustainable living, but my faith in humanity and my ability to tolerate deception was beginning to reach an unsustainable level.

About a year ago I buried a gentleman in his 50s who died in a car accident.  Tragic.  Very tragic.  I didn’t know anyone in the family … they were from this side of Tioga county.  The family – in their distress? – looked me in the eye, told me they had the money for the $10,000 funeral they wanted (real nice Maple casket, the best vault, etc. … they could’ve gone A LOT cheaper) and after the burial I never heard from them again.”

“I lost my wings after that” he said.  “Oh, I had been beat before, but this was the one that broke me.”

Moving back to the reality that is, Larry looked at me intensely and said, “I came to a place where I’d been beat — unpaid — by so many people that I was going to have to charge them up front for their funeral.  And I couldn’t do that.  So I sold it to people who could.”

He continued, “I got in this line of work because I wanted to serve people, but I’ve become too jaded.  Too many people are taking advantage of me.  And I can’t force myself to take advantage of them.”

And with eyes that begged me for an answer, he asked, “What would you do?  What would you have done?”

I didn’t have an answer.  We looked at each other for a couple seconds and right before it started to feel awkward he continued, “_____ Funeral Corporation offered me enough for an early retirement and I took it.”

And the tragedy is this: It’s hard enough to run a business in this world.  It’s nearly impossible to do so when you’re uncompromisingly generous.  And yet, it’s the generous business people that we so desperately need.

Larry will be moving out of his funeral home and a new Funeral Corporation will be moving in.  The funeral home name won’t change, but you won’t find Larry in his office.  Instead, he tells me, you’ll find him on the greens, creating more tall tales on the local golf course with each long drive.

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