Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found at Thinker Boy: Blog & Art.
I’m quite close to someone who recently lost a beloved family member. The dearly departed was a septuagenarian who had battled a case of metastasized cancer that finally got the best of him. To respect my friend’s privacy, I don’t want to say anything more than that about her father and his medical situation. I do, however, wish to share a few conclusions I’ve come to about the psychology of grief after observing someone I care a great deal about struggle to achieve a kind of emotional equilibrium after a profound loss.
Before I go any further, I want everyone to understand that I asked my friend’s permission before writing this. She, of course, gave it. Had she not, it is likely this blog never would have seen the light of day.
This friend had an extraordinarily close relationship with her father, mostly because her procreators broke up when she was a young girl, and she ended up living with her male parent. Now that he’s gone, she is having an inordinately hard time getting past the loss of the man who meant so much to her.
I’m beginning to suspect that she, in fact, is actually clinging to her grief as a way of prolonging it. She’s doing this because she’s no longer able to hold on to the man himself. Because she has come to associate the pain of her loss with the person she lost, she welcomes the pain as a way of holding on to her father. Her anguish and grief is all she has left of him except for her memories of the time they spent together. The sense of loss and sadness are poor substitutes for his physical presence, but they are substitutes nonetheless. As long as the pain is present, her father feels real to her. When it finally fades away (if it does), she will, in effect, have completely lost him.
My friend frequently posts photos of her father and talks about how sad she is on social media. These very public confessions and admissions make me wonder. Who is she doing these things for? I do not question that her pain is real. Certainly it is, but why does she want to lay bare her soul to the entire world?
Grief that comes from the loss of a loved one is a terribly private kind of mourning. Carrying pain of that type is similar to carrying an ugly secret. There are moments when one simply wants to express it, to let it be known, to confess its presence—as a way of stopping the bleeding and then cauterizing the wound. Posting very personal feelings of loss is an act of cauterization. It’s a way of screaming “I HURT!” at the top of one’s lungs. Once that ugly truth has been publicized, there is no longer any possibility for the person making it to remain unseen and in the shadows.
The stoic in me wants to step in when I’m around my grieving friend. I find myself wanting to tell her that I understand her pain, but I also want to warn her to be on guard lest despair become her new normal. The stoics believe strongly in the importance of achieving self-mastery. Does this self-mastery require us to deaden our feelings, turn ourselves into unemotional robots? I don’t think so; that’s not the way I read the stoics.
What do you think about my friend, her situation, and my interpretive reading of her ways of dealing with loss and grief?