"But what is grief, if not love persevering?"
-Quote from the TV series WandaVision, Episode 8: "Previously On," Marvel Studios
In the show WandaVision, these words are spoken to a grieving mother wondering how to avoid being incapacitated by her overwhelming emotions. The advice (if you can call it that) she is given is a version of what therapists all over the world tell clients every day: the intensity of pain following from loss is proportionate to the magnitude of love one still feels for what has been lost. Change is unavoidable, and so must be grief. But so much of the pain of loss, strangely, is not the mere absence of the beloved. Few of us spend every waking moment with our loved ones. Over time we get lots of practice being far away from the ones we love. We get so much practice that we may learn to live quite satisfactorily, even happily, without the ones we love. So, once we must do without permanently, what is it that hurts us so badly?
I suspect the answer is not grief, but fear. In our darkest moments, we are seized with the fear of meaninglessness: “losses can challenge the fundamental conditions that sustain one’s actual lived experience, undercutting one’s broad sense of meaning and coherence” (Neimeyer et al., 2010, p. 74). This may sound like an abstract concept; after all, “meaninglessness” is not a gun or a knife or a fire. It’s not something that can violate your body’s integrity. In the end, it’s just a story. When we walk down a street, we’re the main character in a movie in which each of us is both director and star. Most of our life’s effort is channeled towards making that story a happy one. We tailor the experience to our taste: some of us prefer to live an intimate romance; others hope for a fast-paced thriller full of novelty and risk. But we all want the overall experience to be satisfying. If the filmstrip gets snagged (as occasionally happened in the days before digital projection), the image flickers and melts away. Our expectations for the next moment, be it terrifying, sorrowful, or euphoric, are dashed. We are left alone in the dark with our thoughts. "What do I do now? Who will fix this problem? What’s next?"
Meaninglessness is so scary that it figures in the greatest masterpieces of the horror film genre. In the 1960 film Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Janet Leigh plays the character Marion Crane, who is introduced as the protagonist in the early part of the film. Her character arc seems to follow a traditional narrative structure, setting the audience up to empathize with her and invest in her story. However, Hitchcock's choice to abruptly kill off Marion Crane in the infamous shower scene was a shocking departure from conventional storytelling and an ingenious manipulation of audience emotions. Part of Hitchcock’s genius was the casting of Janet Leigh, who was already a well-established leading lady by the late 1950s. A moviegoing audience in 1960 would have certainly viewed Ms. Leigh as protected by what we in the 2020s call “plot armor:” the expectation that “main characters” always escape danger, no matter how perilous. When this unconscious assumption is upended, the audience has no choice but to allow the full horror to sink in. We are left vulnerable in the dark, and we recognize that this is the truth, not only of the film we are watching, but of our lives. Is it any wonder that there were reports of audience members fainting and needing to be carried out?
If meaninglessness is the real issue, what do we do about it? According to grief expert Robert Neimeyer, people who are grieving usually use one of two strategies to reconstruct meaning following a loss: assimilation or accommodation. Assimilation involves incorporating the event into our pre-existing worldview. For example, Christians often revisit the traditional belief that souls are immortal and we will rejoin our loved ones after death. In contrast, accommodation involves expanding or reconfiguring one’s worldview to incorporate the loss. For example, someone who is not a Christian might become one, and start to view the mundane world as a prelude to eternal life in heaven; or, a non-Buddhist might find in Buddhism a practice that helps them find peace in understanding all experience as unsatisfying, impermanent, and uncontrollable. Some individuals may not settle on a single tradition but set out on a quest to find answers and learn what, if anything, makes life bearable after the loss of someone dear. As the family therapist and scholar Dorothy Becvar wrote in her journal many years after the tragic death of her son:
"I believe I have grown in my ability to be compassionate, to understand the pain that others may be experiencing. I have found a whole new way of thinking, working, of being, one that enables me to trust that all the events in my life somehow make sense. Above all, I know that my relationship with my son continues, that nothing can break the connection of love we share. And I can say with all sincerity that despite the pain, I give thanks for the growth that was triggered by his death.” (2001, p. 108).
In my own work with grieving clients, I have found that my own curiosity about their personal meaning-making journeys is essential in helping me be a calm and centered witness to their suffering. There is never any need to prompt clients to “look on the bright side” or to “move on,” as though that were possible. Some clients may need encouragement to attend to daily matters, to the essential self-care we all need to get through the day in reasonable health. But as much as we would like to turn away from the void of meaninglessness, there is no escaping the work of piecing together a world that has fallen apart. And I feel immensely privileged to witness clients doing this work at every session. After all, grief itself is nothing to fear: it’s only love that’s lost its way for a time, looking for a new home.
Becvar, D. S. (2001). In the presence of grief: Helping family members resolve death, dying and bereavement issues. New York: Guilford Press.
Neimeyer, R.A., Burke, L.A., Mackay, M.M. et al. (2010). Grief therapy and the reconstruction of meaning: From principles to practice. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 40(2), 73–83. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10879-009-9135-3