(Photo by Mark Manning)
Americans don’t often talk about loss and grief publicly. They should.
At an event last October, six young adults took the stage in Philadelphia to bring conversations about those difficult topics to the forefront.
This event, cohosted by the Philadelphia branch of national nonprofit The Dinner Party — which brings together young adults to talk about the loss of someone close to them in intimate settings — and Young Involved Philadelphia gave an important outlet to have conversations about grief publicly to about 80 attendees during 2018’s State of Young Philly event series. (Full disclosure: I moderated the panel discussion and am a lead organizer for The Dinner Party in Philadelphia.)
These types of conversations are often one-on-one, be it with a therapist, close friend or family member, so the event had a lasting impact on me. Perhaps because loss is associated with so much sadness, the moments that stood out to me from the panel were the moments where panelists shared joy, either via a funny story or a revelation.
“I have some family members who have really hung on to my dad’s ashes. It’s important for them to have those,” shared panelist Greg Thomson. “My dad’s brother even went so far as to spread his ashes in a casino where they would gamble together. To me, that didn’t make much sense cause it’s going to get vacuumed up in a short amount of time.”
Being able to find humor in someone saying the wrong thing and simultaneously forgiving that person because they are trying is a tough balancing act.
People respond to the death of someone close to them in wildly different ways sometimes.
“Everyone kind of does things differently,” Thomson said. That was one of the primary themes of the panel: the sheer variety of how people react and respond to the death of a loved one, from the immediate reaction to handling important dates and anniversaries.
All of the panelists — Thomson, Tess Liebersohn, Naima Murphy, Mark Angelow, Samantha Charleston and Madeline Gray — spoke from their experiences without venturing into advice giving, which is challenging yet important in these conversations. Everyone’s experience with grief is so different that what works for one may not work for all.
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For instance, panelists shared their biggest “eye roll” moment they had at work related to their loss. There were many examples of this, from multiple coworkers mentioning a panelist’s breakdown in a meeting to coworkers no longer taking the time to even say hello. Murphy shared a story about a coworker trying to comfort her by saying “he’s in a better place now” without even taking the time to learn if she was religious or if she felt the person who had died, her father, was in a better place.
Liebersohn, whose dad died while she was in college, reflected on her response to her classmates.
“Looking back, it’s such an eggshell time. It’s very hard for people to say the right thing, so I send grace and hope out to those people,” she said. “I have probably been that person as well. I have been flippant about this situation around people who are not in that [grief] space. I acknowledge we’re all messing up all the time.”
Being able to find humor in someone saying the wrong thing and simultaneously forgiving that person because they are trying is a tough balancing act. For me, it’s a practice I’ve tried to adopt to help me get better at forgiving myself when I feel like I haven’t grieved in the “right way.”
There isn’t a definitive right way to grieve. Even when faced with the question, “Do you want to stop grieving?” the panelists spoke to the variety of their individual experiences. Grief looks different person-to-person and it can certainly look different day-to-day for the same person.
"I think there’s a lot of guilt that comes with the process of feeling better, and that sometimes we tend to hold ourselves back into grief."
For Gray, it was a complicated question. She both misses the early days of grieving, when it felt more like a full-time job, and dislikes that her grief is still a thing day-to-day.
“I think there’s a lot of guilt that comes with the process of feeling better, and that sometimes we tend to hold ourselves back into grief,” she said, “because we feel guilty about feeling better. We feel like it means we don’t care about the person anymore and I’m trying to accept that that’s not the case.”
Growth can be a part of the grieving process and both Angelow spoke to the strength he’s found in himself through this process.
“Vulnerability has been the most rewarding part of this process,” Angelow said, adding that he feels more emotionally in tune with others because of his own experiences with loss.
Charleston spoke of a gained perspective on loss.
“We all will go through something like this,” she said. “This is something I carry with me every single day in everything that I do. I’m OK and I want to talk about it.”
That’s the one shared experience that I do feel comfortable stating as an absolute: We will all experience grief. And my favorite moment from the panel came when Murphy and Liebersohn shared a conversation they had during a break with the audience.
“Grief comes at the end of loving,” Murphy said, and Liebersohn added, “the cycle of love and relationships is not just meeting someone and getting to know them.”
“The ending is part of the cycle,” Liebersohn said. “Bereavement is just as important and as normal as all the other parts of the relationship.”
Large parts of our society and culture live in what feels like blissful ignorance of the fact that every relationship ends. There are several movements, like death cafés and The Dinner Party, to help address this reluctance to talk about this difficult subject. This panel was a small part of that larger discussion and I hope this reflection and the words of the panelists help inspire conversation or bring comfort to those experiencing grief.-30-
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