Ten months ago, I wrote a blog called Heaven Doesn't Help Us: Talking to Kids About Death. It's all about how religious platitudes are useless when it comes to explaining death to young children. In fact, according to numerous child psychologists and grief experts I'd interviewed at the time, talk of heaven is rarely a comfort at all. But what I failed to realize at the time — in fact, what I failed to realize until this week — is that this whole notion of comfort is part of the problem.
Russell Friedman, co-founder of the Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oakes, Calif., has spent 27 years counseling people in the midst of grief. Friedman talks a lot about the myths associated with death — some of which I'll be addressing in the coming weeks — but one of the most fascinating myths is that it's both good and helpful to comfort grieving people. To be sure, this is precisely why most parents feel compelled to tell their kids about heaven, right? Heaven seems to takes the edge off of death. Heaven gives them an alternative reality. Heaven makes them a little less, well, sad.
But sadness, says Friedman, is such a healthy emotion at times of devastating loss. It's appropriate. It's normal. And trying to remove the sadness — even trying to take the edge off! — from someone who is grieving is both unhealthy and inappropriate. To make his point, Friedman points to the emotion of happiness. Would we ever tell a loved one that they ought to feel less happy about a job offer because they might lose that job some day? Would we tell someone not feel so good about their engagement because 50 percent of marriages end in divorce? So why do we rush to relieve people of their sadness or discomfort when those feelings are normal and appropriate and healthy?
"Why," Friedman asks, "is comfort the goal?"
I must admit, this small piece of insight is probably going to be a bit of a game-changer for me. I always seem to want to make people feel better. And I always feel proud when I'm able to do that. It has never occurred to me that in my quest to keep sadness at bay, I might be cutting off someone else's rightful, natural grief. Or my own.
Unfortunately, none of this is academic, Friedman says. The real-world problem with cutting off grief — AND IT HAPPENS ALL THE TIME — is that the grief never ends.
And that may be the biggest loss of all.
Full Disclosure: This is the first of several blogs I'll be writing about death and grief over the next several weeks. As the most universal problem humans face, it still amazes me that we know so little about how to discuss it, deal with it, and prepare our kids for it. I hope by the end, you'll feel more informed, if not more capable. Be sure to let me know if you have specific questions or concerns you'd like addressed, and I'll do my best to address them along the way.