Happy podcast listening day, my friend! Or, maybe it’s not such a happy day for you. Maybe it’s an exhausting day. Maybe you’re in the middle of your week and hoping to find something that makes your day feel a little lighter by listening to this conversation. Before we go much further, let’s pause to start. Take a breath, naturally, and let your body soften for a moment. Even if you’re coming to this chat with a relatively light burden today, wiggle a bit and let your body rest while you wait with me while we address something we encounter in grief work that can be so harmful even when it seems helpful – that something is binary thinking. To be able to address it well, it helps to start from a place of peace.
I want to address something I see back and forth often in the grief world, but more often, I see it around conversations of deconstruction and faith changes. Discussions of grieving practices in religious communities are polarizing. As the majority of people in a faith practice tend to believe their practices are the best ones, the debate about how to grieve and how to honor your loss results in a lot of hurt feelings and broken relationships. Secondary losses like this are so common and not because we’re trying to cause more pain, but because we do not understand how to hold two things to be true when we’re hurting. We crave the simplest explanation to keep ourselves as grounded as we can…which in itself is a false grounding.
A Twitter remark this week on Christian funeral services brought this to mind. I’ve attended many in my day, and in the last 5 years at least, they’ve been even more activating for me than ever before. The person sharing brought up the idea that while they were grieving, someone couldn’t help but send them a blog post they’d written about “how to be happy in all things.” Insinuating, of course, that even in death, we celebrate because of a belief in the afterlife.
I’m not going to waste our time on the common debate, because I know everyone listening has a different opinion about an afterlife. But let’s take a minute to recognize how this well-intentioned person centered their own understanding of life and loss onto the griever.
When we send “grief support” without consent to a person, we’re asking them to trust that our ways are better than theirs. We’re encouraging them with what WE find meaningful, without asking what is meaningful to them.
Most of the celebration of life services I’ve attended include a long list of scriptural references, often bypassing the very nature of our pain and very real circumstances. I think we want to end things on a happy note, and I get it. Discomfort and grief are hard to navigate alone, let alone socially and especially as a leader in the community. When we center the outcome on our own abilities, of course we will feel helpless at a funeral – it’s not ours to resolve, and our authority is meaningless.
So how do we then, as thought leaders around grief (as I would call each of you listening, you beautiful grief literate geniuses) exist as “so called leaders” in a way that is meaningful and helpful without bypassing or sharing indiscriminately?
When I wonder this aloud, I am reminded that some of us (most of us) struggle to hold the both/and. That when we are grieving, the joyful people make our pain feel meaningless. When we are happy, the grieving people make our joy feel offensive.
It’s a difficult mindset to break from, especially if you are carrying some background narrative of a faith practice. There were clear lines drawn around right and wrong, good and evil.
Which is exactly why I walked away from those mindsets but also work diligently to remove the binary language of good/bad, right/wrong from most of my work. I definitely believe in areas where a binary is necessary, but those areas are few and far between, and not relatable to the topic at hand right now. Conversation for another day.
When I reflect on how I navigated my life, existing in those binary spaces, I can see how damaging it was for my connections and growth. I could not handle carrying conflicting information because all I wanted was clarity – and all it felt like was mud. When my grief was so heavy, I only wanted relatable content, and when my joy was palpable, I didn’t want to hear from the heavy burdened.
And then I grew up.
Does that sound harsh?
Let me try again.
Then I remembered that two things can be true, the binary is a false understanding designed to create an illusion of control, and my experience in life can be enriched by widening my circle of influence and allowing others to impact me positively even if it feels a little uncomfortable to begin.
Almost every griever I work with wants more clarity and more control, but they’re both a little misunderstood. We conflate the two ideas, believing that if we can regain control, we can gain clarity. In some areas, we can demonstrate our control through the evidence of how we bear it. Clarity is not like that, and the two are less related than we think.
True clarity is a perception that opens us to more than we have access to in the present moment. But we lose sight altogether if our control and clarity are bound together…which is exactly why so many grievers feel lost in circular thinking.
Gaining clarity does not mean eradicating the gray space – it means recognizing the gray space contains multitudes, safety, invitation, hope, and healing. There is joy and grief and sorrow and laughter and pain and relief and companionship and solitude in the gray space – all at the same time.
If I could approach the next celebration of life service with this mindset – that we are all, at any given point, carrying these many complexities both within and without of ourselves – then I suspect the way I would speak to others would soften. I would ask more questions. I would offer fewer resolutions – if any. I could invite the curiosity of others to wonder and dream and mourn and dance and wail in whatever way their bodies and minds and hearts and spirits needed to feel a sense of relief and connection.
The entire point of gathering – be it for a funeral or a party – is connection. To stay invested in one another and our collective and individual flourishing. So rather than shutting down questions about the unknown, or disallowing people from being upset or confused, maybe it’s time for us to embrace what very little we know and become learners, again.
The both/and existence we truly want is only available to us if we are willing to be teachable, open, and flexible. Our lives are never truly in a black & white existence, but the idea of such a simplicity is pretty damn tempting to the broken hearted or the naively insulated.
Remember that you are neither – and you are both. You are these are so much more. In every arena, we have things to learn; things to mourn. Things to celebrate.
Let your complexity be what leads you into a deeper compassion and curiosity for your life. For the people you know and love. For those you avoid. This is where you and I will find the clarity we seek.
May your own humanity flourish as deeply as you’ll allow it to.
Thank you for listening to episode 100 of Restorative Grief. This conversation about breaking binaries is always a fascinating one, since we’re ALL carrying them in areas we least expect. Even as a big fan of the nuance, dichotomous thinking is an easy habit to fall into. I’m grateful to every single person in my life that has helped me disarm my binary thinking where it causes harm to myself and others, especially those who allow us laughter in the moments of our missteps. This economy can support so much flourishing for every single one of us that it makes no sense for us to hold onto antiquated thinking that limits our growth and healing. I hope this conversation sparks something explosive and curious in you as you heal, too.
If this is your first time listening, thank you for sticking with me, making space in your life, and allowing your heart to expand a little more today. Take a minute to check the show notes for resources and coaching information, as my practice is always taking on new coaching clients for life, grief, somatics, and more. Be sure to subscribe so you never miss a weekly episode and if you have a moment, please leave a review! I’d love to hear your expression after an episode.
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And one last thing, as always. Please remember, the only solution for grief is to do the work of grieving. Thank you for listening. I’ll see you next week.