When I was a senior in high school, my best friend Sheri died in an accident. She was on a date with a young man whose car went out of control and hit a tree. Eric, the driver of the car, was severely injured in the crash. All I could think to do at the time was to be strong in the only way I knew how at seventeen: I consoled friends, sang at Sheri’s funeral, helped to create a “get well” video for Eric. I performed in a play a few nights after Sheri’s death and wrote her obituary for the school newspaper. Purposeful action was the only thing that kept my world from completely caving in on me.
The horrific sorrow I experienced after Sheri’s death came as naturally to me as breathing. There was simply no other way for me to feel. The person who best personified life and joy for me had been eradicated from the face of the earth. Every time I turned around, I expected to see her, yearned to spill out to her the depths of my pain. Instead, I learned to cope, as they say. I learned to deal with my grief in ways that were acceptable, comfortable, even admirable to those around me.
During grad school, I sought out therapists to help facilitate my healing. Each one insisted that I was emotionally stuck because I never allowed myself to feel anger. At the time, in the mid-1980s, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of death and dying (which included anger as the second stage after denial) were being routinely misapplied to grievers everywhere. “Where is your anger?” the therapists questioned. “Where is your anger at Sheri for leaving you behind? Your rage to indict the boyfriend? Your blame to hold God accountable for allowing the tragedy to occur?”
No, my grief wasn’t about anger. It was about missing the physical presence of a person who continues to be utterly irreplaceable. It was about my earthly joy being so shattered that sorrow would forever seep through the cracks of it. It was about facing the harrowing reality that to trust one’s heart completely in the hands of another is to throw oneself wildly into the path of unfathomable heartache.
Sheri’s death wasn’t the first devastating loss I experienced and it isn’t the last. What makes this loss unique is that it provided an opportunity for me to recognize that no grief “expert” can assess better than I what is true or useful to me in my grieving process. I realized then that authentic grief gives little heed to what others deem “normal.” It cares little for cultural conventions, even when we choose to abide by them outwardly – for our own sake or the sake of another.
Any professional healer – therapist, grief counselor, spiritual director, nurse, doctor, life coach, minister, priest, imam, or rabbi – whose guidance is worth their weight in gold, knows that each griever is their own best grief expert. Moreover, true healers make this knowledge the cornerstone of their work. Excepting young children or those whose mental or emotional capacities are severely impaired, there is no substitute for a griever’s self-awareness. We healers cannot conjure such a substitute, no matter how wise or learned we may be.
– Excerpt from Doing Grief in Real Life: A Soulful Guide to Navigate Loss, Death & Change ©2022 by Shea Darian