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What We Do in the Face of Grief

Updated: Jan 5, 2021

By the time you read this, the world will have become a colder, crueler place. As I type, the kindest, most optimistic man I ever knew, the man I am privileged to call “Dad,” is taking his final breaths—in a hospital where none of the people he loves can hold his hand, nearly 800 miles from where I live. On this Friday after Thanksgiving, a day so special in my family that I was nearly 30 years old before I discovered that most people in our country consider it a shopping day, I am grieving.

However, I also realize that my situation, while tragic, is by no means special, even when more facts pile on: My wife has been unemployed since March. My sister was diagnosed with breast cancer last month. My family is living with friends in rural Indiana in an attempt to reduce living costs while keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table. An article in the Washington Post this morning enumerated a similar laundry list—struggles faced by our nation as a whole. People went to sleep hungry the week of Thanksgiving because unemployment benefits ran out in September. People who own Mercedes are waiting in line at food pantries. Local businesses that were thriving last year have closed their doors. The death toll worldwide from COVID-19 is sitting near 1.5 million. Frankly, there isn’t much relief in sight. We as a human race are grieving, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels as though the world is imploding.

Is This the Time for Radical Acceptance?

Years ago, in therapy, I learned about the concept of “radical acceptance.” Over the past several months, as I’ve read and listened to self-help books and podcasts, this concept has reappeared in my consciousness. Frankly, it scares me. If I relax into radical acceptance, does that mean I have to be okay with Dad dying? Will I give up my right to cry over my sister’s health crisis or my wife’s employment struggles? Will I be robbed of my right to grieve? I don’t know.

What I do know is that sometimes the only thing we humans can do in the face of loss is acknowledge the pain. Today, this is where I am. I’m Job, sitting on an ash heap, grieving an incomprehensible collection of losses. Facebook memes about positivity pose as well-meaning but clumsy friends attempting to blow sunshine up my skirt while sleet falls from the sky. I’m clinging to the wisdom of self-help gurus and mystics both ancient and modern, but the words sound hollow, leaving me comfortless and empty. Despair stalks me. Hope plays hide-and-seek. Repeatedly, I’m sure I’ve hit bottom, and something else goes wrong.

How Long Is the Future?

Shortly before I sat down to write this post, a friend compassionately listened to my despair. When I got to the part about fearing the future, he responded, “One thing about the future: It’s longer than tomorrow.” I let the words sink in and then recalled an earlier conversation between the two of us. This same friend had reflected a month or two ago on the comfort he finds in apocalyptic literature. “You know why?” he asked. “Because people write apocalyptic literature when it feels like the world is ending, and it didn’t.”

Today, my world is ending. In fact, part of my world will end. That is inevitable, but it is also inevitable that tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow—every tomorrow for the foreseeable future—the sun will rise and set. The world will continue spinning on its axis. Babies will be born. Other people—ones I know and others I have never met—will die. The future is indeed longer than a single day, and there is nothing that I or any other human can do to change that. The world won’t end, even when it feels as though it must. It is inevitable. Perhaps this is the meaning of radical acceptance. Perhaps merely acknowledging our own limitations, alongside the inevitability of future, is where healing begins. I do not know. The good news: I don’t have to know.

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