Segal: Grief and gratitude on Mother’s Day
I don’t normally cry in the car, even when stuck in peak season airport merge traffic. But earlier this month during my morning commute, I listened to Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg talk about her grief on NPR’s On Being, and the tears flowed.
Sandberg’s husband Dave Goldberg died suddenly two years ago at age 47. In those two years, Sandberg has opened a window on her grief through her honest and unflinching writing. In a heart-wrenching Facebook post at the end of the 30-day period of mourning (sheloshim) prescribed by Jewish tradition, she said, “This is why I am writing: to mark the end of sheloshim and to give back some of what others have given to me. While the experience of grief is profoundly personal, the bravery of those who have shared their own experiences has helped pull me through. So I am sharing what I have learned in the hope that it helps someone else.”
As a clergy person, my work includes ministry to the bereaved. I welcome Sandberg’s going public about grief, because mourners too often suffer in silence. Grief can be terribly isolating. Friends don’t know what to say, and they fear saying the wrong thing, so they avoid the mourner.
A woman in my congregation whose son passed away told me that her friends were initially hesitant to mention him for fear of making her sad. She explained that she was probably thinking about her son anyway, and if she weren’t, she would appreciate the reminder. Bringing up the memory of a lost loved one doesn’t make a mourner sad. The sadness is already there. Mentioning it lets the mourner know they’re not alone or forgotten.
This brings us to Mother’s Day. It is a complicated holiday for those who have lost their mothers and for mothers who have lost a child. Corporate marketing for the day is predictably one-dimensional — happy! — but we can go deeper. We can check in with friends who live with loss to let them know we’re thinking of them on Mother’s Day. They shouldn’t have to suffer in isolation.
Such personal connections can deepen our sense of gratitude and appreciation. Accompanying someone else in their grief can help us attain what Sandberg calls “pre-traumatic growth.” You need not wait, she urges, for a traumatic experience to spur your emotional and spiritual growth. Sandberg explains that her husband’s death kicked her gratitude into overdrive. Her post-traumatic growth gave her a new perspective on what matters most in life and enriched her relationship with her children. What would it take for us to grow in this awareness before experiencing a traumatic loss?
Sandberg’s friend and writing partner, Wharton psychologist Adam Grant, taught Sandberg a counterintuitive technique for cultivating gratitude and gaining perspective. He told her to imagine how it could be worse. When she first heard this advice, she balked — “I just lost my husband of 11 years and you want to tell me it could be worse?” Grant replied, “It could have happened while he was driving your kids.” It may seem morbid, but it worked. It did not diminish the pain of losing her husband, but it did intensify her gratitude for her children. Imagining the worst also helps her keep their struggles in perspective. When her kids have a “normal kid problem,” she feels relief: “This isn’t death!” (I can see the Hallmark card now: “Dear Mom, I visualized your death and it made me more grateful for you. Happy Mother’s Day!”)
If the worst-case-scenario method doesn’t resonate with you, then go back to the basics of human connection. Call a friend who is processing a loss. Take them a meal or get together for a conversation. Ask them to share memories of their loved one and to reflect on their grieving process. Let them know you’re there for them, not with answers but with your caring presence. Let them be vulnerable with you. You both will be changed for the better.
If you are feeling lonely in your grief, try to find the strength to talk about it. Sometimes all your friends need is an invitation, and they’ll be there to listen. You may be surprised at the vulnerability and pain they share once you open up the space for it.
Another powerful way to cultivate pre-traumatic growth is to belong to a community. In my congregation, I have seen scores of people fulfill the Jewish obligations of comforting the bereaved and visiting the sick. Invariably, they say it makes them more aware of the fragility of life and health and more grateful for both. “There but for the grace of God go I,” they say with renewed humility about the human condition. A sense of fellowship emerges, too, when we face the fact that we all will share the same fate. Mortality is the ultimate unifier.
This Mother’s Day, let’s make space for the full range of feelings. Grief and gratitude, celebration and comfort, sadness and joy deserve seats at the table. Until we acknowledge them all with honesty and care, loss will continue to be a painfully isolating experience. Today you may be comforting a friend; tomorrow you may need comforting yourself.
Rabbi David Segal, of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-925-8245. He blogs at http://www.rabbidavidsegal.com. His column usually runs the first Sunday of the month.