Friday, November 15, 2013

"Toxic Forced Optimism"

I read Amanda Marcotte's recent article at Slate featuring a website dedicated to having honest conversations about death, mourning, and grief.

The website itself, Modern Loss, includes resources and forums to talk about and deal with the often-taboo-to-talk-about topic of death.  From the site, what you will not get is:
• Judgment
• Tips to help you “get over” or “get past” it
• Anything associated with the idea of a “valid” loss. If you feel it, it’s real
• The phrase “Everything happens for a reason.” Just … no
I find this refreshing.

More than two years ago, I lost a good friend in an accident (which I wrote briefly about here), and found that not only was the loss itself difficult, but the way many people talked about it was often invalidating and included common phrases like, "She's in a better place," "She's an angel now," and "Now she's watching over us."

I guess some people find comfort in thinking they 100% know what their loved ones are doing after they've died, but all I could think was, "No!! How do you know that?!?!?"  I'm more the person who needs to live in that brutal uncertainty, and pain, for awhile because that feels more honest and real to me.

Marcotte's article, above, includes the phrase "toxic forced optimism" in reference to American culture, and I found that incredibly resonating.

10 years ago, when my grandmother was in hospice care, I had further experience with toxic forced optimism. The day we found out she had terminal cancer, a good friend of mine picked me up from the hospital and spent the next hour or so trying to cheer me up with jokes and other light-hearted conversations.

It was truly exhausting to be so sad and yet to have this external pressure to appear happy and carefree.  It was its own version of gaslighting. I finally turned to my friend and said, "Just stop. I need to be sad about this. You don't have to be sad with me or for me, but I need to feel this."

Spiritually, I was raised a Christian although I now lean towards Buddhist agnosticism. Buddhism, at least as I practice it, is not always a comforting practice. Pema Chodron writes that life is like rowing a boat into the middle of a lake knowing it's going to eventually sink.

Yet, in that reality, dark humor can sometimes exist. And, I am a fan of dark humor. Dark humor that is not cruel or contemptuous, but that comes from people acknowledging brutal realities and our sometimes-helplessness in the face of them.

Near the very end, my grandmother took one last bath. We all, even her, knew her death was imminent. She was awake less and less and had been having dreams, visions, of relatives long gone. It was an emotional time as we all were in various stages of working through various family conflicts that seem to often arise in families during deaths.

As my mom helped her dress after that last bath,my grandmother looked up and said, "You know, whatever happens, I won't come back and haunt you." And, it was fucking hilarious at the time and paradoxically comforting. It was her way of saying, "Yes, I'm going to die, and you all are going to have to work everything out without me."

That, I could work with. Far more than, "everything happens for a reason" or us all repressing the reality that she was dying.

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