Joan Didion is a journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in Life, Esquire, The Saturday Post and The New York Times

In 2003, her daughter Quintana fell into a coma from septic shock resulting from pneumonia, and on December 30, her husband died from a heart attack in their home. Her daughter came out of her coma shortly after, but a few months later, Quintana and her husband took a trip to Malibu and on this trip, Quintana fell coming off of the plane and hit her head, requiring six hours of brain surgery.  While in recovery, she developed pancreatitis and died. 

Summarizing those events, even if they are about someone else, feel almost unreal. How can someone survive that level of grief and that much heartache?

Joan wrote two books about her experience with grief: Blue Nights, and the book I’ve been reading, The Year of Magical Thinking. In the Netflix documentary about her life, Joan Didion: The Center will Not Hold,  she describes how writing each book, one for her husband and one for her daughter, were embodiments of her grief, how she was able to process what had happened. To me, they serve as an anatomical study of the nature of grief and a guidebook to understanding those who grieve.

We live in a society where emotions are kept at arms length. Positivity is lauded, sadness is a cause for correction. We want to cheer everyone up, tell them everything is going to be okay, perhaps we should become more comfortable with grief. After all, it’s not about us. Is it?

Joan Didion references Emily Post’s 1922 book on etiquette, in which Post discusses how to provide support to a person mourning, but also understand the physiological and neurological symptoms of a person in deep grief. It’s a very polite way of saying “Stay out of the way, this is not about you.” 

Persons under the shock of genuine affliction are not only upset mentally but are all unbalanced physically. No matter how calm and controlled they seemingly may be, no one can under such circumstances be normal[…]Although the knowledge that their friends love them and sorrow for them is a great solace, the nearest afflicted must be protected from any one or anything which is likely to overstrain nerves already at the threatening point, and none have the right to feel hurt if they are told they can neither be of use or be received.”

She then goes on to describe how this passage, and the chapter in general, spoke to her. Post was from someone who was comfortable and familiar with grief. She suggested small, direct actions that were not self-serving, that did not seek to take away their pain, but simply gave the grieving person more physical comfort. 

There was something arresting about the matter-of-fact wisdom here, the instinctive understanding of the physiological disruptions[…]She wrote in a world in which mourning was still recognized, allowed, not hidden from view. 

The English social anthropologist, Geoffrey Gorer, in his 1965 Death, Grief, and Mourning, had described this rejection of public mourning as a result of the increasing pressure of a new“ethical duty to enjoy oneself,” a novel“imperative to do nothing which might diminish the enjoyment of others.” In both England and the United States, he observed, the contemporary trend was“to treat mourning as a morbid self-indulgence, and to give social admiration to the bereaved who hide their grief so fully that no one would guess anything had happened.”

One way in which grief gets hidden is that death now occurs largely offstage. It did not typically involve hospitals. Women died in childbirth. Children died of fevers. Cancer was untreatable. At the time[Emily Post] undertook her book of etiquette, there would have been few American households untouched by the influenza pandemic of 1918. Death was up close, at home. The average adult was expected to deal comptatently, and also sensitively, with its aftermath. 

When we try to cheer someone up, make them feel better, or take away their pain, who are we really doing it for?

While positivity and encouragement are always important, sympathy and empathy are equally important. Sometimes, it’s not about making someone feel better. It’s not about dropping off a ham. It’s just about drawing the curtains, warming the fire and giving someone space to grieve.