I am currently reading . The Year of Magical Thinking is Joan Didion’s account of her life after her husband’s sudden death. And, though I’m not that far in the book, her only child’s death soon thereafter. So far, I’m a bit bummed that it’s from the library and I can’t underline in it. If I could, I would have underlined this portion this morning. Right before this passage, Didion describes Emily Post’s 1922 ettiquette for grief. Didion then writes,
“[Mrs. Post] wrote in a world in which mourning was still recognized, allowed, not hidden from view. Philippe Aries, in a series of lectures he delivered at Johns Hopkins in 1973 and later published…noted that beginning about 1930 there had been in most Western countries and particularly in the United States a revolution in accepted attitudes toward death. ‘Death,’ he wrote, ‘so omnipresent in the past that it was familiar, would be effaced, would disappear. It would become shameful and forbidden.’ 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 contemptorary trend was ‘to treat mourning as 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.'”
To me, the expectations of the bereaved that she describes are for all of grief, not just that which follows physical death. Grief also applies to the death of a marriage, a dream, a career, a relationship. The death of the idea that life will turn out the way we plan it. We are expected to bear up, aren’t we? To handle it with grace. To seem as if nothing is wrong.
What if we behaved with one another the way in which Emily Post advises to behave around the bereaved? Didion reports that Emily Post suggests handing the bereaved a cup of hot tea without asking if it is wanted, knowing that, “Those who are in great distress want no food, but if it is handed to them, they will mechanically take it, and something warm to start digestion and stimulate impaired circulation is what they most need.” Would we break this cultural cycle of hustling up grief and shushing the loudly bereaved? Would we sit with one another more? Would we ask the unspoken questions more often? Would we hand over the tea and sit down to really listen?
I have been handed enough tea– –both literally and figuratively– –to know that we would.
If only we could figure out who to hand the tea to…