This article is the compilation of our learnings from 7 global dinners held in 2019.
To grieve is to love; to love is to grieve. Society sometimes tells us to hide our grief, but there are other ways to handle this difficult emotion.
This month we held dinners on Loss and Grief in NYC, Toronto, Portland, Miami, Bogota and Caracas. From the moment women entered our homes, we felt this was a very different kind of topic, and a very different kind of night. Pregnant pauses were filled with deep respect, emotional releases handled with loving care, as we all created a quiet, reflective space together.
Society tells us to hide our Grief
Nobody ever told us that it’s okay to grieve. Grief happens in the shadows, void of language and masked in shame. Maybe you saw someone you love crying at a funeral, with their head down to mask their tears. Or your co-worker doesn’t show up to work for a few days. Everyone knows something happened, but nobody dares to ask.
Grief feels messy — it’s dark, it’s painful — it’s oftentimes taboo. Society tells us to keep it to ourselves, it’s a feeling too intense, best not to let anyone see. So the moment grief enters our lives we are paralyzed — forced to navigate without any sort of emotional framework, unsure of what to do or feel.
In Caracas and Bogota, the “grief taboo” was less prominent, as these are countries which inhabit a more open narrative around death and dying.
No one-size-fits-all Grief
Culture tells us that grief = death. However, experience tells us that grief can be so much more. While the conversation of death was prevalent around our tables, many conversations centered around other losses as well. Grief is not only about losing someone else — it can be about losing ourselves (or parts of ourselves) as well.
For some women, that means grieving for dreams that never became a reality. For others, that means grieving for your inner child, that little girl who never received the love and support she needed. Grief can be for the loss of a friendship, a divorce, or for a sick parent. Whatever the “cause,” grief is an expansive emotion, the feeling of a void for someone we loved and lost, or it’s the loss of ourselves — mourning an identity that never got to be.
When Grief arrives, we’re either feeling it….
For many of us, the feeling of grief comes in “waves,” undulations of emotional surge that quite literally take over our bodies. For some, the climax of the wave can feel utterly helpless. When we’re there, we have no other option but to hunker down and “sit with it”, letting the grief wash over us in all its power and intensity. For others (especially those grieving for a more distant loss), the waves are a welcome companion, a reminder that the entity we grieve is never really gone. Regardless, grief is a distinctly bodily feeling, moving in us and through us, yet outside of our conscious control.
…Or trying to avoid it
There’s three different ways we attempt to avoid our grief:
Judge: Many women are critical of their grief, wishing it were somehow different. For some, we feel like our grief is too much (“I shouldn’t feel this bad for this long”) or even undeserved (“I don’t have the right to be sad.”) Yet as Joan Didion said, “grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be.”
Isolate: When the waves of grief wash over our bodies, we immediately go into hiding so as to not be a burden to those around us. Some women separate themselves from others during the grieving process (which can be years), creating a pervasive sense of “aloneness” in what is actually one of the most universal feelings there are…
Numb it: While many of us are seasoned in the emotional labor of helping others through their grief, when it comes to our own grief, we’ll do anything to pretend it doesn’t exist. Sometimes the pain of grief feels outright deadly, and our numbing tactics are merely a way to survive. It’s as if we’ll do anything try to distract ourselves from truly feeling our grief.
However we avoid it, grief always finds ways to catch up to us…
To grieve is to love; to love is to grieve
Across all of our dinners, women were embodying the idea that loss and love are really two sides of the same coin. Our grief is a manifestation of how much we love. While the process is entirely non-linear, there is a cycle we all go through from Loss to Love. First, we experience the loss, then we grieve that loss, next we accept the fact that the loss is real, from there we can begin to heal and finally (and throughout), we love.
Loss: The void for what could have been or never was
Grief: We’re either feeling the waves or avoiding them
Acceptance: Coming to terms with the fact that the loss is real
Healing: Processing our pain, asking for support, feeling the depth of our feelings
Love: Gratitude and appreciation, loving ourselves and others
Postscript: Grief as the doorway to spirituality
In the past, religion played a very important role in the grieving process. But nowadays, religious institutions don’t play the same role they once did. Yet, when faced with the unknown, many of us seek answers to help us cope. At our tables, women talked about how they seek deeper meaning in life, with some discussing their “spiritual awakenings” after loss. How is this constant quest for meaning influencing our relationship with loss and death? While it is still taboo, we are seeing more and more people wanting to have real conversations — whether it is publicly sharing their lessons from loss, looking for support and connection or trying to transcend death altogether (Silicon Valley’s quest for immortality).
Cultural Nuance: Caracas, Venezuela
In chaotic and war-torn Caracas, grief was both personal and national. Our brave Dinner Confidential attendees are grieving for family members who have emigrated, children who have died of hunger, lack of food, medicine and, most recently — electricity and water. They grieve for a life and a country that has been taken away from them. While they are processing all that they have lost, they are also demonstrating incredible resilience — to fight for a better country and a better life.
Share your experience with grief with someone this week. Ask them if they want to share their story as well. Give yourself permission to fully feel and to fully witness.
The next time you feel grief come up in your body, allow it to really move through you — whether that means buckling down in fetal position in the peak of a wave, or just letting yourself have a cleansing cry.
Written by Sybil Ottenstein and Veronica Marquez in collaboration with our hosts Esther Mateo in Caracas, Rebecca Roebber in Seattle, Maria Sylvia & Claudia Belmont in Bogota, and Dee de Lara in Toronto.