Two Views of Coping With Grief
By Mike McMahan, LPC
Recently, both CNN’s Brianna Keilar and standup comedian Patton Oswalt have shared deeply personal thoughts on the recent deaths of loved ones; in Keilar’s case it was her mother, while Oswalt lost his wife.
Brianna Keilar detailed her experience to the network that employs her, CNN. Keilar went viral during coverage of the presidential election after a conversation with Donald Trump’s lawyer. On the heels of this success, she thought that her key challenges this year would be career-related, but instead she faced the passing of her mother. Keilar’s mother died less than 24 hours after being diagnosed with leukemia. She still managed to find a balance between work and life, even though her mother was seemingly her biggest fan, hooked into the primaries like her own “reality show.” The experience provided Keilar with insights into what matters in life and led to a shift in perception towards a greater appreciation in her life. A death can provide these types of lessons, especially for those who choose to embrace the positives of what the tragedy may teach or show them, and look for ways to keep the spirit of their departed loved ones alive.
Oswalt’s piece is similarly personal and has an open-ended aspect, as the cause of his wife’s death is undetermined by the medical examiner at this time. Nonetheless, he too has thrown himself back into his work, which is standup comedy. The idea that comedians are “sad clowns” is not a new one, and the public was reminded of this when Robin Williams committed suicide. In the article, Oswalt admits that he has suffered from depression in the past, but grief is different from depression, though grief can certainly morph into depression after some amount of time. It makes more sense that he could tell jokes after his wife’s death when you consider the “sad clown” aspect of his chosen career, though he could have faced significant barriers that Keilar didn’t have to deal with. After all, while she missed her mom, her job is very serious and if she seemed slightly more serious, well, who would notice in a reporter? But a comedian wants to make people feel better via laughter. How does one do this when you’re hurting inside?
This idea of throwing yourself into work is an obvious commonality in both pieces. When a person suffers a loss, sometimes returning to normal routines can be comforting. Human beings are creatures of habit, and many of us find comfort in daily routines and rituals. On the other hand, many experts suggest that maintaining rituals for family events can be difficult and suggest that a death is an opportunity to establish new traditions. Consider the difficulty of the first Christmas without a beloved family member. If that person was very active in the Holiday traditions, their absence will be felt acutely. Some ideas include holding the gathering or celebration at a different house, or doing an activity that might not have been done before, such as going to a movie as a family. Of course, these things are not one-size-fits all. Some families choose to maintain traditions as a way of honoring the family member who has passed, which is understandable and may be therapeutic in different ways. After all, when someone dies, they will live on in our memories and hearts, and many choose to honor the person in that way. Some also find comfort in asking “what would my family member want me to do?”
In working with clients who have experienced a loss, virtually every single one says “my loved one would want me to go on and live life to the fullest.” Oswalt’s statement that he will “never be 100% again” struck me as extraordinarily sad. I am not remotely questioning how he chooses to feel or process his wife’s death, and he certainly may be right. But given that he has a young daughter to raise, he may not feel that way in the future and I am skeptical that his wife would want this (without knowing her, of course). I believe strongly in the basic goodness or people and choose to believe that they want the best for loved ones, even after their passing. His wife was giving her all to the true crime book she was writing, so she understands passion, commitment and achievement, which is why I believe she would want him to live to the fullest. For his own sake, and that of his daughter, I hope that he gets where he wants to be and finds peace.
Facing a significant loss is one of the most difficult things we face in life. If you are struggling with a passing, please reach out to a mental health professional or a doctor. There are people and resources who can help at these difficult times.
Mike McMahan, LPC is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
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