My privilege

For the first time in my life, I love being asked what I do. I’m still finessing the language around what I say so that it makes sense to people, but the internal cringe that accompanied that question since I graduated college is gone. My answer tends to elicit one of two reactions. People either respond with some version of, Wow, how interesting, that’s great, quickly changing the subject, or they launch into a story about grief. I love those conversations. They get real, fast.

I met a woman the other day whose husband and son-in-law died of cancer and now her oldest daughter is in the final stages. She’s taken herself away to an island to die, leaving her young daughter with her new guardian. The family is in turmoil, trying to get her to come home. She talked, I listened, until she felt her emotions rise up and stopped herself, moving back to the task at hand. My heart broke for them all.

Last week I walked the Picking Up the Pieces guide over to my neighbors’ house. I want to know if it holds any value for someone whose intense grief is over twenty years old. As we sat and talked about life and death, fear and time, I saw tears in the husband’s eyes, witnessing again the truth of you never get over it.

You never get over it.

(You will never again be the person you were before.)

Why do we think we should? Because the bible of mental health diagnoses, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) gives 2 months for bereavement? Because most employers give 2 or 3 days? Because our rituals around death are over within weeks and if it’s not a death you’re grieving, you likely have no ritual to support you at all?

Grief is baptism by fire. It feels like more than we can stand. It tears our skin off and we walk, naked and raw, through the world. We shut down, or we hide, or we go a little crazy. We cry in the grocery store or we laugh at inappropriate moments or we get over-the-top angry when we burn our toast. If we’re lucky, through it all, we carry that seed of hope, of knowing, deep inside that tells us we will eventually be okay.

You will be okay.

(I know this.)

It is my privilege to hear these stories, to bear witness to love and loss, fear and pain. It is a gift to have my heart broken open and still get through the day whole. It is my journey to hold space for these intense experiences, these feelings that pull us under and make us gasp for breath. It is, finally, my pleasure to answer the question, What do you do?

Thank you, my sweet son, for changing my life. I miss you like crazy. I love you.


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7 Responses to My privilege

  1. Roos says:

    Thank you dear Ben, for showing your dear mother her incredible inspiring journey!

  2. Louise Gray says:

    I have been moved many times over the past year reading your posts and following your journey. This post is so critical for so many going through grief – you are never over it. Society (which is us) doesn’t want to acknowledge that the pain of grief cannot be ‘cured’ with a pill or a good sleep. Many years ago I struggled to cope with the violence of my aunt’s murder. In going through a support group with other women (for some reason there were no men in this group) learning about the emotions associated with losing someone to murder, I realized there was no time line. There was someone who lost her friend 20 years ago, someone who lost her fiance and her co-workers expected her to get over it in a month or two, and a woman whose daughter was killed by the daughter’s ex-husband – and her husband, the person she most needed to support her, couldn’t because his grief was too great. And they had to relive it all for the trial. My family also must relive my aunt’s death every time there is an appeal or parole hearing. We are not the same, we look at everything differently and react in ways that some don’t understand. Thank you for sharing your personal journey and allowing your followers to learn more about our own grief with you.

  3. pamela says:

    Alana, thank you for honoring this sacred contract and doing what you now do. Sometimes I think we are all grieving for something we have never let ourselves properly grieve for. We all cry in the produce section and rail over our burnt toast for reasons that sometimes we ourselves don’t even know. I wish grief could be more concrete, that it could have corners, but it is such a cloud. Thank you for honoring this place in all of us.

  4. Christa says:

    It is a privilege, isn’t it? And it is also a privilege for all of us – the ones you touch through your writing, your work, the good you send out each day.

    Pamela is right. Grief is a huge, semi-formed, elusive cloud. I am profoundly grateful to Ben and to you and your family for taking on the roles you play. It is a gift to the world.



  5. I think I mentioned to you before that I only recently started to grieve the loss of my mother. She passed when I was 4, it’s now 30 years later. The disconnect is knowing how profoundly affected I was by her loss, but never knowing what that meant for how I live my life. The gulf is vast, but slowly it’s shrinking, through reading words like this, and paying it the respect it deserves. Keep on, my friend. This is important work you do.

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  7. Shannon W. says:

    ” if it’s not a death you’re grieving, you likely have no ritual to support you at all?”

    Thank you for saying that, and for the acknowledgement that sometimes grief is for other reasons. Both of my sons (they are 19 & 21) attempted suicide within 6 weeks of each other this spring. I have been grieving, angry, scared and … slowly am become grateful that neither of them succeeded and that they are both moving forward. And that I too can start to move forward again.

    But very few people understand my need to grieve, and to process the trauma of it.

    Your writing is beautiful. Thank you for sharing your loss and growth and the story of Benjamin with all of us.

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