Gilded Grief

(Short topical blogs based on Opiate Nation – translation into most languages in tab on right.)

While reading Rising Strong by Brené Brown, I was struck by a thought she shared about our American culture and the absence of honest conversation and the hard work it takes for us to rise strong after a fall on our face – a failure. She worries that “this lack of honesty about overcoming adversity has created a Gilded Age of Failure.”

Gilding is a perfect word-picture for this characteristically human behavior: applying a very thin coating of gold to a plain, inexpensive object that gives it the appearance of gold. This is what we do when we are dishonest about our feelings. We are choosing to make our real, plain, and common story appear better than it is.

“We’ve all fallen…but scars are easier to talk about than they are to show with all the remembered feelings laid bare…We much prefer stories about falling and rising to be inspirational and sanitized…We like recovery stories to move quickly through the dark so we can get to the sweeping redemptive ending.”  (Rising Strong, Introduction)

The irony of gilded stories is that the real and valuable story is what lies beneath and it never needed to be gilded. Our painful stories do not need to be covered over – they just need to be polished so they shine. “All that glitters is not gold” – the well-known saying from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice – reminds us that things which seem valuable many times are not. A fitting corollary – “All that is gold does not glitter” from Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring – reminds us that the plain, sometimes homely things in life are truly valuable.

For parents such as us who have lost a child to a preventable death – by overdose, suicide, alcohol poisoning, gang violence, etc. – the regrets and accompanying guilt are a “failure”, if not to others, at least to ourselves. While we all know about the stigma related to these preventable deaths, there is equal stigma surrounding openly sharing about loss and grief. During times of grieving our loved ones, most of us have heard well-meaning friends share their discomfort with our expressions of pain and hurt by encouraging us to “just move on” and “you will feel better soon.”

All of us prefer to gild the pain we experience – our sense of self and pride want to appear strong and well and on top of things. But I think we all know that this is not a healthy way to live our lives, to be fully alive. As Brown stresses in her work on vulnerability and shame, we cannot learn and grow and change after failure unless, and until, we acknowledge and deal honestly with the real hurt, heartbreak, and fear.

And John and I have found, when we are vulnerable and honest about our own failures and the resultant deep grief and emotional pain, we then invite others to be more open and honest about their own experiences and feelings.

Regrets: Endless Stairways

(Twenty-ninth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

Our family loves the art of Dutch mathematician and artist M. C. Escher: the buildings that open into themselves, the school of fish that become a flock of birds, the circuitous stairways that go up and down throughout multiple buildings without an end point. Yes, stairways that never get you where you want to go, but keep you endlessly retracing your steps. They are no longer interesting art to wonder at. They now mirror how John and I have felt many times since August 2nd—regrets—retracing the steps of our entire lives.

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Handwriting on the Wall

The other day I was thinking about our son and his struggles with drugs and alcohol and all that we know and understand now compared to what we knew and understood in the early 2000’s right up until his death in 2014. I saw myself, as if I were standing out in an open field, turning, looking back over my shoulder. That’s what I do when something unexpected or disturbing happens. I look back and try to figure out what I missed, what I could have done differently.

My next thought was: Why couldn’t my husband and I see the handwriting on the wall? Why didn’t we realize how dire the situation was at every new juncture with our son as the years went by? But, I realized that it wasn’t that we couldn’t see the handwriting on the wall. It was that we didn’t understand what it meant.

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