Why We All Need to Learn How to Grieve

I remember as a kid, playing superheroes with my little brother, he’d jump off the couch and announce his superhero name and his super powers, something like “Sharkman!” or “SpeedDemon!” Then I’d jump off the couch announcing my name as “FlowerVenom!” or CatPrincess!” just like in the movies. We’d explain our chosen powers to one another, back and forth, escalating in extremes and impossibilities, until the rules of the fight were established. Then we’d wrestle around the family room, jumping and kicking, just like they did in the movies.

Then at one point he’d be face down, since I was three years older and bigger than him. He’d play dead, I’d shake him saying “No sharkman No!” just like when someone falls in the movies. And slowly he’d reawaken, revived from the dead, and we’d fight more until one of us actually got hurt or required parental intervention.

At some point I realized that once someone dies, they can’t wake up. So when Todd would act out his death and revival scene I would try to explain to him, “No Todd, when you die you don’t get back up.” It really put a damper on things and it wasn’t long after that I grew out of that game.

But it’s not hard to see where he got the idea. We were doing our kid best to emulate what we saw in the movies. Again and again we watched the hero wake up from sure demise and overcomes unsurvivable odds. The hero never dies.

So it’s no wonder death is so hard for us to talk about. It is more unreal to us than surviving extreme violence. When our troops came home from World War II, instead of calling it an inability to deal with our emotional trauma, we called it stoicism. When George Bush said the time for mourning was over just ten days after September 11th we called it patriotism. When 21st Century medical technology is unable to save our loved one we blame the doctors instead of our own mortality.

But what happens when all of a sudden we are face to face with death? Something we have not talked about for sometimes our entire life all of a sudden confronts us. And as strange as it may seem, it’s not a matter of if, but when. Everyone you have ever met will die someday, and so will you.

As a culture, we will all have to learn how to grieve, either that or live out our days in denial of our emotions. As Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly and Rising Strong, would put it, in denial of a “whole hearted life” and our “true selves.”

Which brings me to this picture of a starving polar bear, shot by Kerstin Langenberger. Learning how to grieve and live beyond denial also means being able to look at pictures like theses and all of the horrific changes our environment is undergoing and allow yourself to feel all the emotions that brings up. I’m an incredibly emotional and sentimental person and images like this cripple me,

I admit that for a long time, I refused to even look at pictures like these. I had given up, I had resorted to “There’s nothing I can do to change this,” and so I stopped engaging with the realities of climate change. But when this image crept its way onto my facebook feed this week, I knew that simply “not looking” would never solve the problem.

Don’t get me wrong, I will still drive my car, take my showers and drink my cappuccinos, but I choose to “feel” and be aware of what we are doing to the Earth. I choose to mourn the thousands of lost species and creatures that once shared this planet. Denial will not save them. If major changes, on a cultural, economic and political level, do not come soon, we may all need to learn how to grieve these animals and environments. We will have to learn what it’s like for something to lost forever, because unlike in the movies, they will never come back.