“What does it mean to protest suffering, as distinct from acknowledging it?” writes Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others. Acknowledgment, the recognition of unimaginable pain and loss, is central, it turns out, to healing. Grief expert Alan Wolfelt lists “acknowledging the full reality of the loss” as the first in his “Six Needs of Mourning.” But he also notes what so many in his field are quick to point out about contemporary culture: “Normal thoughts and feelings connected to loss are typically seen as unnecessary and even shameful.”
The important work of grieving gets bypassed not only by our own internalized shame, but by the unhelpful interventions of others. Megan Devine—author of It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand—explains the central role of acknowledgment, simply being with others in the full scope of their pain, in the short animated video above. Many of us are taught to do anything but, to throw out advice and platitudes instead. (Illustrated here by an animated bunny tossing out rainbows.)
Our motives may not be “nefarious,” she says, but—to use Sontag’s phrase—trying to fix someone’s suffering amounts to a form of protest against it. And it only makes things worse. Devine is a psychotherapist and bereaved person herself. Her book, notes Jane Brody at The New York Times, “grew out of the tragic loss of her beloved partner, who drowned at age 39 while the couple was on vacation.” She speaks not in the jargon of a clinician but in the frank language of a fellow sufferer and survivor.
“You don’t need platitudes,” she writes on her website, “You don’t need cheerleading. You don’t need to be told this all happened for a reason. You certainly don’t need to be told that you needed your pain in order to learn something about life. Some things cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”
Being with someone in their grief is “a radical act,” says Devine. “In order to really support you, I have to acknowledge that things really are as bad as they feel to you.” Offers of cheer or advice create defensive barriers. Turning toward someone’s suffering gives them what they need the most: “Being heard helps. It’s the best medicine we have. It makes things better, even when they can’t be made right.”