You Have the Right to Grieve
I first saw the story on Twitter. Dr. Ben Janaway, NHS psychiatrist, educator and mental health advocate, posted a photo of himself at the gym — but this was not the usual workout selfie. His jaw set, his face grim, Ben explained that turning pain into physical activity helped him to grieve.
I have followed Ben for a while, though we aren’t personally acquainted outside the digital stratosphere. We both have interests in health access and social justice, and Ben — himself a doctor — is open about his own struggles with mental health. Burly and bearded, a self-proclaimed “viking with neurosis,” Ben spends a lot of time helping others; I naturally wanted to know what had happened to bring him sorrow.
Ben had just lost Martha. Martha was a cat. When I asked him if I might speak about his experience in losing her, he was at first apologetic: “It’s just a cat, it doesn’t compare.” My heart broke to hear that, because I know for Ben, she was not “just.” And yet, our first impulse is often to say such things, as if that loss is less important than other kinds.
Loss is loss. Every time we lose something we have loved, a part of us goes with it. And you are allowed to grieve. You have a right to it, and no one should belittle, deny, or try to take it from you. In this last addition to the Coping with Death series, let’s look at how we got to this cultural place of grief denial, and how to get past it.
Most of what I wrote in Death’s Summer Coat (my book exploring death and dying cross-culturally) centers on the idea that our approach to dying has changed. And not often for the better.
Our medical establishment is primarily concerned with prolonging life, not with preparing us for death. Death has become the enemy of medicine, to be fought at all costs, regardless of the situation. This is evident from the various debates about assisted suicide and enforced life support, and legal cases such as that of Terri Schiavo, a woman in a vegetative state whose feeding tube was removed only after seven years, fourteen appeals, five suits in federal district court, and a Supreme Court decision.