Learning the Language of Grief

This week I was asked to facilitate a suicide bereavement group in collaboration with Persist Health Project to support those who had recently lost someone important to them.  This person also happened to be a leader in their community, and someone who had offered support and strength to many beyond their immediate circle of loved ones.  We sat together that morning in an effort to learn and teach each other the language of grief.

Please note, the following does not represent mine or any one else’s voice in particular, and is not meant to be a distillation or summation of all voices present, but represents a few of the ideas and feelings that were shared as our thoughts and emotions intersected and diverged.

We sat facing each other and talked about our emotions, the emotions of those who knew the person well and had seen them recently, and the emotions of those who had only met them once or twice but had been affected deeply by their fierce activism. Collectively, we were sad, shocked, confused, angry, numb, hurt, speechless, frustrated, anguished, heavy, isolated, overwhelmed, afraid, hopeless, guilty. We also felt love for the person who is now gone, and for others in our respective and intersecting communities. We also felt hate for the forces in the world that make life so difficult to live at times, and for the internal forces that can exist within individuals that sometimes lead towards destruction. We wondered what it means to die, to kill yourself, to exist after someone you care about kills themselves, what anything means, whether anything really has meaning, how meaning changes, how emotions change, how things can get better, then worse, then better, how nothing stays the same. We talked about wanting to take care of each other, and to take care of ourselves, and not always knowing how to do either. We talked about how sometimes taking care of yourself is a way to take care of someone else important to you, and asking for help for yourself is a way to help your community. We asked a lot of questions, and the most concrete answer was that there is sometimes no answer, because sometimes the answer is in the asking.

We talked about the different ways we react at different times to different people after something like this happens. We talked about the importance of self-expression, about fighting the good fight, about listening to music, about engaging all senses, about communication, about sex, about feeding yourself, about simply existing, about just being there, about sitting in uncomfortable silence, about trying, about letting go of meaning making, about asking for help.

It’s hard to talk about death and about grief because it’s not something we’re ever really taught to do in Western culture, so it’s like learning a new language. In the silence that comes with not knowing what to say or how to feel about things like suicide or grieving, there can be loneliness and isolation, and even those who seem to be the most prosocial and surrounded by support can be lonely and isolated and not seem like they are at all.

An experience like the one I describe above can never be encapsulated or distilled down in a way that accurately represents each individual’s perspective, but I will leave you with some thoughts that I feel are useful to contemplate.  Self-care can be as simple as becoming aware of one’s internal processes and emotions, even if that awareness is that there is a certain lack of awareness or ability to be aware.  Learning how to communicate transparently and empathetically with others is a work in progress that is not always easy, and can be clouded by grief.  Engaging with and strengthening our respective and intersecting communities can be active ways to support those we care about while strengthening our own support systems.

Finally, if I were to voice a take home message, it would be this: We sat facing each other.  It wasn’t about the sitting, or the direction we were sitting, but we shared space.  People came out to share space together, to take care of each other, to take care of themselves.

I will be offering free therapy sessions at the Persist Health Project office to those in mourning in the wake of this tragedy on Monday afternoons through April. Contact me directly through email or call 917-675-3446.

Some additional resources:

Parachute NYC provides alternatives to hospitalization for people experiencing emotional crises.

The Support Line is a free and confidential phone service operated by peer staff that offers support and referral services to NYC individuals experiencing emotional distress: 646-741-HOPE.

1-800-LIFENET is a free, confidential, multi-lingual, mental health and substance abuse information, referral, and crisis prevention hotline available to anyone at any time.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline—by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.

The Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention is a public-private partnership advancing the Surgeon General’s National Strategy for Suicide Prevention.

The Trevor Project is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) young people ages 13-24.

Persist Health Project is a peer-led, community-based health and community organizing project based on Brooklyn, New York that provides health referrals, health education, mental health services, herbal health services, peer support, job training, and leadership development for communities involved with and/or impacted by the sex trade.

ManhattanAlternative.com is a network of therapeutic service providers in New York City who are sex-positive, affirmative, and have expertise related to issues that kink, poly, consensually non-monogamous, trans, gender non-conforming, and/or LGBQ-identified individuals face.

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