a man and a woman taking a selfie. The woman is a ghost

Good Grief

Lucy is crouched down on one knee. Her index finger supports a football standing on end. Charlie Brown approaches the football and just as he swings his leg to kick it, Lucy, for the umpteenth time, pulls it away. “Good Grief,” says Charlie Brown, tantalized and tortured once again, a victim of his own good nature and the deep belief that this time Lucy will hold the ball steady until he kicks it.

Good grief is a classic oxymoron. One definition of good is “satisfactory in quality, quantity, or degree.” One definition of grief is “a cause or occasion of keen distress or sorrow.” Is it possible for keen distress and sorrow to be satisfactory?

Shades of grief

Grief is an emotion that grows with intensity as one matures and accumulates more experience with loss. In childhood, the loss of a pet, a grandparent, or another older relative might be the first experience with grief. In adolescence, grief might accompany losing a friend or breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend. We might not call it grief at that age, but the feeling has all of the same emotional conditions we associate with it: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Our shared fate

Adult life inevitably includes loss of parents, maybe a divorce or loss of a job, or, God forbid, loss of a child. Understanding that grief is part of life doesn’t necessarily make it easier. In fact, I would argue that it makes it harder. Why? Because each loss underscores two realities: nothing is permanent; everyone dies. We’re all faced with the same existential challenge: accepting death. Every time we’re reminded of our fate, and as that fate becomes more imminent, grief accompanies that reminder.

Stages of grief

For people who have experienced life-threatening medical conditions (in my case heart disease and cancer), grief is related to our own fragility and loss, not just external experience. On a national level, we’re experiencing grief over external events like COVID-19 deaths and the horrific death of George Floyd. The stages of grief are being played out on our TV screens on every newscast.

Non-linear

Add that to daily internal grief over the personal loss of physical capabilities, lives governed by medication and doctor’s appointments, and a person might find himself or herself in a perpetual state of grief, with little chance of reaching acceptance. And, since I don’t think grief is linear anyway, brief acceptance can lead right back to the beginning of the cycle.

Counteracting grief with joy

So is there such a thing as “good grief?” One might say that, if grief is a form of catharsis, “the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions,” then, yes, grief can be good. But there’s another way in which grief can be good. It is a reminder that every day can be lived fully, despite the acceptance of the inevitable; in fact, because of the acceptance of the inevitable. It can be a reminder that good habits, like proper diet and exercise, can both extend life and, more importantly, add quality to it. And it can be as simple as this: eat well, keep moving!

We can’t avoid grief, but we can counteract it with joy by recognizing joy in our own lives and in the lives of others. It’s true: no one gets out of “here” alive. But it’s also true that we have some control over the “here” and now. Will Lucy ever hold the ball? Unlikely, but it’s up to us to decide how, or if, we want to play the game.

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