The Grief Basement

Losses happen throughout the lifecycle, beginning perhaps with birth itself. The experience of being born is to be ejected from the womb, a profound physical and existential loss of home, a place where all needs are met. Over time we experience losses of all kinds, some seemingly trivial and some monumental. I believe these experiences are stored in our brains and our bodies, almost as if we had a grief vault inside of us.

I imagine this vault to be like a basement inside a house. Every time we experience a loss we stuff the grief through that basement door, locking it away so we can go on with everyday life. The basement is cold, shadowy, and maybe even a little bit creepy. We don’t really go down there unless we have to.

Frequently people have told me stories of hearing about the death of a celebrity, or attending a funeral of a loved one’s family member, and feeling overcome by grief. “Why did I even cry at the service? I had never even met the person who died.” Sometimes a particular random loss can catapult us unexpectedly into this vault of grief, as if the door to the basement has been blown wide open.

Grief is not linear or logical. Grief is a visceral, embodied, emotional and spiritual experience of separation and tearing away. A raggedy rip in the fabric of life, similar to the kriyah ribbon that Jews wear after the death of a loved one. Grief is three dimensional and in the best and worst moments, transformational. My own recent experience of the death of my mother has taught me on a cellular level about the enormity of grief and its permeating profound impact. Loss is a universal experience of the living, and a powerful human equalizer. None of us are immune.

Kriyah ribbons, funerals, wakes, lighting candles and other rituals for death and mourning, are designed to hold us in our grief. These rituals are not meant to be times of stoicism or propriety. Grief rituals are meant to be tear catchers. Even the very proper Victorians had lachrymatories, literally “tear catchers,” small ornate vessels to contain tears, and which also existed in other cultures and countries.

When the door to the grief basement is uncorked, those stored up losses come flying out and sometimes the grief can seem overwhelming, perhaps even disproportionate to the loss itself. The body has a natural impulse to express grief. Crying, shaking, wailing, moaning, swaying, bending, kneeling, shuddering, curling up, collapsing, sleeping—all of these are embodied expressions of grief that can be seen in animals as well as humans. Anyone who has had multiple pets has likely witnessed an animal’s grief when one of the pets dies.

White Western society has largely sanitized grief and loss. Employers typically offer three-day bereavement leave for their employees, as if three days would be sufficient for anyone to recover from a significant loss. Too often funerals, memorial services, even obituaries have become stiff, formal and in some cases, performative. Workplaces do very little to acknowledge or care for bereaved employees. Moreover, health care professionals who experience patient deaths rarely have an opportunity to adequately grieve these losses.

Recently, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg announced that Facebook now offers employees up to 20 days of paid bereavement leave. (Sandberg’s husband Dave died suddenly while the family was on vacation, and she has spoken out publicly about her experience of grief and loss) Most other working people without such policies and protections in the workplace are left to simply manage the grief, or stuff it in the basement, and return to work immediately.

Last year Bay area design company IDEO also launched its “Redesigning Death” and “End of Life Challenge” efforts to engage people in new perspectives and conversations about death and loss. The Dinner Party, a community of young adults in their 20s and 30s who have experienced significant loss, has launched a network of dinner party tables around the globe where people gather to share good food and personal stories of thriving in “#lifeafterloss.” Recently The Dinner Party has also begun planting seeds for conversations about how to transform cultures, communities and workplaces to more compassionately address the universal human experience of loss.

While there are still bereavement support groups available at local hospices, religious institutions and counseling centers, there is also a great need for us to make space for grief—our own and each other’s– in our everyday lives. If you find yourself with the door of the grief basement wide open, rest assured that there are people, places and dinner tables where you will be truly welcomed as you are. We’ve saved a seat at the table for you.