One of the themes that came up recently in conversations is to focus less on grief and more on reinvention, transformation, transmutation, or even alchemy to move from surviving to thriving after major loss. I’ve talked about seeing grief as a superpower.
In an interview, I told the interviewer that I object to the use of the term “resilience” after grief, because it implies that people can “bounce back” to who and how they were before major loss, and that’s not accurate—they can’t. They’re forced to be or to become a different person in a lot of ways.
I used the example of Spiderman. He wasn’t born with his superpowers, and he didn’t ask for them. Once he had them, it was weird and confusing and there was definitely a transition period of adjustment. At some point, he figured out how to use them and to help others by doing so.
Grief can be like that. You didn’t ask for it, you certainly didn’t want it, and it can fundamentally change who you are and how you move about interacting with the world. It can also afford insights, knowledge, and perhaps empathy and awareness of others going through grief experiences as well. It’s like acquiring a new language that only grievers and *maybe* the naturally empathetically gifted can understand.
Grief can be used as a force for good or as a self-destructive and other-destructive force...like the superhero or supervillian routes. We’ve surely seen too many examples of people who use their pain to inflict more pain on themselves or others by lashing out in infinite ways. It’s noted in Bowlby’s Grief and Attachment works that there’s a theory that Hitler took his hatred out on an epic scale after his mother died of cancer under the care of a Jewish physician. Whether or not that theory is true, it highlights the magnitude of grief.
On the positive side, we also see people do things such as make donations, build charities or parks or monuments to honor their deceased loved ones. There are examples like Teddy Roosevelt starting the National Park system as a project and monument to his grief of losing several key members of his family. There are also countless works of art, writing, monuments, and others works as expressions of creating meaning from grief. The Taj Mahal is a literal monument to grief. MADD was started by a mother whose son was struck and killed by a drunk driver.
The meaning created from grief is a personal one, and we have a measure of say in how we create it. Batman is a pretty stark example of a superhero who was forged by grief after his parents were murdered. His story seems to revolve around themes of justice and revenge, but also of solitude. These also are familiar themes to some people in grief, particularly in the case of sudden death, when grief anger often comes to the fore. Another great, visceral example is James O’Barr’s graphic novel, The Crow, (later, movies) which he wrote after the death of his fiancé in a car accident.
Looking at grief as a superpower may itself be empowering when the emotions, totality, and magnitude of grief can feel overwhelming, exhausting, and utterly disempowering. It’s the most intense cocktail of emotions perhaps that human beings can experience. And people tend to spend most of our lives trying to avoid feeling “negative” emotions. However, your ability to feel emotions is one of the things that makes you human, and able to better understand and connect with other humans.