Updated: Mar 7
Among the numerous questions that I have lately been forced to ponder, one is concerned about how we experience and express (and how we expect others to experience and express) sorrow or grief over someone we have loved and lost. Presumably, most people nowadays would understand that each individual grieves differently and would genuinely show their respect for others' way of grieving or coping. Still, there are certain expectations shaped by one's own upbringing or by social norm that often become our lenses by which to evaluate the actions of grieving people.
As noted before, our modern society seems to have developed an increasingly dominant cultural norm that discourages or frowns upon people grieving or showing vulnerability publicly as if such actions amount to admitting weakness or fragility of the modern self-subject. Even though we still occasionally see the most grandiose mourning ceremonies on display for the whole world (as in the case of (former) state heads), most of those state-staged ceremonies are probably more influenced by political considerations and rituals than by genuine desires for people to grieve and thus heal thereby.
At least in modern industrialized countries, there seems to have been less and less public space and cultural tolerance for the ordinary members of society to show grief and pain outside their own family or small social circles. It is true that some of the "traditional" rituals are still being performed in the rural area for the whole village to mourn the passing of one of them for several days in certain transitioning societies, but that "luxury"is no longer available for most urban dwellers in grief. And the window for grieving has shrunk to such an extent that people are expected to return to work and resume normalcy within days after they have just suffered a devastating loss of their loved ones (we are grateful to our colleagues at U of T for granting us extra time to care for Aaron and then to recover from his passing. To be honest, it would have done disservice to our students if we had to immediately return to teaching).
This society-wide tendency to downplay or even ignore both the necessity and enormous impact of grieving, despite its inevitability for every one of us at some point, deserves much more serious and wider discussion as well as more research and policy responses than has been afforded. It is beyond the scope of this post to investigate further in this regard. What I do seek some clarity on is the question of how modern social norms about grieving have shaped our conduct and perception. Quite central to this topic is the issue of vulnerability.
While most people nowadays do not like to be seen as "vulnerable," vulnerability is described by those who have survived long processes of grieving as a "gift" for all of us because it serves to bridge the gap between self-centred individuals to enable us to better understand, empathize, and communicate with other people than we would when we pretend to be strong and capable of overcoming any challenge in our life journey. Appreciating and learning to live with our and other's vulnerability would encourage us to accept others' help, which are necessary throughout our life, and in return to help others in distress. After all, as poet David Whyte and many others have pointed, vulnerability is part of human nature and the "ever present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state" (see his Whyte's poem below).
To recognize our (as well as others') vulnerability is not meant to make us feel vulnerable and helpless, let alone make us appear weak and hopeless, but to make us ultimately stronger and more resilient, as well as more forgiving and compassionate towards others, by better preparing us for the anticipated or unanticipated difficulties and sufferings, including losing what we have loved, and by being more supportive to others in pain.
A similar point has been made by Judith Butler in a book entitled Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence, a book I have cited a few times in my first monograph (Chinese Law in Imperial Eyes, 2016) and one or two subsequent articles but never anticipated to mention in this context. In that book, Butler discussed how important it is for all of us to appreciate the shared precariousness of human life in order to learn to extend empathy and peace to other members of humanity (or for that reason, probably to all sentient creatures, etc.).
While many people, especially those of a much younger age, in such a situation may prefer to project a public image of admirable strength and invincibility while hiding all the signs of pain and suffering because they do not want to be at the receiving end of what they may call "a pity-fest," that would be not just misconstruing the well-intended, genuine support of many other people but also misunderstanding human nature in general. David Whyte has aptly put it this way: "Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without."
To conclude, just as some people with decades of grieving experience are suggesting that we can learn to be grateful for having experienced grief, however painful that might be, it would be in our and humanity's interest to accept vulnerability as a gift. Of course, this is not to say that the pains and sufferings are not real or devastating. Rather, the point is that we can learn eventually to live with a sense of urgency and mission and to more courageously embrace life, with all its wonders and mysteries as well as all its losses and pains, by focusing on what life is, not what life could or should have been. More will be said on this in future blogs. This recognition does not contradict my call for greater social and cultural space for (public) grieving and wider recognition of our shared vulnerability. To end this already long post, the link below has my reading of David Whyte‘s poem on "vulnerability" for those interested. It helps put this post into context .