Can grief be contagious?

I met Martha Clark Scala at one of the first Esalen Institute workshops I took after our son died by suicide. And it was in that workshop where I found my voice in poetry. “Aftermath,” the simple poem I wrote resonated such with Martha, that she wrote the following piece about her brother’s death. The poem and the article both appeared first in the Summer 2001 issue of “We Need Not Walk Alone,” published by The Compassionate Friends, an organization that provides friendship, understanding, and hope to those going through the natural grieving process. Martha and I have been friends ever since.

I’m Not Contagious

By Martha Clark Scala

In the two or three weeks immediately following my brother Nick’s death, I received numerous calls, cards, plants, flowers, and offers of help. My loss sat on the front burner of many wonderful people’s stoves for about 21 days. I was in their thoughts, prayers, and blessings.

Unfortunately, many issues and events vie for front-burner status. Part of me understood why the love, attention, and concern started to recede. Another part of me wanted to throw a full-blown temper tantrum live at Madison Square Garden. “My brother, Nick, is dead. Gone. Finished. Have you forgotten?” I would cry, and have a grand time berating others for overlooking my plight. No wonder I resonated so deeply with Madeline Sharples’ poem, “Aftermath.” I could have written the same poem, simply replacing her word “son” with my word “brother.”

In my fantasy, I would tattoo a large “G” for grieving on my exposed forehead so that no one could possibly forget what had recently happened. They would have to remember to ask me, “How are you doing?” Either that or they’d be feigning blindness!

The front-page headline of my imaginary newspaper would always have “Martha’s Brother Has Died” as its leading story. Political scandals, tragedies, and stock market crashes would never get top billing. I suppose I would have some fine arguments with my imaginary editor about this! When it’s our loss, it is the headliner for quite a while. When it’s someone else’s loss, it just isn’t. In a journal entry written seven months after Nick died, I wrote:

Inside of me, there’s a voice screaming to be heard:  “No, you don’t get it! I just lost my brother! Lost my brother! One of the most significant people in my life! Don’t you dare move on to the next topic . . . I’m still on this topic and I am not ready to move on and I won’t be ready to move on for quite some time.”

My heartfelt request to the world goes something like this: “If you feel like you don’t know what to say, don’t say much. Just show up! I have not just come down with strep throat! I’m not contagious!”

When you have strep throat, a kiss, hug, or even a handshake is discouraged. The well-wisher will keep a distance, offer sincere apologies, and the sick person will understand. But we don’t have strep throat. We have grief. It’s not a sickness, but a condition with symptoms and circumstances. Sorrow. Pain. Longing. Regrets. Tears. Unanswered questions. Forms to fill out. Belongings to give away. Shock. Insomnia. Memories, good and bad. Wills. Death certificates.

These symptoms last much longer than two weeks or a month; perhaps some will last a lifetime. They may be acute at first, but they don’t go away when the initial wave of sympathy cards, visits, and other greetings ebbs. The intensity of the symptoms may ease, but they do persist. Unfortunately, many well-wishers disappear or forget or have new things on their own front burners. Under our breath, we grievers are saying, “Please don’t disappear. I need you.” We don’t really need that much, and yet some friends and family members seem to feel like attending to us is the equivalent of running a marathon. In fact, all that’s needed is empathy … that ability to walk a mile in our moccasins, as the old saying goes.

What do we need? The answer may be a bowl of chicken soup because we’ve forgotten to eat. We may need some groceries or a prescription filled at the drugstore. We may even need some solitude. However, don’t confuse solitude with solitary confinement or quarantine. We are neither dangerous nor contagious. Well-wishers accrue karmic gold stars for showing up at a time when many can’t.

Martha and her brother, Nicholas Clark, at their parents’ house on Cape Cod. “This is one of my favorite pictures of the two of us,” says Martha. “It was the summer of ’91 or ’92, a happy time between transplants.”

Feeling Invisible While Grieving

We may need someone’s presence or vitality or willingness to listen. We may need someone to hear the same story or memory or lament twice, three times, or more. We need others to let us move through our grief at whatever pace our particular journey selects. We do not need to be talked out of our feelings, unless we have asked for it. We don’t need cheering up or problem-solving, unless we have asked for them. No one can hasten our return to pre-loss levels of activity or interest. The gift of attention we need is one that permits us to just be where we are in our grieving process. We will get better. Our condition will improve, but it takes time and patience: gifts we can give to ourselves and hope to receive from others.

In my teens, I took a walk on a city street in Athens, Greece. It was easy to distinguish the tourists from the natives. The tourists were in light-colored clothing while the denizens of Athens were, seemingly without exception, in black. Black skirts, dresses, pants, sweaters, shoes, socks, hats, and coats. Black. This was long before wearing all-black clothing was considered hip, vogue, or Goth. Some time later, I was told that the Greek tradition is that you wear black for a year after someone close to you dies. My lasting impression of Greece, other than its stunning beauty and ancient architecture, was that an awful lot of people had died there!

In our country, grief can be invisible. If you met someone who was unaware that you’d recently suffered a major loss, how would that person know? Perhaps you appear a bit sadder or more distracted than usual. More than likely, you look much the same on the outside as you looked the day or two before your beloved died. By comparison, if you were walking on that same sidewalk with crutches, it would be instantly obvious that something was not right. Your injury would elicit a question and open the door to further conversation about the trauma: “What happened?” “Are you okay?”   In the aftermath of a death, crutches are not prescribed for treatment of our heartache. Because there is nothing visible to signal our grief to the outside world, it’s easy to feel even more contagious.

We rarely get to see the pain of those still living, though perhaps feeling like the living dead as they suffer with the loss in their everyday, moment-to-moment existence. Much energy is directed toward containing the suffering, even in settings such as funeral homes, gravesites, or temples. Many a prescription for mild tranquilizers or sedatives is filled after the death and before the funeral in an effort to suppress any show of emotion. In my psychotherapy practice and elsewhere, I hear grievers consumed with the challenge of hiding their tears, looking strong, and by all means not losing “it.”

I salute those Greek women, men, and children who expose their loss in their choice of clothing day after day. If we only had some universal symbol, some universal color or badge that would announce to the world that we are grieving … shouldering a fragile and vulnerable myriad of swarming feelings and emotions underneath our clothing and inside our skin … perhaps then others could and would remember to attend to us. Our grief is frequently silent and out of sight—an experience not too different from that of those who have been quarantined with a virulent ailment. When we’re without support, our feelings start to swarm, there is nowhere to go with them, and no one to talk to about them. It becomes difficult to temper our thoughts or feelings when we feel no link to the outside world.

I like to think I’m wearing my grief badge when I talk or write about my brother’s death. By sharing my experience with others, my grief becomes more visible. I join a community. I hear and feel nods of recognition and support, and I feel a lot less contagious. This isn’t a community that any of us wanted to join, as the entry requirements are very painful. It is nonetheless a loving community with empathetic arms to hold us. What a gift to receive in the aftermath of such a profound loss.

Martha Clark Scala is a retired psychotherapist who for twenty-five years devoted her practice to helping people alleviate grief and celebrate their creativity. Her brother, Nicholas, died in 1996 at age 45, following an illness that required a heart transplant in 1985 and a kidney transplant from another sibling, Margo, in 1995. Martha edits an e-newsletter, Out on a Limb, which encourages readers to maximize the joy in their lives.

NOTE:  “I’m Not Contagious” was reprinted in the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapy’s bimonthly publication, The Therapist, in 2005.

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I’ve been reading “Out on a Limb” ever since its inception eleven years ago. I urge you to join me. Every issue has good tips for gaining a joyous life.

Comments

  1. Madeline, this is such a powerful description of grief. I felt it on a visceral level and recall similar feelings when my beloved grandmother was dying during the Christmas season of 1985. “How dare they play jolly carols when my Nana is dying”..both your poem and Martha’s article target the longterm impact of grief. Thanks for featuring Martha. I signed up for her newsletter. Blessings to both of you brave women who have endured such devastating losses and share so openly

    • Madeline Sharples says:

      Thank you so much, Kathy. It was nice to be able to bring this article out again. Martha’s powerful words are as applicable now as they were when it was first published. They will be a huge benefit.

    • Really appreciate your feedback and comments, Kathleen. You remind me how hard it is to be “out of step” with a season or holiday, etc, while grieving. It’s really challenging. Thanks, too, for your interest in Out on a Limb.

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