Grief is a show stopper. Many people stop their lives in invisible ways because of grief. A young woman plays with the idea of her own death because she’s lost her mom the most important connection in her life. All three sisters in a family make really bad choices in dating and their father died when they were young. A husband is not succeeding in his second marriage and he wonders if it’s because he never got over the death of his first wife even though it was a number of years ago. These are all ordinary results of unacknowledged grief. Life stops and relationships are interrupted.
This month marks the beginning of the fifth season for the firefighters in the television show Rescue Me. The show stars Dennis Leary who also co-writes scripts. There is an infrastructure of grief in the show because 9/11 is a constant theme. Leary is quoted in the NY Times on April 5Th “A lot of our story is about the fact that you have to keep running away from grief in order to sustain the bravery and insanity of what they do for a living.” There are enormous losses for Leary’s character Tommy. He lost his son in a car accident, his alcoholic father died while they were sitting next to each other at a baseball game, and his Station Chief committed suicide and his cousin was lost in 9/11.
We are bad at acknowledging grief. Parents will pretend a pet has escaped instead of giving kids the opportunity to honestly experience and practice a hard part of life. Friends give the bereaved about a week and a half to talk about it and most expect people to be able to move on in 3 months. The harsh reality is that grief can take years and Rescue Me understands this.
Grief is different for every person. Grief is messy and there is not a prescribed way to go about it. People can get lost in their grief and for short periods of time that can be totally normal. Your life is turned inside out when the person you’ve lost, is someone who was a crucial anchor in your own life.
Grief can be about broken illusions. That great job on Wall St. that defined you with well-tailored clothes and money was easy, is now gone. The bone-weary exhaustion of living with an alcoholic husband and grieving that your life was not supposed to be that way. Grief over your wife wanting a divorce and you feel the rug has been pulled out from under you. Lots of characters die in Rescue Me. People including children die in fires, Firefighters die in fires, and the audience knows every character on the show is expendable (except Tommy).
Rescue Me is brave because it tackles many tough subjects besides grief; raunchy men, steamy sex, sex that doesn’t work, wanting your wife even though you’re divorced, bringing Michael J. Fox back to television in his wheelchair as Tommy’s ex-wife’s new boyfriend and 9/11 is rekindled this season, while acknowledging the beliefs of conspiracy theories. It’s a show not bound by scripts and actors are encouraged to riff. Get on the roller coaster that is Rescue Me and have a great ride. Watching will help you learn something about how we all struggle with grief. Maybe you won’t feel so alone with your own grief inspired kookiness.
Grief is a complicated business and we need to learn how to accept it as a part of living. Never take grief for granted, or there will always be a higher cost than you are willing to pay. Give grief it’s due and honor it by crying in the shower. If you let grief be a part of you it won’t grip so excruciatingly deep. Give grief it’s due then you can move on. With time it is easier to recognize that grief is that pinch to remind us to pay attention to life. Don’t lose track of your life in stifling routine. Grief reminds us how important time is. It’s why people leave funerals and go home to have sex.
An exercise you can try if you don’t have grief haunting you at the moment: Take 5 or 6 years and add them to the age you are now and imagine yourself dead at that age. What would be important to you in those years prior to dying? How would you live life differently if it was true? This exercise is worth repeating over the years. It keeps the potential of grief for our own lost life alive and useful.