I’ve been thinking a lot about grief and the way we frame death in Western culture, and why we shouldn’t be surprised when grief feels weird.

Since death and dying – and by extension – grief has been taken out of our usual experiences for such a long time, it is no wonder that the perfectly healthy, perfectly ‘normal’ experience and journey of grief sometimes feels weird to us. Today I would like to offer my own perspective on why putting our feelings and grief in a private space is actually quite a normal thing for us to do based on the way we’ve been taught NOT to think about death and dying… oh, and how we might begin to shift this for ourselves and others. Over to you, Sheldon and Amy!

I am a big fan of pop culture – I have a serious side interest in cultural theory, see my PhD if you think I’m kidding – and I often use pop culture references to illustrate ideas and open up spaces for conversation. I was watching a rerun of The Big Bang Theory last night, and the entire opening sequence, and much of the related content for the episode is about one character’s (Sheldon) reluctance to let go of ‘anything I’ve ever owned’. What starts as a need to get a new computer because the old one has died, becomes an exploration of what happens when someone helps out (Amy) by introducing a new computer, what our secrets about loss and emotions are relating to change and letting go, and how trust can help ease a burden of self-doubt and grief.

Actors Jim Parsons and Bialik Mayim as Big Bang Theory characters Sheldon and Amy discussing why grief feels weird to Sheldon.
When it comes to grief and secrets, someone who will not judge is wonderful.

One of the things about this episode that I particularly like is the way that Amy brings in a new computer for Sheldon with very little fanfare; Amy does not tell Sheldon it is great and that he must therefore love it, she doesn’t brag about where she bought it, and therefore nor does she insist that the attention around the situation of loss and renewal shift to herself because of her action. Amy has paid attention to what Sheldon wants, prefers, and needs in his life to feel happy, and Amy makes a purchase from a trusted vendor who knows what Sheldon looks for in a computer. In short, Amy is generous, thoughtful, compassionate, and attentive. Sheldon is also permitted by Amy to come to terms with the loss of his beloved computer in his own way, and to come to terms with the introduction of his new computer in his own way. Grief is weird Sheldon, but Amy helps him to embrace grief.

The story then continues along the line of extending trust between the characters, and Sheldon shows Amy an aspect of his life he’s never told anyone about: a storage locker full of things he has owned and cannot bring himself to throw away. Sheldon then reveals that he keeps the collection secret, that it represents a weakness and personal failing, and that he feels shame and embarrassment for his behaviour and way of being in the world. Amy does not judge Sheldon for keeping a storage locker full of his things that he cannot bring himself to throw away – and I am quite taken with the idea that for many of us in Western culture, this is how we deal with grief, loss, sorrow when someone we love and care about dies. We are not death literate, and we are supposed to live a perfect, clutter-free life, so creating a storage locker of feelings and emotions is a reasonable response to the absence of grief-talk in our contemporary lives.

Pop culture as a reference point is useful here, too – remember that we are all encouraged to be happy, perfect, shiny, young, and forever looking beautiful to the outside world. Celeste Barber has a great parody book about this if you are not sure of what I mean here. Consequently, this obsessive focus on being upbeat and perennially happy has helped to inculcate our Western culture of death-denial, and a morbid fear of discussions of sorrow, sadness, and loss. This focus ensures grief feels weird to us, and makes it hard to pinpoint why sometimes. I am not always a fan of the way TBBT frames all of their subject matter or character actions, but there is a usually a demonstrated willingness to communicate that is generally the point of many episodes, and this willingness is a great starting point for grief discussions. The other aspect of this episode that resonates for me in terms of grief and communication is that it is completely religion-free – as an atheist and rationalist End of Life Consultant and doula I find this particularly affirming and useful in terms of a metaphor and approach to communication/trust practice.

As is patently evident (this is not a New Thing), one western cultural response to the currently-being-reclaimed death literacy void has been to annex non-western cultural norms and practices around death and dying; however there is an odd and inherent reluctance to critically consider / critique non-Western religions and ideas. The Mexican Day of the Dead practices have been culturally appropriated by many English-speaking countries for example, as have many Hindu rituals. Buddhism – or cherry-picked aspects thereof – have also had an influence on the way many Western people think they should live their lives. Buddhist meditation practices, chanting, and religious leaders are often perceived to be somehow more ‘right’ or ‘pure’ than those of Western/Judeo-Christian-based religions, however I am not prepared to always embrace the exotic other as good by sheer dint of otherness. See here for an example of Buddhist religious frameworks in action for genocide in Myanmar, or think about the inherent gender inequalities sustained by the Dalai Lama’s religious framework if you are not sure if you agree with my position. It is such a disappointing, yet interesting, outcome that grief feels weird to us if we work at end of life but don’t ‘believe’ – and I don’t think this helps us, our clients, or the field very much at all.

Many end of life doulas (and current books in our field) are heavily influenced by Buddhist practices and most advocate for “non-attachment”, but this position has never made much sense to me – what, after all, is wrong with attachment? As an atheist I advocate for telling people you love them, communicating appropriately when someone has said or done something you are hurt or upset by, keeping out of your life the people who will actively harm or seek to damage you, and embracing our life experiences and our feelings. I actually consider the entire non-attachment ideal pursued by Buddhists and those allied with that particular religion to be quite damaging insofar as a life free of attachment is A) unattainable, so you are chasing unhappiness (just in a non-capitalist/Western way, but that is perhaps an entire other blog) and B) arguably the antithesis of being alive (so what’s the attraction since we are all fiercely alive until we are dead?).

As we are ‘feeling’ beings, then attachment pretty much comes with the human experience – and although we might think it extreme that Sheldon Cooper keeps everything he’s owned in a storage locker, this is not a bad metaphor for the emotions and feelings we may have for the deceased people and pets in our lives when we are grieving. Sometimes we put everything we feel about a person or pet who has died in a special, secret place inside ourselves – so if this is your experience, Congratulations! You are human having a human experience. In other words, this storage-locker approach can be quite normal.

However, while I have absolutely no problem with feeling all your feelings and being attached to those we love and care about, I do think that the one problematic aspect of the storage locker approach to grief is that we can become overly-obsessed about seeming normal and never telling anyone about our feelings or letting them into the contents of our emotional storage lockers. This can lead to unnecessary loneliness and isolation in our loss, and a never ending loop of grief feeling weird to us. I don’t advocate for either of these things. I do think Sheldon was wise to tell Amy, but I think too, that Sheldon (yes, I know I am discussing a fictional television character as though he was real, but stay with me Gentle Reader!) may have had a far less negative and more balanced view of his capacities as an individual had he confided in someone much sooner. I would like to make the safe airing of our storage lockers a practice we undertake sooner in our lives rather than later.

If you are a someone with a storage locker of grief – or griefs, because who’s to say we only get one locker? Perhaps you have multiple storage spaces for your griefs, and that is perfectly OK – then I do encourage you to share the contents with someone you trust and who you know cares about you and will not treat the contents of your emotional storage locker lightly or carelessly. If you don’t think there is someone in your life you can talk to about your storage locker, I am happy to tell you that you are mistaken – you can talk to me. I am a end of life doula who specialises in stories, personal history, listening and offering support.

Let’s talk – info@gdep.com.au