I’m one of those people who cries at sappy commercials, especially the extended Thai life insurance ads with the Good Samaritans who help kids and lonely elders. And of course, anything with cute animals. I regularly lose it while watching TV to the point where Mr. T will hear a sniff and look over to see me weeping over the underdog who won the race or the close court house victory or the vulnerable, passionate speech. Years ago, I remember coming to T, all slobbery and upset. He asked what happened, and I wailed “Dumbledore died!” Having no idea what a Dumbledore was, he just hugged me.
The point is, I’m normally free with my emotions. Except over the last few years, I find myself struggling to express grief. Last year, in addition to the millions of people around the world lost to COVID-19, I lost four loved ones in the span of six months—three estranged grandparents and one dear friend. Then a beautiful former professor who I wasn’t close to anymore, but respected and admired.
For each loss, I found myself feeling unable to articulate my feelings. I cried sometimes and then felt uncomfortable. I hadn’t talked to my estranged grandparents in ages, besides exchanging annual Christmas cards. Did I have a right to feel sad anymore? It felt fraudulent to share the loss and receive effusive condolences when our relationships were so complicated.
And while my professor’s sudden passing felt like a gut punch, we’d only had that one class together and hadn’t spoken in a couple years. It felt almost wrong to feel as sad as I did, when I knew others who were close to him were absolutely devastated. I watched passionate e-tributes flood in and worried mine would seem superficial and performative. So I didn’t write one. And then I felt awful for not honoring his memory.
In looking back, I realize I’ve been self-conscious about expressing grief since Prince died in 2016. I remember being in a morning class at Chico State when one of my students shouted the news during a quiet activity. I was stunned and it took all of my strength not to burst into tears in front of my students. I ended up cancelling my afternoon class and bawling my way back to Sacramento.
Prince was the third icon of my childhood and adolescence to pass that year—after David Bowie and Alan Rickman, and before George Michael—and I felt absolutely devastated. And also silly, especially when colleagues expressed judgment about my decision to cancel class. Did I know Prince personally? No, of course not. Had I ever met him? No, but I had hoped to see him in concert one day. I just felt bereft at the loss of such a talented artist who meant so much to me throughout my whole life. And then, I watched passionate e-tributes flood social media and felt sillier. What right did I have to feel so sad when other people had decades more love for Prince than me?
I thought about this admittedly ridiculous line of thought last year when corresponding about grief with my friend Ragan on Facebook. He’d just written an achingly beautiful tribute to our professor Dan Brouwer, and I wrote to say thanks. His words helped me understand why the loss was hitting me so hard even though Dan and I weren’t close.
In our messaging, Ragan offered the most profound and helpful advice: To stop intellectualizing grief. To feel what I need to feel—what I am feeling—without attaching any qualifications. To “acknowledge that [with intellectualizing grief] your brain is trying to cheat your heart.”
So, brain, no more of that. As I sit here typing in tears, thinking about my old Lug, Grandma and Grandpa Malvini, John, Dan, Andrew, and the countless others lost during the last few years, I’m owning my sadness and grief. I’m going to be my tender-hearted self and try not to feel self-conscious about it. I’m going to recognize that sharing grief is important, that no one “owns” a loss, and that feelings don’t require explanations.
And I’m going to remember that intellectualizing negative emotions is a common defense mechanism, one that can be destructive to mental health and relationships over time. So, brain, no more of that.