Rejecting False Choices: Moving from OR to AND or even NEITHER

There’s a poem that gets a lot of traction in the several Facebook widow support groups I’ve joined called “He Is Gone” by David Harkins (the pronoun in the title is flexible—I’ve seen the poem called “She Is Gone,” too). You can read the poem in its entirety here if you like, but the first two and last two lines alone will tell you everything you need to know about the poem for the purposes of my discussion here.

The first two lines:

You can shed tears that he is gone,

or you can smile because he has lived.

And the last two lines:

Or you can do what he’d want:

smile, open your eyes, love and go on.

The ten lines between the ones I’ve quoted present several sad or mournful responses to a partner’s death and then the word “or” and a happy or celebratory alternative. It’s a poem that I suspect is meant to inspire positivity and an attitude of gratitude rather than of forlornness among folks who’ve lost a partner. The repeated contrast of the “sad” and socially awkward behavior to the “happy” and more socially-approved behavior drills in the moral lesson that it is better to be happy.

The poem makes the rounds in the support groups so regularly that I see it at least once every few weeks and it was even read aloud at a face-to-face widow support group meeting I went to recently and discussed as being “inspiring” and “aspirational.”

This poem makes me cringe for several reasons. First, it fails my favorite grief writer Megan Devine’s “platitude check.” Devine says if you can tack “so stop feeling so sad” onto a statement, it is a platitude. Cha-ching! Tacking “so stop feeling so sad” onto the lines I’ve quoted above from the poem makes it clear the poem is a series of platitudes. Platitudes are insipid and unoriginal, but the real harm, to my mind, is that they convey moral judgment and are often said with the implication, “You’re doing it wrong.” When someone posts this poem in a widow support group, they are implying that those of us who are crying over our loss are doing something wrong.

But being made up purely of platitudes is not this poem’s worst offense, in my opinion. Even worse is that it uses the flawed logic of “or” to imply that a widowed person has only two behavioral options: (1) “shed tears that he is gone” OR (2) “smile because he has lived.” I can think of lots of options between these two. Just today, I’ve laughed about a few wonderful memories of my husband, cried and smiled at the same time while looking at photos from our last camping trip together, and had a (albeit one-sided) conversation with my husband about a decision I am trying to make, which involved neither tears nor smiles. As my examples show, it is also totally possible for someone to do both of the behaviors that the poem sets up as opposing behaviors–in other words “shed[ding] tears that he is gone” AND “smil[ing] because he has lived”—and to do neither of the behaviors.  The logic of or insists that someone must make a choice, that there are limited options, and that one choice is the wrong one, so there’s built in judgment.

Not only is there built in judgment, but the “right choice” is not the one that is even necessarily in the widow’s best interest. No, it is the one that is socially acceptable and makes everyone around the widow feel good, but it may very well require the widow to deny what she is actually feeling. The poem reinforces the idea that what matters more than a grieving person’s actual griefwork is how the people around her feel—do they feel comfortable? is everyone smiling? is there a general air of positivity around every interaction?

What makes this poem especially dangerous is that grieving people themselves are sharing it and aspiring to live it. As I said, I come across this poem on widow support group pages and in support group meetings—this is not something others who don’t understand what being a widow is like shared with me. This is being shared by widows with widows. That is how internalized shame around grief works.

In general, my hackles go up when I hear two options with “or” between them because it so often implies a false and morally charged choice. I think of “male or female,” “single or married,” and “happy or sad” and find each binary to be deeply problematic. From a rhetorical standpoint, a question offering two choices with “or” between them persuades the person answering the question to choose between the two options, even if they don’t like the options or feel neither one fits them. When a situation is framed as having only two possible options, we find it hard to think outside those options, so the framing of the question actually shapes what we are capable of thinking of. A grieving person asked to choose between tears and smiles will often have a hard time thinking of other options.

I had a challenging interaction with a nurse before my surgery last week that illustrates the power of being asked a question with only two possible answers. In the course of collecting demographic information from me, the nurse asked whether I was single or married. When I answered that I was widowed, she said I had to choose between single and married. My mind immediately went to trying to figure out which answer fit me better, although I knew I didn’t identify as either. Finally, I said, “Neither, I’m widowed.” The nurse told me I had to choose either single or married and we went back and forth for a bit, with me refusing to choose and her refusing to accept “widowed” as my answer. In this situation, I had to exert a significant amount of energy to continue pushing back against the false choice with my answer of “neither.” (If I am asked this asinine question in the future, perhaps I’ll just refer the asker to this blog post.)

I came across this Martha Beck quote in Tricycle magazine, which I think captures the “and” concept beautifully:

Grief is like a stream running through our life, and it’s important to understand that it doesn’t go away. Our grief lasts a lifetime, but our relationship to it changes. Moving on is the period in which the knot of your grief is untied. It’s the time of renewal.

Instead of presenting mind-numbing and preachy platitudes or false choices, Beck acknowledges that grief—and I would argue, most complicated emotions—flows throughout our life and we don’t have to reject it for more comfortable emotions. We can feel grief alongside all sorts of other emotions, including happiness. We can grieve and smile. And we can grieve in ways that don’t look like stereotypical grieving. Right now, my tending of my late husband’s garden is a form of grieving. I am choosing and and neither regularly and I pity the fools who tell me I’m doing it wrong.

***

On a completely different note, the current situation in Afghanistan is devastating to everyone, but particularly women. It’s not lost on me that if I lived in Afghanistan, I wouldn’t be allowed to leave my house as I have no male relatives nearby, the closest being my stepson, who lives 30 minutes away. This post on Joanna Goddard’s blog suggests some concrete ways to help.

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