Grief

Grief as Inspiration Porn

For anybody following the NBA playoffs this spring, it’s been difficult to avoid the dominating story about Isaiah Thomas of the Boston Celtics continuing to play – and play well – while grieving the death of his sister a couple of weeks ago. Two weeks ago, on what would have been her birthday and only days after her funeral, Thomas scored 53 points.

The responses have been predictable, if not by rote. TV commentators simultaneously swooned and raved about his bravery. Fellow NBA players unleashed a torrent of inspirational hashtags to commemorate his resolve. Beat reporters wantonly employed terms such as “heartbreak”, “strength”, and “perseverance” to capture the emotional crests and troughs of grief.

To be clear, my tone of annoyance is not in any way directed at Thomas, who has the right to walk whatever grief journey works best for him. Perhaps he truly has drawn from his sadness and channeled it into competitive fervor, and if that has indeed been his process, I honor him.

Rather, my tone is directed at those who perpetuate the narrative that to be grieving and still do as you normally would – or better yet to excel at what you would do normally – is somehow MORE brave, MORE courageous, MORE exceptional than the bereaved who requires the space to be in emotional disarray, to make best friends with Ben and Jerry, to withdraw in the search for the new normal. Because as much as I honor Thomas for his accomplishments on the court as he works through his grief, I would honor him no less and no more if he had decided to take a break from competing in order to attend to his healing.

Ours is a culture that fetishizes grief into inspiration porn, a phenomenon of othering that “[objectifies] one group of people for the benefit of another group of people”. We objectify the bereaved by distorting their grief into an opportunity-borderline-expectation for superhuman achievements, the kind that have us feeling better because those accomplishments in the face of loss strokes the assumption that “Hey, maybe grief is something that won’t be so bad!” This appropriation of grief limits, or even outright denies, the psychic, spiritual, and interpersonal space necessary for loss to evolve into reflection, growth, and maturation. Such distortion, while often implicit, is nevertheless powerful and pervasive.

To see how this plays out in pop/sports culture, go ahead and Google “Brett Favre”, “Monday Night Football”, and “Father”, and you’ll be inundated with machismo think pieces that celebrate his feats that night as a testament to the human will, as if Favre’s father fulfilled his existential purpose of inspiring his son to entertain us in prime time. Now go and Google “Tim Duncan”, “playoffs”, and “father”. In lieu of heady exultations, you’ll find dry, fact-based stories about Duncan choosing to miss a game as he mourns with family. It’s telling that no mythology lives on in Duncan’s wake as he chose to emotionally attend to his grief off the field of play rather than on it.

These types of narratives play important roles in the cultural transmission of what is and is not acceptable leading up to, during, and after death. Indeed, our cultural narratives around death are generally toxic: hospice remains a stigmatized word, “death panels” is an idea that remarkably has not lost cultural import, and dying from cancer is framed as “losing a battle” as if those who survive are somehow stronger or more deserving (to name just a few of the more pervasive threads of thought). In a perfect encapsulation of our fear-based culture around death, a recent Johnson & Johnson commercial proudly purported the role of the hospice nurse as to prevent a hospice patient from dying as opposed to assisting a peaceful and healthy end-of-life transition.

It’s no wonder grief is commonly conceptualized as an event to be endured and overcome rather than accepted and moved through, a process made meaningful by arbitrary heroism rather than individualized meaning-making, an opportunity to move past rather than to reflect upon.

This fetishization of grief does far more to ease our own cultural discomforts with death than it does to honor the grieving individual, or the loved one who they are grieving. We glamorize achievements following loss in efforts to tell ourselves that we too can minimize the emotional impact tremors of death, that resiliency is not measured by the growth we nurture but by the glitzy products we can show to others.

“Time heals all wounds”. “It’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all”. “We are never given more than we can bear”. Enough. One’s grief is not a Hallmark card to write to your future self in efforts to spare yourself the pain of loss.

Yet such are the obstacles we are faced with as healthcare professionals working in end-of-life care. When we consider music therapy as a culturally situated practice, part of the culture we must work through is this intense pressure to make something of your grief that others can use for their own purposes. Music therapy practice in end-of-life care is certainly not immune from these pressures.

How many of us are now asked to participate in Music & Memory programs that do little other than provide a facility an empty certification upon which to hang their hat in a desperate marketing ploy? How many times have legacy projects been proudly shared but with minimal discussion about the actual process itself? These are services whose value is predicated on the production of an artifact that whitewashes, and in the process implicitly shames, the emotional complexities of connecting with self and others in authentic musicking. Call it a touchdown pass or a life review playlist, but if the focus is on what occurs instead of why and how they are working towards the what, meaning becomes assigned to the manufacturing of a product instead of the process by which the product comes (or does not come) to be. And it is in the mess of that process we truly thrive as musicians, clinicians, and humans.

I say we stare down this cultural minimizing of grief. Let us be fearless advocates for those in mourning by pushing back against the throngs that would distort another’s grief for their own purposes. Let us be tireless in our efforts to empower clients to develop their unique own stories with their own unique import.

Our practice uniquely positions us to be such advocates. Music is an opportunity to sit in ambivalence, to explore (in Joni Mitchell’s words) both sides now so that we may, in grace, embrace the messiness of our complex life experiences rather than pigeon hole those experiences into “should haves”. As a humanity, music is a medium for bravely experiencing the human condition in ways wherein loss can be about engaging with rather than responding to,  an opportunity to mine value from pain rather than hide it behind hollow achievement.

Subsequently, to venture into such waters with clients requires that we too partner with music in acknowledging that which is in our lives, accepting the convoluted emotional cocktails of those experiences, and find avenues for meaning-making.

What do we think? How have you engaged in music in ways that allows for a radical acceptance of your humanness, and how has that impacted your practice?

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1 thought on “Grief as Inspiration Porn”

  1. Thanks, Noah, for calling inspiration porn what it is, and for standing up for grief. You ask important questions here, but before even getting to those I wanted to underscore the line you draw between what the media is doing to Isaiah Thomas and what we do to our patients when we use their legacy products to manipulate others’ emotions.

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