Grief is for Dumb People

Please excuse the title. It’s meant to be very tongue in cheek, but it summarizes what had been my approach to life for a very long time. When my mother died, everyone around me expected me to go into a state of extreme denial. After all, I was only a six-year-old little girl; how could I possibly understand the permanence of death, let alone be emotionally equipped to handle it? People thought they had to constantly explain it to me–every holiday, every birthday, well-meaning relatives and family friends would remind me why my mother wasn’t there. But I already knew. I knew why my mother wasn’t coming home from the moment my father picked me up from school and told me she had died in her sleep that morning.

I might have been a six-year-old little girl, but I was also the younger version of the left-brained, analytical future lawyer I am today. I might not have had the emotional maturity to cope with death, but I had the intellectual maturity to understand what it was. I knew I couldn’t press a reset button like I could on my Nintendo, nor could I pray to God or write to Santa to bring her back for Christmas. Gone was gone and I knew what that meant.

So why didn’t I cry?

That was the question asked by social workers and well-meaning family members when they tried to persuade me that I was still in the denial stage of my grief. “You have yet to allow yourself to feel sad,” they would say. It was clear to them that I hadn’t processed my mother’s death. But they were wrong. I had processed my mother’s death in the same way I process everything: fast.

I think there is an emotional tax people pay when they win the intellectual lottery. We gain these amazing skills and the ability to perform at a level that the average person can’t, but we lose the ability to shut that intellect off, even in situations that don’t call for logic, like grieving the death of a parent.

I was able to understand death because it was a concept, and like most concepts I was able to pick it apart and make sense of it. What I couldn’t understand were my feelings towards death. The initial stages of grief do not make sense; if you’ve seen the person in their coffin, they are dead, and if you didn’t cause their death there is no reason to feel guilty. If they died of natural cause there is no one to be angry with and there is certainly no one to bargain with for their return. When you pick grief apart, it is such a nonsensical process that someone who is highly analytical is going to reject it.

It is well known that lawyers suffer from high rates of depression. It is assumed this is caused by the stress of the job, but I would like to offer an alternative theory. Lawyers and law students aren’t just smart; we are analytical, ambitious, and often externally driven. We tend to get our self-gratification by qualitative means: grades, number of job offers, salary. We run our lives like we a read a case; we look for the issue and then we try to find a rationale to resolve that issue. We spend so much time in our heads that we don’t allow our feelings to break through—and without feelings, what are we left with?

People suffering from depression that is not caused by a chemical imbalance often describe feeling a sense of extreme emptiness. It is the lack of emotion that weighs so heavily on them—more so than the presence of any negative emotion. There are a lot of reasons a person can end up feeling emotionless, but cutting yourself off from your emotions is one of them. When we fail to acknowledge our emotions, or when we analyze them to death, we are training ourselves to feel less. We are ignoring the part of ourselves that generates happiness, self-worth, and gratification.

When my mother died, I handled it in a logical fashion. It was not that I didn’t go through the stages of grief; it is that I rejected the emotions related to those stages because they didn’t make sense to me. Eventually I stopped acknowledging all of my emotions, because the truth of the matter is none of them made sense. Emotions simply aren’t rational, so I talked myself into being emotionless—in other words, I over analyzed myself into depression.

This maladaptive way of handling emotions was not exclusive to how I handled grief. It traveled over into every aspect of my life—and not always just in relation to negative events. For example, I’ve never gotten to experience that “honeymoon period” of a new relationship. Anytime I’ve gotten even a hint of butterflies in my stomach I say things to myself like “over fifty percent of marriages fail, so the rate of successful new relationships must be way lower than that.” I never learned how to let myself sit in the bliss of something that might not make a whole lot of logical sense. When you think about it, though, there are lots of things in life that bring us joy that aren’t rational (why do we really get so excited when the Patriots win?) but that doesn’t mean we should prevent ourselves from having these feelings.  

I am by no way advocating that we go out and let our emotions rule our lives. We certainly shouldn’t be acting on every emotion that we have, but we can analyze how we are going to respond to our emotions while embracing them for what they are.  We all have two sides of ourselves: the logical and rational self, and the emotional irrational self. We can use our thoughts to generate healthier feelings, but we should first acknowledge and accept the feelings that we have and understand that just because our feelings are irrational, does not mean we are irrational. This is something that I struggle with every day, but I am a happier person when I allow myself to feel a full range of emotions without judging them or pushing them back.

I think everyone stands to benefit from spending a bit less time in their head and a little more time in their feelings.


Christina Green is a 2L at BC Law interested in Child Advocacy, Criminal Defense, and Civil Rights. She welcomes comments and questions from readers. Comment on her posts, or email her at greencs@bc.edu.

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