Book #10, read August 2018
I procrastinated heavily on this review because my feelings about It’s Ok You’re Not Ok are deeply mixed. I respect Devine’s work here, her willingness and ability to share her extremely hard-won wisdom with the world (her rather young partner died suddenly, unexpectedly, and right in front of her in a drowning incident). I respect how deeply this book has resonated with Devine’s writing students and the readers who have submitted so many glowing reviews of It’s Ok You’re Not Ok online.
At the same time, it seems to me that the book is largely a strawman, albeit a pragmatically useful one. It delivers value via an “us vs. them” dichotomy that wins the battle but may lose the war. It fails to more than superficially explore our broken culture, settling for a gloss on things that raises more questions than it answers.
This book is closest to a self-help book. It offers the bereaved blanket permission to feel whatever they’re feeling, plus a number of specific coping and self-care strategies. You should definitely pick up a copy if you’re interested in these. The advice is simple enough, but when you’re so scrambled that might be just what you need to hear.
I picked it up during my (continuing) journey in “anticipatory grief,” so I am maybe not the paradigmatic reader who, like Devine, has already suffered a completely devastating “out of order” loss. My own coping and self-care practice has not really followed her suggestions so far, either. As the full-time caregiver to my 2 small children, I’ve had no real capacity to eat and sleep irregularly, let it all hang out emotionally, etc.
Still, the tone of this part seems good. Devine urges us to sit with grief, to sit inside it rather than attempting to fix it. We can experiment and find tiny ways to feel pain even as we learn to avoid full-out, writhing in a hole suffering. We can and should distance ourselves from people who are not helpful, while learning to receive from those who are. Good, good, good.
But a self-help book without a worldview and a Big Theory would remain poorly motivated, just a list of random advice. Indeed, Devine does have a worldview and a Big Theory. Devine is angry about the way the bereaved in the west are treated. She thinks a cult of positivity has infected western attitudes towards loss, rendering them both out of touch with the reality of loss and extremely damaging to those on the receiving end.
Now, some of the things people have said to Devine and her students are truly horrendous (“you’ll meet someone soon!” within days of her partner’s death?!). I, too, have heard some less-than-fully-sensitive things by now. But it does not seem to me, in my experience and in my estimation, that the average response to grief here in America is really that FUBAR. (It’s not that I have the best friends, either — my social network is actually sparse in some ways.)
When I receive a less-than-fully-sensitive comment, I do not feel (additionally) fragile or wronged. I simply feel annoyed in much the same way I’ve felt annoyed by others intermittently all through my life. Hell is other people. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Life doesn’t stop or perfect itself in various ways just because you’re having a bad time. And how do we know that people in other cultures are so much happier with their friends’ responses anyways? An assumption like that veers towards the myth of the noble savage/monk.
But, for the purpose of the mythos of the book, it’s not inspiring to say “people mean well but they’re often still disappointing anyways.” Instead, cue the righteous anger and the ingroup/outgroup scheme. Mostly everyone out there is wrong and unhelpful; interact with them at your own peril. Us in here, inspired by eastern ideals of non-attachment and It’s Ok You’re Not Ok, well – we get it. We know how to respect the grief process in all its harrowing gravity.
Unfortunately, as I noticed after I finished the book, these groups do not exist. Sure, I’m a little towards the frontline of parental loss; some of my peers have not yet lost someone very close to them and they are still chilling outside of the realm of transformative grief. But very many of the people saying all the “wrong” things have clearly experienced great loss themselves. This stands in need of explanation!
For instance, when this all began for me, I used to subconsciously expect that older people would be the most sympathetic, then I talked to some and they seemed kind of casual about my father’s illness. At first I was puzzled. So what’s going on? Did they just forget how bad it was? Are they nihilists? Are they even listening?
Upon reflection, I figured it out. The older people to whom I’ve made my grief known are not actually casual about loss, they haven’t forgotten, they haven’t drunk the positivity kool aid. Instead, they understand all too well that grief changes a person, and that no one can do the inner work of grief for you. They also understand that you survive grief, even as aspects of your pre-loss self may not. They are resigned, not callous.
To take it up a level, why would a whole society fail, over and over, to help itself? Grief is common, not rare, and cultures need ways of managing, channeling, marking it in order to perpetuate themselves. Well, no culture is perfect, and change is sometimes needed. But I think ours is just different, not broken. Positivity isn’t everything, but it’s not nothing either. The aesthetics of positive thinking are widely compelling, or we wouldn’t need whole books explaining what’s (partially) wrong with that worldview.
When you say your parent is sick and someone else offers that they recently loss a parent, they aren’t trying to say that you two or your two families are the same. When they suggest that some aspect of the loss is better than it could have been, maybe that’s true (if not terribly soothing).
A reflexive rejection of others’ responses to our grief cuts us off from many sources of value and support as much as it protects us from their occasional egregious missteps. That most of the things well-intentioned, grief-experienced people say to us in our grief sound and feel wrong says more about us, says more about grief and deep sadness, than it says about those others or “culture” generally.
I’m glad that It’s Ok You’re Not Ok has been so helpful to so many. I’ve even recommended it (with a grain of salt) to many friends and strangers by now. As for me, I’m accepting that it’s ok I’m not ok, even as I also accept our culture of loss and grief in all its particularity.