From the Ashes: Grief as a Love Story

From the Ashes is a podcast where we have conversations with everyday people about grief and loss. In this episode, host Tina Intarapanont meets with Nancy Berns, a professor of sociology at Drake University, to discuss her research on grief and loss and how to talk to people about uncomfortable subject matters.

Host: Tina Intarapanont

Guest: Nancy Berns

Audio Producer and Editor: Tina Intarapanont

Text Editor: Rachel Hartley

Transcriber: Rachel Hartley

Music Credits: Sunrise in Paris – Dan Henig

Transcription:

[SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FADE IN]

TINA INTARAPANONT, HOST: 

Hello, I’m Tina Intarapanont, and welcome to From the Ashes: a podcast where we have conversations with everyday people about grief and loss.

But how do we even go about having those conversations in the first place? To answer that question, I consulted an expert who’s no stranger to the discomfort that comes with these talks.

Doctor Nancy Berns is a Professor of Sociology at Drake University who teaches classes that range in topics of death, grief, violence, and emotions. I personally have taken her class on grief and loss, which is actually what got me interested in this topic. So, it seemed only fitting that our first episode be with her. I sat down with Professor Berns to discuss what she’s learned from her research and the importance of conversations surrounding grief and loss.

[MUSIC CUT OUT]

[PHONE CALL]

NANCY BERNS, GUEST:

I was interested in how victims of crime were recovering particularly family members of homicide victims. And so, when I was studying and interviewing, that got me interested in grief and loss. 

And then I’ve also suffered quite a bit in terms of loss and so the personal aspect of it combined with my academic interest continues to keep me interested in that and I really enjoy not only the research and teaching, but also helping groups and helping people understand grief.

INTARAPANONT: 

Is there anything from your research that really stood out to you? 

BERNS:  

Oh wow, a lot of things. Right now, my research is about how people are still carrying loss longer term. We don’t have much research that is asking people about loss that happens many years before. So, I’m talking to people five, 10, 15, even 20, 30 years later after significant loss to see where they’re at in terms of carrying that. 

I think that in our culture we don’t do such a great job at helping people process pain or sit with grief and feel loss. A lot of times people feel like there’s something wrong with them if they’re still missing and thinking about loved ones who’ve died a long time ago, and it’s completely normal that people would do that. And so, it’s just been really interesting to have a chance to hear how people, they’re doing great in life and they have many things going for them, but they continue to have these love stories that’s intertwined with their grief. And I just, I’m always honored to hear those stories and I learn a lot through them.

INTARAPANONT: 

Grief and loss does tend to be a little bit of a taboo topic, people tend to shy away from it because it can make them uncomfortable, but I feel like with the rise of social media and advancement of the internet, it’s making it easier for people to share their stories and connect with others. 

I was just wondering, how do you think the conversation surrounding grief has evolved over time, if at all?

BERNS: 

Yeah, social media presents a lot of opportunities and a lot of conflicts and potential problems for people as well. I mean, opportunities, you can do a lot more online in terms of memorialization and connecting with other people, connecting with support groups or even having chances to hear from people after someone has died. That also brings some possible hurt and conflict because people grieve very differently. And so, whereas some people might find a lot of benefits from engaging in stories and seeing them raised in photos and things show up on their social media sites, for other people that might be hurtful and it’s hard, right? That they’re wanting to keep that private or keep that to where they can control it a little bit more. 

It’s certainly a mix of opportunities, but that’s where we’re at you know with social media. And I think, also, I know as an example, schools, when they’re going through some trauma, you know, how to reach out to students and kids has changed a little because students are on social media so much, it’s harder to get them to come in person. So, I think it is something we have to learn, how do we engage with people through social media, but then also use that as a way to help people connect in person because that’s still important. 

INTARAPANONT: 

I plan to have some conversations with people who have experienced different kinds of losses. I feel like I’ve been very fortunate that I haven’t experienced too many losses in my life or significant ones. So, when I have these conversations with these people, sometimes I find myself struggling to relate because I just haven’t had those types of experiences. 

What kinds of tips would you suggest to people who want to help others who are hurting but can’t exactly relate to them? 

BERNS: 

Absolutely you can help people even if you can’t relate directly to them. We don’t know for sure what another person is going through even if we’ve had a similar loss because people grieve very differently and everyone’s grief is unique, just like everyone’s life and everyone’s love stories are unique. 

So, one misconception that often paralyzes people in terms of trying to know how to help is they feel like they have to be these right words to try and take people’s pain away to try to help fix them and make them feel better. And if you think that’s your role in supporting, then it does become overwhelming cause you don’t know what those right words are. And the fact is, there are no right words and that’s not a support person’s job. It’s not your job to fix somebody or take away their pain. 

So, really what you can do is be with them and listen, and if they’re wanting to share stories or they’re wanting to talk about how they feel, be a witness to their pain. Let them talk. Listen, support. Sometimes people just want to be with others in quiet or do other activities just not to be by themselves. Sometimes they want to be by themselves but then have people check in. So, understanding it’s not your job to take away people’s pain, but that you can do so much just by showing up and being there and listening is so key. 

INTARAPANONT: 

I hear you mention grief as a love story a lot, could you talk more about that? 

BERNS: 

So, there are a lot of different types of losses. I mean, there’s both losses from death and there’s non-death loss. There’s a lot of multiple layers of things that we are grieving. Not everything is about something that, you know, was a great love story in something that we wanted to hang on to longer, but for a lot of people when they’re grieving and missing people for years, it’s someone who was very important to them. And so, as they’re remembering them, they still are carrying that love for the person. 

Even for couples with one partner had died and the surviving partner goes on and remarries or gets involved with someone else, they’re all kind of still carrying that love for their first wife or first husband who might be a mother, father, grandmother to kids and so the grieving is a part of that love story. We grieve because we love. We carry that love with us, and we have to learn what does that mean for us. How do we live with a loss but also how do we hold and learn from that love as we go forward?

INTARAPANONT:

I think it’s a really interesting sentiment that you say we grieve because we love. If it meant a lot to you, then of course it’s going to hurt. 

BERNS:  

Yes, we grieve things that we want to keep longer. You know, sometimes that’s things that we’re missing out on, things that we wanted, things that were important to us, grief is an expression that things aren’t right. It’s not the way I wanted things that helps us to try to communicate that to others and to ourselves. And it helps us to identify what’s important in our lives and what we want to carry with us.

INTARAPANONT: 

You kind of touched on this before, but why do you think it’s important to have these sort of conversations? 

BERNS: 

I think in our society, people tend to think that there’s a very short window when they are allowed to grieve and that they’re pushed to try to get over their grief, to somehow end it. And I think that that has caused us a lot of hurt and a lot of misunderstanding for people about what many people go through when they’re grieving. When we have this social expectation that your grief is bad, your grief should end quickly, and if it doesn’t, there’s something wrong with you, what happens then is when people are going through very normal feelings, they somehow think something is wrong with them, and they tend to withdraw and isolate and aren’t reaching out for help in those cases. 

And so, if we have these conversations and people share their stories, that they are still missing people even as they’re continuing on with life, but they’re still loving people, they’re still remembering, many people still wanna talk about loved ones who’ve died, that that’s really important because it helps others to know that they’re not alone when they’re feeling that. 

Being in the middle of this pandemic, right, we have a lot, a lot more grief that people are feeling. And to understand that a lot of what we’re grieving isn’t new, but I think what is new is that there’s a lot more layers of loss. Everywhere you turn, you know, it feels like there are people who are mourning, who are grieving whether that’s the loss of a loved one from death, or it’s the loss of opportunities, of routine and familiarity, and ceremonies. 

[SOUNDBITE MUSIC FADE IN]

So, certainly this is a challenging time and as we go forward, and as we enter into eventually some post-pandemic times, I think people will continue to grieve for things that they’ve lost and missed. 

To know that grieving is an important part of that process. Grieving is an opportunity for healing and it’s not something to be afraid of, and it’s not something that we should put a timeline on. 

So, great for you to be sharing and trying to open up those conversations because it’s really powerful when we can start identifying loss and our emotions. And it also opens up space for more love and joy along the way.

INTARAPANONT:

That was beautifully said. Thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk.

BERNS:

Thanks so much Tina, it’s wonderful to hear from you.

[END PHONE CALL]

INTARAPANONT:

Aside from teaching, Nancy Berns also speaks about grief and loss and has published two books: “Closure: The Rush to End Grief” and “Framing the Victim.” Be sure to check those out or watch her Ted Talk on the space between joy and grief. 

Thanks for listening to From the Ashes, and I hope you’ll join me in my next conversation.

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