What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.— Friedrich Nietzsche
People quote Nietsche to those who are grieving. (I often wonder if they know who they are quoting?) They also like to say “God doesn’t give us burdens we cannot bear.” It's well meant, but sometimes I've wanted to hit people who make such comments. I am not feeling strong and this seems a stupid way to encourage me to what, see the silver lining of a person's death? It has always seemed to me that the sort of things that almost kill us, might cause scars or lasting suffering, not strength. The death of someone we love, though the experience does not kill us, sometimes makes us too sad to be strong. What doesn’t kill us just leaves us ruined.
In an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, George’s father dies, and Sandra Oh’s character, Cristina, who has never been a warm and fuzzy type, tells him about the Club.
CRISTINA: "There's a club. The Dead Dads Club. And you can't be in it until you're in it. You can try to understand, you can sympathize. But until you feel that loss... My dad died when I was nine. George, I'm really sorry you had to join the club."
GEORGE: "I... I don't know how to exist in a world where my dad doesn't."
CRISTINA: "Yeah, that never really changes."
You can find the scene through YouTube HERE.
It’s hard to know how to respond to grief. People want to say the right thing, and are afraid to say the wrong thing. They are afraid they will hurt the grief stricken by bringing up something we can’t get out of our minds anyway. They are maybe a little afraid of us—and I get that. I was angry and sad and crazy after the deaths of my parents, my aunt, my grandparents and step grandparents. I wasn't stronger, I was furious—a marginally more functional alternative to "prostrate with grief". I can understand why someone would be a little scared to bring up those painful events.
At the time my father died, I was serving on the board of a national nonprofit that met twice a year. In my early thirties, I might have been the youngest board member at the time, and certainly I was the most ordinary as a stay-at-home mother. Most of the board members were affluent businessmen who could actually afford to travel around the country for meetings. There was a VP of J.C. Penneys and an investment banker on the board—men who vacationed in tropical places and belonged to country clubs. The meeting after my father died I was talking to another member of the board, an owner of a real estate firm or a lawyer—I can’t recall now. He said no one he knew well had ever died. I looked him in the eye and recognized that he was at least ten years older than I was. So I asked him: Your parents? Still alive, he said. Grandparents? Still alive. No aunt or uncle or cousin, no sibling or childhood friend from his life had ever died. He had dogs, but so far they were all still alive too.
He said he worried sometimes about how deaths in his family would affect him when they inevitably came, but he said this the way a child might wonder what it would be like not to go to the fair this summer. I looked at him and wondered, in my relative youth, if the deaths of pets and grandparents, in-laws, schoolmates, and now my father had made me stronger than this man. I wondered if not knowing death made him weak.
The year after I helped my mother clean out her sister's home, I was at a writing retreat in the Oregon Cascades. In conversation, another writer and I realized at the same instant that she knew my aunt Marcie, but hadn’t heard that she had died. There was an awful moment when I saw the look on her face—sorrow, regret, and fear. I scared her, I think. My face has always been transparent. I am far easier to read than I am skilled at reading others.
What I felt in that moment—what I imagine she saw in my face—were some of the same emotions she was feeling—sorrow and regret. But I also felt guilt and anger. Aunt Marcie had planned her own funeral around the time of her entirely successful heart surgery the year before she died. She’d been paying on it monthly. But my mother hated funerals and memorials so she cancelled the entire thing. She refused to pay for a notice in the Chronicle. I tried to encourage her, but she was drowning in her own grief, and no one could ever talk my mother into doing something she didn’t want to do. So I let it go. And then one of my aunt’s oldest friends commented to me that she hadn’t heard from Marcia in ages, How is she? And I had to be the one to tell her. I tried to smile. I mistook this for courage.
Brave woman—after I told her my aunt had died, she looked at me, read past my smile, took a breath, and told how she treasured having known my aunt. She told me a story. I listened and nodded and thanked her, and then I went away and cried.
I don’t know if surviving such sadness makes anyone stronger. Maybe it does. Maybe not. It is the strength to carry pain and that is not a burden I would wish on anyone. But I do know that I have been very grateful to people who said, face to face, how saddened they were by the loss of someone we both cared about. The people who knew them and had stories to share. Though I would prefer not to hear Nietzsche, I am grateful for those with the courage to cry. It’s hard to do that, and I don’t blame anyone for sliding their eyes away. I don’t blame anyone for keeping their tears and words to themselves. I’ve done that too. It might be the result of having been there.
Through courage or love, some took the time to tell me stories about people we had both loved and had lost. We’re in the same club. Nietzsche knew some of this need to survive and share. He became a member of The Dead Dads Club when he was a little boy.
I never had much use for Nietzsche when I read him years ago. I agree that the good and evil dichotomy is a foolish oversimplification, but what he proposed in its place sometimes seemed heartless and elitist, passionate and cold—a little desperate. (And was it a fault in his philosophy that Hitler was fond of him or that he too joined the club as a child?) Many things have not killed me since I read Nietzsche, and I am damaged beyond repair. And he was not writing about dead relatives when he spoke about looking into the abyss and it looking back. Maybe he was made stronger by his own suffering. Maybe I would change my mind about his philosophy if I read him now.