Grief and the Lions: A Mini-Essay on Grieving

Grief is a weak emotion. I don’t mean that grief can’t tear you to pieces, or turn your whole world upside down. I don’t mean that grief can’t change everything you know or believe about yourself and your place in the world. But it itself? It’s weak. It runs away at the first threat. It should, I think, it needs to. Grief is something we need to go through to be whole again after an emotional blow. We need it to be whole, but we don’t need it to live.

I imagine an early homo sapiens family, just trying to get by in the very hard prehistoric world. One day, a lion happens upon them. Babies are a quick appetizer. One lover is dead in a second. The other lover? Does not grieve. The other lover runs. The other lover runs, or climbs, or clubs, or throws rocks. The other lover does not grieve because grief will kill. There is no time for grief, and grief will not persist when there is no time for it.

Grief is like writing, it needs room and quiet and space. Grief requires time, unstructured and un-demanded-of time. Grief requires our presence with it, and if it doesn’t have those things, it will leave. But it will always return. Because it never ends until it is done. Perhaps one of the cruelest things one can do is to make demands on the time and space of a grieving person, because grief is not tenacious. Grief will slip quietly away, and we won’t hear from it again until there is enough space and openness for it to come back.

Ironically, even happiness can be a problem sometimes. When the last living lover finally returns to the cave and gingerly looks inside and finds the toddler who has wedged herself so silently and tightly behind a rock that even the lion’s claws couldn’t get her, the living lover does not grieve. The joy at finding the child unharmed will drive grief away again, to return in another quiet time. In this case, I like to think that the grief is being smart—it knows that the soul it finds on its return will be all the stronger for its sojourn with joy. But grief will always come back. Until it’s done.