‘Game of Thrones’ and Grief: Wielding the Double-Edged Sword of Loss

Empty cemetery and trees covered in layer of snow, daytimeSpoiler alert: This article merges two webs of thought affecting me of late: Game of Thrones, which I have recently begun watching for the first time, and the grieving process.

Winter is coming.

So begins a tough time of year for many people, self included.

At the beginning of the holiday season is Halloween, which I love, because of the permission it grants us to try on different personas and styles and even loan out other identities. I suspect I also like Halloween, though, because there is greater visibility for “dark” themes, ideas we usually keep hidden. Demons, ghosts, ghouls, and the undead—we come face to face with the scary stuff and even celebrate it for a while. It serves as one last somber hoorah before we’re supposed to get cheery for “the holidays”—though Halloween always seems to be left out of that clique.

I have lost four family members in the past year and a half (including my mother, whose loss was sudden and unexpected), so it’s hard for me to escape the subject of death in my personal life. My partner will gently tease me for reading tragic fiction and other books tackling difficult topics, and for a while I wondered if I should be making room for lighter things (I suspect this is a common therapist quandary). But more recently I started indulging in one of his own passions, the Game of Thrones series, and now I know he’s got no room to judge. (I know—I know—I’m SO late to the game. But like I said, there has been a lot going on in my life offscreen.)

The Double-Edged Sword That Is Bereavement

I recently attended a workshop presented by Beth Katz at Evanston’s Womencare Counseling and Training Center  called “The Grieving Therapist: Challenges, Lessons, and Gifts.” The workshop aimed at—and succeeded in—sharing resources and creating community among therapists who are assisting others’ healing processes while also attending to their own wounds “behind the scenes.”

Participating in this circle reminded me of something a loved one shared in the days following the death of my 15-year-old sister, nearly 10 years ago: my experience would make me a better therapist. Remembering these words makes me think about the formation of an ant farm: when you undergo a traumatic loss, you develop new connections, new passageways, where none previously existed. When you see someone else in pain, sometimes you can understand your own pain differently, as it connects with theirs. (Note: It is, however, VERY important to acknowledge when you might be projecting your own needs and experiences onto someone else and to not assume sameness when you are in a professional helping role.)

Sometimes it is easier to push away sadness than to connect with it, but sometimes it is also necessary to disengage. You have new limits where you might not have previously felt them and may need new boundaries where you might not have needed them before.

But other times, this is not the case—when you are grieving, as when you are traumatized, you are also much more susceptible to compassion fatigue, and you must budget your energy accordingly. It is here where I have found Christine Miserandino’s spoon theory useful. While her metaphor was created to describe the energetic limitations and management of chronic disability, and I do not conceive of grief as a clinical disability, grief can certainly serve as a functional disability at times. You may not be up to par with the normal tasks of your pre-grieving self, and you may be balancing new tasks that are more emotionally challenging.

Sometimes it is easier to push away sadness than to connect with it, but sometimes it is also necessary to disengage. You have new limits where you might not have previously felt them and may need new boundaries where you might not have needed them before.

And it is with this paradox in mind—and a little bit of help from Game of Thrones—that I have come to view grief as a double-edged sword—one that, like my favorite character, Arya Stark, I am learning how to wield. (No one is an “expert” on grief, but experiencing multiple losses has served as a “dancing master” of sorts.)

Here are some choice Game of Thrones quotes (from both the books and the show) that I believe can equally and powerfully apply to bereavement:

1. “Summer is the time for squabbles. In winter, we must protect one another, keep each other warm, share our strengths.”

The holiday season illuminates changing family structures, even for families largely unaffected by loss and trauma.  It’s generally best not to assume everyone has a family to return home to. Be generous with your love when you can afford to be. If it seems like someone is being a “Grinch,” remember to “be kind, for everyone is fighting a difficult battle” (Ian McClaren).  The Grinches in your midst have likely experienced invisible wounds, wounds that may be tingling with the changing weather. Although a common experience of grief is isolation, it can also be quite healing to know that pain is witnessed, that the bereaved are not alone.

2. He did not know which was more painful, the waking or the sleeping. When he slept, he dreamed: dark disturbing dreams of blood and broken promises. When he woke, there was nothing to do but think, and his waking thoughts were worse than nightmares.”

This quote can serve to describe a common narrative for the bereaved in the weeks following the loss of a closed loved one. It may also be an accurate descriptor of acute stress following a traumatic incident. While time may not fully heal some unique wounds, they are still unlikely to feel as raw forever as they do now, especially after receiving competent trauma-sensitive therapy and other care. It’s a cliché, but it may help to remind ourselves, as well as others experiencing grief, to take things one day at a time.

3. “Sometimes he could almost forget that it was there, the way you forget about the sky or the earth underfoot, but there were other times when it seemed as if there was nothing else in the world.”

This quote most closely resembles grief after we have more temporal distance from the event. Early on, the reminders may be as regular as a heartbeat, but at other times, the pain may be a distant background noise, not something the mind is calling constant attention to. I appreciate grief metaphors that liken episodes to waves or passing storms. In the midst of suffering, we worry ours might last forever, but during these times we may need anchorage in some future state as we wait for the moment to pass. Suffering is inevitable, but so is change.

4. “Day followed day, and night followed night, until Dany knew she could not endure a moment longer. She would kill herself rather than go on, she decided one night… Yet when she slept that night, she dreamt the dragon dream again. […]There was only her and the dragon. […] Its eyes were pools of molten magma and when it opened its mouth, the flame came roaring out in a hot jet. She could hear it singing to her. She opened her arms to the fire, embraced it, let it swallow her whole, let it cleanse her and temper her and scour her clean. She could feel her flesh sear and blacken and slough away, could feel her blood boil and turn to steam, and yet there was no pain. She felt strong and new and fierce. And the next day, strangely, she did not seem to hurt quite as much.”

This quote, to me, felt like a woman who had surrendered to her grief journey in a way that was ultimately quite healing. She was ready to metabolize her experiences. For some major losses, this process can take years, so it’s best not to force it. (For more on this, check out Maury Joseph’s GoodTherapy.org article Learning to Suffer: How Avoiding Your Suffering Can Make It Worse.)

This excerpt also references a moment of reckoning that suggests suicidality. Suicidal ideation is common, especially in the weeks and month immediately following a major loss. This may be related to a loss of meaning if the relationship lost was particularly meaningful, or it may be related to a desire to “join” the deceased.  If you find the prevalence of suicidal ideation to be increasing or intensifying, however, or feel as if you are in crisis, I urge you to seek help! GoodTherapy.org likely has a selection of grief and bereavement counselors local to you who are likely to be able to help you create a new sense of meaning from the unwanted changes in your life.

5. “None of us is ever ready.”

After a loss, there may first be the intellectual understanding of mortality, that each of us will one day die—and then there is the raw, visceral experience of grief. Unfortunately, we can’t really prepare for the latter until we have a felt sense of the profound absence of something or someone loved and forcibly removed from life. And even then, each new loss is unique.

But we can’t live our lives in fear of loss—all we can do is make the most of the time we are given within the relationships we have.

6. “When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives.”

Grief can be alienating, and it can often feel like no one really understands what we are going through, or like everyone is happier than we are. It might help us all to remember that, even if we have lost those we held closest, we are not alone. Reach out if you can, balancing time you need for yourself to recharge with time spent recharging with other people who care.

If you feel like you have lost your “pack,” accept some of that longing as inevitable, but also check out resources such as The Dinner Party—in addition to local hospice, Blue Christmas, or other death-support-related groups that may exist in your community.

References:

  1. The dinner party: Life after loss. Retrieved from http://thedinnerparty.org
  2. A game of thrones quotes. Goodreads. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/1466917-a-game-of-thrones?page=1
  3. Miserandino, Christine. (n.d.). The spoon theory. But You Don’t Look Sick. Retrieved from https://butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory

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  • Eliza

    Eliza

    December 5th, 2017 at 3:58 PM

    Really interesting, especially the aside to the Spoon theory. I’d never heard about that, and that offers perspective on grief and chronic illness both.

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