A mother dies from breast cancer, and all her children hound their friends for money for breast-cancer awareness.
A child dies in a car accident, and the parents give their lives over to fighting for safer highway guard rails.
Well what do you do if—as happened to a friend of mine last year—your brother is walking his dogs and one of them chases another dog and the man falls down on dry pavement and busts his head open and dies?
I think grief would be much better understood if we gave it a new name: sadness-induced madness. That madness can be productive. It can also be irrational, and blind its victims to an opportunity to do something more productive—and maybe in the long run, more meaningful.
Sometimes grief fuels reform. Mothers Against Drunk Driving was formed when a habitual drunk driver killed a woman's daughter. Aside from the fringe group, Drunk Drivers Against Mad Mothers (DDAMM), I think we're all glad that drunk driving got the scornful attention that MADD brought it.
Sometimes grief funds worthy causes. There's wild debate about the effectiveness of the money that's gone into breast-cancer awareness, and this time of year the ubiquity of this particular cause seems out of proportion. But it's good that women's health has gotten more attention as a result.
And of course we understand a parent's desperate need to make something come out of a soul-emptying loss, so we don't begrudge their demand that someone make it safer for cars to run off the road.
Except, there are more important things to do in the world than eliminating one form of cancer or making driving less dangerous. And maybe there are better ways to honor our precious dead.
You lost a person you love and admire. Maybe you fight to erradicate the cause of her death. But she is already dead; you can't save her in arrears. And if you want to honor her spirit and make sure it lives on, I think you should consider what made her so wonderful—what she gave to the world—and figure out how to give your version of that same thing, yourself.
My mother died at 52 of the combined effects of manic depression, now known as bipolar disorder, and its experimental treatment.
It has never occured to me to give my energy or money to heal sufferers of bipolar disorder, or mental illness.* My formative experience with my mother made me pessimistic about much psychological treatment. And if psychological maladies are to be cured, I'm damn sure my skill set isn't the one to do it.
My responsibility is to reignite the best of my mother's spirit in my home every day, and carry it out into the world—in writing and in person—the best way I know how.
I think I do that pretty well. At her best, my mother was kind of a hard-ass, and maybe she would disagree. In any case, I wonder what would have happened to her spirit, had I in my immediate grief, dedicated myself to curing chronic sadness. In that chase, I think I might have lost my—and my Mom's—sense of humor.
I'll never tell you how to burn the fuel your grief gives you, and I'll not have you tell me how to burn mine.
But we ought to think hard about how we direct that energy.
Because it's valuable.
* My younger sister Piper, on the other hand, is a psychologist. And she brings the best of my mother's spirit—and many of my mother's skills—to bear in her work, to help people with problems like my mother had. And she still has her sense of humor—and Mom's, too. But not everybody can be as cool as my little sister.