Interview with Tom Attig

Tom talking while seated in his recliner

Q: How did you become interested in grief and loss?

A: Many grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins died when I was young. I visited sickbeds, learned about death in many forms through letters and conversations I overheard, attended calling hours and funerals, and joined in the tears. Loss and grief became familiar.

Good care and communication gratified me; their opposites distressed me. Remembering the deceased comforted and consoled me; ignoring them or distorting their memories dismayed me.

When my father died in 1969, I was in graduate school in philosophy. I wondered about the meanings of life, love, suffering, hesitation in facing reality and communicating clearly, and death itself. I sensed (perhaps wrongly) that I could not approach my mentors about this wondering, and I vowed that I would be a philosopher others could approach.

Preparing to teach a course on death and dying in the early 1970s enabled me to keep that vow. My students became my teachers as they told me stories of their most significant losses and how they responded to them.

Q: How can you say that grieving is choice-filled?

A: The conditions or events that end the lives of those we love are usually beyond our control; they are choiceless. But grieving is about what we do in response to these choiceless events: how we find our way in a world transformed by loss, transforming our daily lives, life stories, and ourselves in the process.

The true "heart of grief" has everything to do with facing the deepest crisis in life. Will we affirm the value and meaning of life in the face of its most daunting challenges? Or will we succumb to its worst agonies?

At its core, grief is about choices - the deepest, most fundamental, crucial, pivotal choices we ever make. Between yes or no, optimism or pessimism, courage or retreat, hope or despair.

The most resilient people I know have taught me how to reach through the pain of grief to say yes to life.

Q: What are the sources of resilience in response to loss?

A: I sense that there are two fundamental motivations or drives that can carry anyone through the worst of grief. Some of us draw upon them more easily than others. But I believe we can all find them within ourselves, often with the support of good caregivers.

It is as if one part of us says, "Despite the worst that life can bring, it is worth being in this here and now. Deep within me I feel this powerful impulse to connect, to care deeply and even to cherish offerings, gifts, and blessings too precious to ignore. I feel this pull to re-immerse myself in life, to make myself at home again, to reweave the tattered web of my life. Though it is hard for me to see just now, I believe that too much of the goodness of life can still be mine, and I will push through the debris around me to reclaim and embrace enduring meanings."

And it is as if another part of us says, "Despite the worst that life can bring, and the undoing of so much of the life I have enjoyed, it is worth entering the unknown future. Deep within me I feel this powerful impulse to say yes to what is yet to be and what I may yet become. I refuse to accept what only appears to be defeat; I will rise above it. Though the pain threatens to crush me, I will make the best of inevitable and most unwelcome change, overcome adversity, stretch into the new, make meaning out of chaos and triumph over it."

These seem to me to be the most fundamental affirmations of faith, hope, and love that we are challenged to make in the midst of the agony of loss. They are at the core of resilience, the heart of the courage to be.

Q: Personal stories are central in your writings. Why is story-telling so important for you?

A: I have learned more from stories in my own life and from others than from any other source. I sense that far more people remember stories and the lessons they contain than remember lessons alone. I suppose this is because we connect and identify with stories; we actually live them.

Most crucially, general accounts of grieving at best provide a framework for hearing mourners' stories. They desperately want us to hear how their experiences are unique. What it was (and still is) like knowing and loving this one of a kind person in their lives. How this death came about. The devastation in their daily lives. The disruption in their life stories. How they are contending with the challenges and opportunities loss presents. Their desires and hopes for the next chapters of their lives. Respect requires that we listen to their tales of loss, appreciate their unique suffering, and support their efforts to reshape their daily lives and redirect their life stories

Q: How did you come to think of grieving as relearning the world, the central theme of How We Grieve?

A: Mourners' stories and my own experiences made it clear that grieving is not about stages or phases. We are not so alike when we grieve. Our experiences are complex and richly textured. Nor is grieving about coming down with symptoms. No one can treat us to make things better. No one can grieve for us. Grieving is a normal active response to what happens to us and the choices we make in response to the choiceless events of bereavement.

The stories speak of the pain of meeting the absence of those we mourn all around us and realizing how much we have taken for granted. Grieving is about returning to live with their memories, among the things they leave behind, in the places where we knew them, with others who survive with us, in activities and experiences that we have shared, and in the next chapters of our lives where they will be no longer present.

Grieving is about relearning how to be ourselves and to live meaningfully again, carrying the pain of missing those we mourn, returning to what still works from life as it used to be, and stretching into the necessarily new shapes of our daily lives and futures. It is also often about personal growth, living in fuller appreciation of what we previously took for granted, and embracing enduring meanings.

Q: What does your new book, The Heart of Grief, add to this?

A: The most compelling and hopeful stories of grief are about lasting love. They convince me that letting go is unnecessary and very costly. The Heart of Grief shows how lasting love is possible and desirable.

We will know only frustration, helplessness, or despair if we dwell in fervent desire for the return of those we mourn. We want them back because we love them. Hopeful paths in grieving open before us when we see that we can learn to love them in separation. We feel their love for us and express our love for them when we embrace their legacies in memory, practical life, and deep within our souls and spirits.

The search for lasting love ties together all aspects of relearning the world. Paradoxically, things, places, activities, experiences, others, and aspects of our selves that our loved ones have touched remind us of how we miss them and of all that they have given us. We temper the pain of missing them when we reach through it and recognize what we still have of them.

Q: Why do you ask visitors to this web site to submit their own stories of grieving?

A: I invite visitors to tell "Stories from the Heart of Grief" about how they have found hopeful paths that have led them through the agony of missing those they mourn to affirming love that endures in separation.

I invite other visitors to tell "Stories about Grieving (Relearning the World) after September 11" about how they have found hopeful paths that have led them through the agonies of that terrible tragedy to returning home to life in fuller appreciation of what is most precious to them; reshaping their individual, family, and community lives; and creating new meanings together.

In part, I solicit the stories because I respect the story-tellers, value their experiences, and honor those they mourn and the enduring meanings they embrace. Telling the stories can be powerfully healing for the story-tellers. And sharing them with others can help their families and communities to heal.

In part, I want visitors to benefit from the stories that others are generous enough to share here. Such stories reassure us that we are not alone in our struggles with loss. They support and comfort us. And they encourage and inspire us when they show how others have reached through suffering, moved onto hopeful paths in grieving, and found lasting love or enduring meaning.

Q: What can caregivers do to help us relearn our worlds and find lasting love?

A: They can listen to our stories with keen interest and acceptance. They can be our companions. They can be gentle, kind, and understanding as we express our hurt. They can be patient, recognizing that we have entire worlds to relearn and that the challenges we face affect every part of us. They can tune themselves to our pace in grieving.

They can do what parents, teachers, and mentors do at their best when they help us face difficult challenges and make hard choices. They can encourage and guide us as we test what is familiar; try what we have not tried before; learn from our mistakes; draw upon or develop strengths that serve us well in everyday life; change our life's course; recover confidence in our footing in the world; and change in response to life's unchanging mysteries .

They can encourage us to reach through the pain of grief and to seek hopeful paths in grieving that lead to deeper appreciation of enduring meanings and what we too often take for granted.

They can support our search for lasting love by joining us in appreciating the life now ended. They can encourage and support us as we explore our memories; acknowledge legacies of love; and weave their meanings into the fabrics of our daily lives and characters.

Q: Did you write your books for professionals or mourners?

A: Both are for anyone with a personal or professional interest in grief and loss. How We Grieve, a comprehensive rethinking of the nature of grief, treats ideas more extensively. But it is built around detailed treatment of intimate stories of grief and loss and filled with suggestions for mourners and their caregivers.

The Heart of Grief is a series of brief heart to heart conversations with my readers. It is filled with stories that contain lessons in grieving that guide mourners and caregivers toward hopeful paths and away from pitfalls in the search for lasting love. They decisively refute the idea that we must let go.

Q: What is it like for an "applied philosopher" working in this field?

A: Most philosophers who write about the end-of-life address ethical issues. Very few concentrate on grief and loss. But I have always felt welcomed in dialogue with thinkers in other fields, caregivers , and mourners.

In some ways I have an advantage in standing outside of the medical and mental health fields. I am not captive to assumptions or received views. I can review dominant thought patterns and attend to the stories of mourners without filters, offer fresh perspectives, and comfortably address issues of value and respect. It gratifies me when professional colleagues tell me they appreciate and use my ideas. Even more when mourners thank me for understanding and helping them.