What Grieving People Wish You Knew by Nancy Guthrie, Free for CAPC Members
Nancy Guthrie’s overwhelming message in What Grieving People Wish You Knew is to enter into the awkwardness and difficulty of loving grieving people.
*WARNING: Spoiler Alert*
One of the most destructive things that you can do to another human being is force them to live in your own fictional world. The angry husband does this when he tells his wife this his outbursts are all her fault. The child with a substance abuse problem does this when he tells his parents that his problems aren’t that bad. It is an awful experience to be stuck in someone else’s fiction when you know the horrible truth of reality.
Control is often an illusion. In season five of The Walking Dead, Officer Dawn believes that she is in control of Grady Memorial hospital. Such control is clearly illusory. Others see what Dawn can’t. “She’s in charge, but just barely.” The sexual assault which she allows is evidence that she doesn’t have as much control as she thinks. But still she maintains the illusion with clean floors and clean smocks. “She likes things neat,” Dr. Edwards says pointing Beth to a clean shirt. There’s structure and order in her world. “Everyone has a job.” The illusion has a cost though.
Most significantly the illusion costs people their freedom. No one is free at Grady Memorial Hospital. Everyone at the hospital has a job, but it’s not like at the Prison. “We’ve all got a job to do,” Beth had told her sister Maggie back at the prison. It was her way of keeping busy, not allowing herself to reflect on the death all around her. It was an illusion too, but at the hospital the jobs are actually more indentured servitude than chosen. “If we hadn’t saved you, you’d be one of them right now,” Officer Dawn tells Beth. “So, you owe us.” The idea: people whom Dawn and her team rescue will payback what they owe and then they can leave; except it doesn’t quite work like that. One such employee, Noah, has been “paying back” for a year. “The more you take the more you owe.” There is no escape. Another employee Joan had tried to leave, she had tried to “opt out” of life, but Dawn wouldn’t let her die. Joan shouts at Dawn as Dr. Edwards cuts off her arm, “You can’t control this.” Dawn replies, “I will.” Dawn really does believe she can have mastery of her world, but Joan does die. In fact Joan turns, and kills.
Still Dawn can’t see it. In her own mind she’s doing the right thing. “You shouldn’t see this as a sentence,” she tells Beth. “I am giving you food, clothes, protection, when have those things ever been free.” She believes she and her people are doing some good. “I am keeping all of us going here, that is not a small thing.” She is “trying to keep the world alive” trying to “fix it.” To keep the illusion alive, however, she not only has to lie to herself – believing there’s a rescue party coming – but she has to manipulate others to keep it going. So, she tells Beth she has to eat in order to do her job, but of course eating requires Beth to take more and so adds to what she owes. To keep her officers happy too Dawn turns a blind eye to their rape. Gorman in particular gets what he wants; he appears to have had his way with Joan. Dawn admits that she has to compromise to keep it all together. Of course, as Joan says, “It’s easy to make a deal with the Devil when you’re not the one paying the price.” But every sacrifice “for the greater good,” says Dawn, is worth it. “The second we lose sight of that it’s all over.” Individuals are not “the greater good,” they are just “part of the system.”
It’s not just Dawn playing pretend either. She’s convinced many of the other hospital employees to play along. Dr. Edwards tricks Beth into killing a patient whom he knows is an oncologist. He had no choice, he tells Beth. Having another doctor around would have meant trouble for Edwards, he might have been kicked out or even killed. He feels justified in his actions. Looking at the Caravaggio painting of The Denial of Saint Peter, he tells Beth:
When they arrested Christ, Peter denied being one of his disciples. He didn’t have a choice. They would have crucified him too.
Edwards has lived long enough in Dawn’s fictional world that there are aspects of it that even he believes, namely, sometimes killing the innocent is justified.
Forcing others to live in your fictional world is always destructive. It’s destructive because people can never find hope in that world. In Dawn’s pretend world there is nothing wrong, there’s nothing to change, and all pain and sorrow comes simply from refusing to play along. There’s no hope in make-believe. I often tell my counselees that God does not offer us hope and help in the anxiety ridden world of “what if” and “I wish.” He offers us hope and help in the real world, and we can only find it as we accept reality.
Eventually the illusion is broken and Beth can find hope again. She’s a fighter. The girl who tried to slit her wrists in season two is gone. Beth is strong enough to survive. Though she is captured trying to escape she won’t play pretend anymore. “No one’s coming, Dawn. We’re all gonna die and you let this happen…for nothin.” At the end of the episode Beth is ready to kill, ready to escape, ready to fight her way out. The illusion is broken, and the system doesn’t control her. Hope can come as she embraces reality.
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