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Nancy Berns on the Space Between Joy and Grief

As TEDxWomen 2012 approaches, our thoughts keep drifting to this year’s theme, The Space Between.  One moment this idea seems very specific, and the next, infinite.  To keep engaging with this seeming paradox, we wanted to share with you a powerful talk from TEDxDesMoines, which took place on July 15, 2012.

Nancy Berns, a sociologist at Drake University, spoke about a specific space between — that between joy and grief.

Nancy points out how in all of our lives, we have a space of joy and a space of grief.  The space of grief, needless to say, is not as fun to occupy as the space of joy.  And many of us live with the pressure that we should be in the space of joy all the time, no exception, or something’s wrong with us.  Enter “closure” — this deceptively simple notion that if we tie up all of our “bad” feelings with a bow, we can hop right on over from grief to joy.

Closure’s a pretty common thing to be desired, whether it’s following the death of a loved one, a break up or an act of violence.  Nancy points out that it takes many different shapes: peace and forgiveness, revenge and vengeance, remembering or forgetting.  But these differing forms contain one common thread, one shared promise:  “An end to our grief, a finality to something bad that happened.”

It’s a promise that sounds pretty great — it just happens to be an illusion.  So with radical commonsense, Nancy asks: “When bad things happen, do we need closure sumo wrestling suits? My answer is no… Closure doesn’t even exist. It’s a made-up concept that we use to talk about loss and grief. But seeking it can do more harm than good.”

And so she offers an alternative: “You don’t need closure to heal.”  She encourages us to counter the illusion that our emotions are split, to see that actually, we possess the capacity to carry joy and grief at the same time.  And to resist the temptation to label one emotion “good” and another “bad”, as emotions don’t come with a particular value judgement — we’re the ones who brand them as such.

What about when we see others in deep suffering?  Nancy encourages us to “meet them where they’re at.”  Most important: listen.  And listen without offering answers, judgements and fixes, resisting the understandable desire to pull them out of it, to make them better.  The same goes for your relationship with yourself:  to meet yourself where you’re at.  Throughout Nancy’s talk, she offers examples of how this won’t lead to closure, but just may lead to healing. “It’s about learning how to learn to live with our loss. It’s about learning how to carry our grief in a way that leaves rooms for the joy and love.  The joy and the love from our past and the joy and the love that lies ahead yet.”

This opens up a new way of understanding our internal geography.  So that joy is not this wildly far away place when you’re in grief, as we all inevitably are at some point or another.  Instead: “Joy and grief, that space between’s not so far apart. It’s actually intertwined. And I know that can be scary. I get that. But it can also give you freedom. There’s freedom in knowing you can carry joy and grief together.  There’s freedom in knowing you don’t need closure to heal.”

What are your experiences with closure and healing? Have you experienced your spaces of joy and grief as separate or intertwined?

10 Responses to Nancy Berns on the Space Between Joy and Grief

  1. ANg says:

    Gorgeously spoken, thank you, it reminds me to be in “and” space….

  2. Frank Ewer says:

    Hi Nancy – My name is Frank and I am from Victoria, B.C. Canada – I lost my wife of 40 years in July 2011. I have been regularly attending a local Hospice Group where your video was brought up. After watching it I can truly say that it is by far the best article I have seen about grieving – It was an immense help to my whole family and for this I truly thank you.
    Thank you so much for your understanding and help!!!
    Take Care -

  3. Fran says:

    So lovely, so true. HealGrief.org

  4. Judy says:

    Your words beautiful and make so much sense. As a bereavement counsellor I understand the need for clients to ache for closure. I believe that all loss is the balancing of grief and good memories/joy as you eloquently have said. I know when my father died many years ago, I was acutely aware of my feelings of grief pain (devastated to be without him) and yet I basked in the lovely memories and joy of our relationship. I wanted him out of his pain but I didn’t want him to go. The space in-between video reminded me of my journey to live with his loss.

    I am about to test this ‘space in-between’ to the limit – counselling a client who has caused an accidental death. Her pain and distress is every bit as much as the bereaved relatives of the person she killed. She sees her future as constant pain and grief.

    Can you tell me – is there a name for this model of healing?

    Thank you


    • Nancy Berns says:

      Thank you for your insights, Judy. I continue to do research in this area. I am interviewing people, trying to learn more about how they learn to balance joy and grief. I have not yet given it a specific name, but am trying to identify strategies and processes people use to learn this balance. For sure I am pushing back against the growing assumption that we need closure. You can read more about these ideas on my blog or in my book, Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us. http://www.nancyberns.com

      Thanks for helping others. Nancy

  5. I want to thank-you for this confirmation about the spaces between black and white,grief and joy.I have experienced many situations in my life and relationships about which my confusion regarding this question has caused a remarkable learning environment to arise within my journey.Your publicly spoken words are of the greatest healing and validation for a”problem” occurring in my reality.Balance is everything in this particular world and just hearing this discussed by others brings the healing I have been seeking.I am grateful.

    • Nancy Berns says:

      Abigail, thank you for your comment. I am grateful that my message might bring some healing. Continue to seek that balance as you walk your journey. Nancy Berns

  6. Elaine Gort says:

    While struggling to integrate the reality of the death of my 17-year-old son i learned that two realities can exist at the same time pain/grief and gratitude/joy. The struggle is to not let the pain erase or negate the good things in life a and not to try and act as though those things can wipe out the pain.

    It’s like holding a beach ball in each hand and trying to find some way to balance both. Or holding an egg in each hand and not allowing one hand to smash down on the other so that there is neither space for deep grieving nor for intense joy. Keeping some space in between the two can be hard, but for me it meant the only way to survive. The joy doesn’t wipe out the pain, but letting the pain eliminate the possibility of joy is not the way through grief.

    • Nancy Berns says:

      Thank you for your comment, Elaine. I hope you’ve been able to find some joy during the holiday season. I know it is an especially hard time to balance joy and grief. Take care. Nancy Berns