THE ISSUES

"All sorrows can be borne if they can be put in a story." —Isak Dinesen

We all deal with loss. We all understand how hard it can be to talk about death and to express grief. At a time when public grief rituals have largely fallen by the wayside, mourning can feel secretive and alienating. Our culture pressures us to overcome loss quickly and privately, so that anything but stoicism after a loss can feel isolating and indulgent.

Until Molly spoke with her parents, sixteen years after her sister's death, she was unable to move forward through her grief. Peanut Gallery can spur conversations about loss. It can give us a sense of humor about how difficult these conversations can be. It can help us discover aspects of our own stories.

CANCER FAMILY DYNAMICS

A cancer diagnosis throws a whole family system into crisis. Will she be okay? How will we pay for it? Who’s going to be with her at the hospital? Cancer families have to face questions that they never thought they’d have to ask.

Childhood cancer raises especially tricky questions. To what extent should we keep life normal for the siblings of the ill child? To what extent should we pamper the ill child? Should we talk about the prognosis?

There are no easy answers. But in a country where one in three people get cancer, no one should feel alone as they seek the best answers for their own family.

SIBLING LOSS

Siblings are the forgotten mourners. Normally, sibling relationships are the longest of our lives—longer than those with our parents or our children. Researchers think we define ourselves in terms of our siblings; we fill the family roles they aren't filling. Many bereaved siblings describe the feeling that they are "living for two."

Bereaved siblings are often told, "This must be really hard for your parents." Parent and child loss are generally assumed to be more painful. Bereaved siblings suffer unnecessarily due to the ambiguity of their loss: without recognizing that they have suffered a major blow, bereaved siblings often spend years in limbo, waiting for permission or validation to grieve.


TALKING ABOUT DEATH

It's easy to want to believe we'll eventually find a cure for everything. As we've gotten amazingly capable at extending lives through medicine and technology, we've become worse and worse at facing the fact that death is the natural last event in any person's life.

Although doctors have developed practices aimed at coping with end-of-life issues, health insurance companies have made these practices difficult to implement. Medicare and most private insurance plans will not fund conversations with doctors about end-of-life options. Many families feel confused and intimidated about hospice and palliative care, and misinformation abounds.

Contemporary psychiatric discourse is making it easier to regard grief as an illness that can be treated with medication. Two prominent research groups recently proposed a diagnostic measure by which intense grief that lasts more than six months would be considered pathological, and the 2013 psychiatric diagnostic manual made it easier to prescribe antidepressants in the weeks immediately following a loss.

But more destructive than any trends in the insurance and psychiatric industries is the disappearance of public mourning rituals. For most of history, mourning rituals were public and communal. A hundred years ago, people would dress in mourning garb for sometimes years after the death of a close relative. Today we take a few days off from work and friends send awkwardly-phrased condolences via email.

Grief is not a disease. Mourning is not abnormal. Loss is not something we can avoid nor is it something we can just get over. We all struggle to find a way to talk about our loss, but it’s hard to know where or how to start. We have no context, no structure for the conversation.

Much in the way that Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed suggests that a concrete cultural object is necessary in order to generate discussions and ideas geared towards social change, Peanut Gallery can act as an organizing force and focus to help us generate ideas about what our new mourning culture could look like.