Just What is a Good Grief, Charlie Brown?

Image by Charles M. Schulz, Wikimedia

Here was the world famous authority on grief; and there I was, your humble writer and shrinker of heads, sitting with him in a conference. He had just spoken about grief, the things that will cause it, what it does to people, and how to help them heal. He had many wise things to say, but then he made the mistake of asking us if we had any questions. My hand shot up.

“I was thinking about Charlie Brown,” I said. “One of his favorite expressions is Good Grief! What do you suppose he meant by that? Is there any grief that’s good?”

The world famous authority on grief did not think anything that had happened to Charlie Brown was worthy to be called grief. It’s not grief when you can’t kick a football, he said. We’re here to talk about the most horrible things that happen to people, not something as trivial as that. So, does anyone have any real questions that aren’t about Charlie Brown?

Good grief.

I didn’t have any questions that weren’t about Charlie Brown. Everything else I wanted to know about grief, the world famous authority on grief had just told me. I would have to answer for myself what Charlie Brown meant by good grief and whether it’s even possible.

I’ve asked other people what good grief means. Most say it’s an oxymoron, you moron, like jumbo shrimp, managed care, civil war, or military intelligence. The fact that Charlie Brown says it, just goes to show what Charlie Brown’s problem is. He can’t be honest about his feelings. He’s too wishy-washy. It would be better if he said, that sucks or you fucking bitch when Lucy pulls away the football. 

Others say grief is neither good nor bad. It just is. It’s us that puts moral judgements on things. This is the stoic way of thinking about grief. It is not events in themselves that trouble us, just our interpretation of them. Therefore, Charlie Brown is as free to call grief good as anyone else is free to call grief bad. They’re both wrong, but Charlie Brown may have found a great way to handle his grief. Call it good and focus on the positives.

That reminds me of what I tried to do when my dog died. I was very sad. I was grieving. The world famous authority on grief might say a dog was not worthy of grief. I disagree. I thought of how great it was to have a dog. How he followed me everywhere. How he was devoted to me. I remembered the wonderful times we spent together, running, playing in the park, petting him with his head on my lap. It’s very painful to lose a dog. I decided I’d spare myself the pain by remembering all the bad things about him, how he peed and shitted on the carpet, how he ate the couch, spread dog hair all over, and would bark, jump on people, and hump them when anyone came over. I was relieved to be without my dog when I thought about that. But that’s just wrong. Did I really want to remember my dog that way?

It seems like putting a moral judgement on something is the whole point of grief. Grief is a way of saying you cherish what you lost. It was good and valuable, and you don’t know how you’ll live without it. You sign up for grief when you decide to love. It’s there in the fine print.

So, what is Charlie Brown saying when he says a grief is good?

Charlie Brown has an image of himself as a foolish screw up. He’s full of hopeless enthusiasms that come to naught. He wants to fly a kite, but the kite eating tree eats it. He dreams of being a star pitcher and great baseball manager, but his team always loses. He yearns for a red haired girl, but she barely knows he exists. He’s not fond of his image of a foolish screw up, but it’s still his self-image. He’s attached to it. It’s familiar. It always follows him around, just like my dog before he died. I think it could be reassuring for him when his enthusiasms come to naught. He doesn’t have to wonder anymore when disaster is going to strike. He doesn’t have to take the risks inherent in following his dreams. He comes back to earth after trying to kick a football that has been pulled away, and he’s grounded. There’s got to be something good about that. Or is there?

That’s like saying it’s good when an addict relapses on his drug because he doesn’t have to worry about keeping track of his clean time any longer. That’s not a good grief at all. That’s a grief that nothing changes when it needs to.

I disagree with the world famous authority on grief when he said that what happened to Charlie Brown was not worthy to be called grief. Think about it. A lot more happened than just not kicking a football. Lucy made a promise. He believed it. He got excited. He took a running start and, at the last moment she pulled it away. He fell on his back and suffered a shameful humiliation. Lucy turned him, and his hopes and dreams into an object of ridicule. Think of all he lost. He lost trust in Lucy, lost faith in a positive vision, wasted some energy, hurt himself, and had his fragile self-confidence annihilated. Lucy treated him as an It, when he should have been a Thou. That doesn’t sound trivial to me.

The incident with Lucy and the football is one of many times we humans come into contact with the cold, remorseless world of nature and other people. We discover we’re not special. The laws of physics don’t make any exception for us. We’re small in a vast universe. Other people, on whom we depend, don’t think about us nearly as much as we want to believe. They treat us as objects. Charlie Brown’s grief over the football is nothing less than an occurrence of a vast, universal, existential grief. Every grief is. When my dog died, I found out that biology doesn’t care how much I wanted him alive.

Dealing with the Abyss is no small matter, and it ain’t trivial; but when some things fall into that yawning chasm, it’s a bigger loss than others. So, Charlie Brown couldn’t kick a football that time. He’ll have other chances; although I’d recommend that he get a tee to stand it up on, rather than trust Lucy. A dog is a different matter. Sure, I can get another dog, but it won’t be the same one. Some things, like pets and people, are so individually unique that there’s no replacing them. But still, we don’t like to know there’s a bottomless pit right at our feet, and losing anything to it, no matter how trivial, reminds us it’s there.

I don’t know about you, but if I had a bottomless pit at my feet, I’d want to know about it, even though it’s distressing. Contemporary America doesn’t go for it much, but many cultures have a tradition of Momento Mori, a remembrance of death. The stoics were especially big on this. The Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius regularly reminded himself he was mortal. Jews acknowledge death every Yom Kippur. Christians have Ash Wednesday, when they hear, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. The Mexicans have their Día de los Muertos, the Buddhists meditate on death, and the Qur’an has many injunctions to pay heed to the fate of previous generations. The purpose seems to be to help us live fully in the present, to stay humble, and to respect the cosmic powers that be. It keeps us from getting too far ahead on our skis.

So, here’s a possibility, and I’m going to go with it. A good griefis a grief that reminds us of the Abyss, but is not so terrible a loss as to destroy us. A good grief is a warning. It reminds us that, in the battle between us and the universe, the universe should not be underestimated. There will always be more you don’t know than you do, even if you’re the world famous authority on grief.

Published by Keith R Wilson

I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.

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