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Why Do We Grieve in Such Weird Ways?

Raul Arboleda/Getty

According to the narrative of our age, suffering yields redemption. Picture the perfect college admissions essay. Not the one about winning a science fair, or voluntouring on a “gap yah.” It’s about an obstacle having been overcome: It needs to be a real obstacle and it needs to be properly overcome. There are two options post-obstacle: Collapse into a puddle of it’s-just-too-difficult (in which case you have the admissions committee’s sympathy), or succeed despite challenges. Not necessarily sustained, socioeconomic adversity—contrary to the fears of some well-off parents, elite colleges still wind up favoring the rich—but something. The word we’re looking for here is perspective. 

When I think of the most difficult times in my own life, and the times when I’ve had some sort of revelation about justice or what really matters or something along those lines, I find… very little overlap. Real problems arise? I will be that much more attuned to first-world problems. The very moments when stocking up on nail polish shouldn’t seem like a priority are the ones when it absolutely does.

Which is, I think, why I so appreciated Nona Willis Aronowitz’s essay on splurging as a break from caring for her parent and her partner, both ill at the same time. She lists the items purchased during that period. A sampling:

Two pedicures, $30 each. Two massages, one barebones ($55), the other bougie ($115). Three pairs of nice $25 underwear, mostly for no reason but also because I have zero time to do laundry. Three blowouts, ranging from $45 to $60, one of which was irrationally booked during a torrential rainstorm. 

I’m not usually one to go in for the whole confessional-essay-as-brave framework, especially given the screwed-up dynamics of that industry. But this one was. It’s not really done to talk about these sorts of responses to adversity. Personal writing is, of course, performative, and not a glimpse into anyone’s psyche. But at its best, it gets at the inexplicable in human behavior. Unlike fictional characters, however, personal essayists—who are, like everyone, real people with reputations to uphold—will generally try to explain. Aronowitz, then, offers an analysis of why a time like that led to actions like those: 

I’ve been craving not only these luxurious items but human kindness, too. Not the pitying kindness one normally gets during a family crisis, but the bland, deferential kindness that makes me feel calmer and wealthier than I really am.

Aronowitz’s account brought to mind Dan Savage’s recent response to a letter-writer whose partner treated her poorly; to answer her, Savage chose “to share a story with you that makes me look terrible.” 

The day my mother was dying—the day I had to tell her she was dying—I left her hospital room for a few minutes to get my siblings on the phone so they could say their goodbyes to her. I was sobbing. I was out of my mind. I was in real pain—the worst pain of my life. And there I was, sitting on the floor at the end of a long hallway, leaving messages for my brothers, when a hot male nurse walked down the hall. He actually cut across it, right in front of me, and my brain shut down for a second. It was like a complete systems override—my brain just went, “Hey, stop whatever it is you’re doing and look at him.” And I did: I stopped crying, I stopped trying to get my brothers on the phone, and for a couples of seconds I just sat there and stared at the hot nurse.

I cruised the hot nurse.

Savage’s explanation converges, I think, with Aronowitz’s:

[S]ometimes we reach out in moments of grief and despair and do something... stupid and transgressive, but life- and eros-affirming. Sometimes when we’re scared and devastated we want something simple and easy—and nothing is easier or simpler than dick.

Dick or shopping; which seems the easier route probably depends a bit on gender. But only a bit—Aronowitz includes flirting with bartenders. And some of the best observations about shopping as a respite from tragedy come from a dude: Jon Caramanica opens his “Critical Shopper” column on the luxury mall that’s popped up across from Ground Zero with the following explanation for the disturbing juxtaposition.

Like many people, I shop to forget. When trauma creeps close and threatens to suffocate, I don’t retreat to books, or music, or television. I find my way to a store, actual or virtual, and burn off tense energy by asking useless questions about fabrics and measurements, by trying things on just to feel simple renewal, by using the thought of new clothes — and more often than I care to admit, the reality of them — to imagine my way to a new self.

Caramanica, like Aronowitz, blames capitalism. And… while capitalism certainly governs the way these reactions play out—while it absolutely impacts the form our reactions to life’s horrors can take—I think there’s more to it. It’s what Savage explains, or rather, doesn’t. “[P]eople process grief and fear in weird ways, sometimes in ways that don’t make sense to us, sometimes in ways that don’t make sense to them,” Savage writes.

While I think Savage was a bit soft on the letter-writer (to read an advice column is, of course, to mentally write an alternate answer), this point is key. Strange reactions to grief are a human trait that will always be with us, no matter who controls the means of production.