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Being Brave

I read Kaui Hart Hemmings’ new book, The Possibilities.  It’s about a mother mourning the death of her 22-year-old son in an avalanche, and the book begins with her reentry into her regular schedule; returning to work and relationships.  There were a bunch of lines that I noted in Charlotte, but the one that I wanted to unpack with you comes on page 88 when she is in a conversation with another mother who also lost her child in an avalanche:

“I think it’s wonderful that you’re back at work.  I know it really helped me.  It takes a lot of courage, a lot of strength.”

Is she complimenting me or herself?  I hate the unearned kudos.  People get shot in the head and are called brave when they recover.  People lose a son in an avalanche and they’re suddenly admirable.  I’ve done nothing.  I have no courage.  Courage is only possible when you choose to do something.  I didn’t choose to lose him.

In other words, continuing to live life when shit happens isn’t brave.  Bravery comes from seeing danger and choosing to move forward regardless of that danger instead of turning back, which is equally a choice.  But the main character — Sarah St. John — doesn’t see continuing to exist after something horrible has happened, continuing to get up and go to work and eat meals, as courageous because what choice do you have?  To simply stop?  And if one does stop, would the character above call that cowardly by the very fact that it is the opposite of what she calls brave?

This idea obviously struck me because within our community, we deal with a lot of shit.  And there are a lot of days when it feels pretty brave to get out of bed and keep moving despite everything you privately know inside your head and heart.  Just because there is not a real choice in the matter — since stopping is just a fancy way of taking you on a fast track to death — doesn’t mean that it isn’t brave.  She didn’t choose to lose him any more than any of us choose infertility or loss.  But… I don’t know.  It feels pretty brave sometimes continuing to interact in a world where the object of your depression is all around you.  There is no way to move about the general world and not encounter babies, pregnant women, small changing tables hooked to public bathroom walls.

Is it only courage when you choose to do something?  Or can it be courage simply to live with the situation you’re dealt?


1 Serenity { 07.29.14 at 8:34 am }

Huh, this is a thought-provoking post. I’ve typed three separate comments and then deleted them because I can see it from both sides.

I suppose I look at it this way: It’s easy to discount your own courage/bravery because you don’t feel particularly brave. I never considered myself brave for the choices I made with family building because I didn’t feel like we really have much of a choice, yes, but also because I never FELT strong. I felt weak and sad and torn up.

My new definition of courage, though, is doing things that are hard. When you feel the weakest you’ve ever been and keep plodding through life because there really is no alternative.

In that, I would call Sarah brave as well.

(Would you recommend the book? I need a new book to bring on our vacation in a couple weeks.)

2 Ana { 07.29.14 at 9:32 am }

Yes, very thought-provoking. I’ve had this debate (in my head) before, too. But I disagree—you do absolutely have a choice. There are people that just…give up. Or they let their grief ferment into anger and bitterness. So choosing to go on, and working to NOT let the bitterness and anger take over—that is courage. That is brave.

3 a { 07.29.14 at 9:37 am }

Oh, you can choose not to go on, though. You can sink into depression or it can take over without your consent. Sometimes it is a decision to put grief aside for a moment to do something else. And I consider that bravery.

4 Juanita { 07.29.14 at 10:30 am }

I think it is very brave to act normal and go about your daily tasks while being bombarded with something outside your control which absolutely breaks your heart on the inside.

5 Pepper { 07.29.14 at 10:54 am }

I do think it is brave. Because people do just opt out of life. The day after I had a miscarriage, I went to work. I felt I had to go – complicated situation – but ultimately it was my choice to suck it up and pretend I was fine. That same day a colleague just didn’t show up. No call, no sub plans, nothing. And she was gone for months, only to come back and do it again. She claimed she was “dealing with emotional issues.” Apparently that means you no longer have to extend common courtesy to your co-workers, etc. Whatever her situation, she took the cowardly out by just not showing up rather than explain. Which to me says I did the brave thing by continuing to meet my obligations. I feel brave every day, regardless of how I ended up in these circumstances, because I choose to live my life with grace and toughness.

6 Colleen { 07.29.14 at 1:57 pm }

I struggle with this question too. After our loss I have had so many people talk about how brave and strong I am. I am not convinced that is true. I am surviving. I have had shit happen to me and I deal with it in the best way I know how. Is that what it is to be brave? The comments above make me feel good because I can give myself a pat on the back for moving forward and living life but in my heart I’m not sure I’m persuaded. Maybe I’m a pessimist.

7 Peg { 07.29.14 at 1:58 pm }

My sister and her husband died. I adopted two of her children. People call me a saint. Wow, what would they have said if I had adopted the other two (heavy sarcasm). I’m not a saint. Multiple times during the day I wish our old life back as the girls scream at each other and demand so much attention. Many mornings I lie in bed and wish I didn’t have to get up and face the day but I do because people depend on me and what’s the alternative? Does this make me brave? I don’t think so. I think life is a lot more complicated than that, but I do think it makes people feel better to apply the platitudes rather than hear or accept another person’s reality which may be really hard (dealing with grief, infertility, etc.). Thoughtful post. I think I may read the book, sounds interesting.

8 fifi { 07.29.14 at 5:07 pm }

Shortly after our 3rd ivf failed, my husband called me “strong” and I told him he was insane, I had never felt so weak and most days I felt like crawling into bed and never getting out. And he said “but you don’t.”
So I don’t know. It seems like low expectations, to see getting out of bed as an act of bravery. But damnit if some days it felt like that.

9 MissingNoah { 07.29.14 at 5:44 pm }

I struggled with this a lot after Noah died. Being called “brave” or “strong”. I hated when people told me that I was stronger than they were. That if they were in my shoes they wouldn’t be able to keep going. I hated it, because I always felt like they were saying they loved their kids more, and would therefore grieve harder. I felt like they were saying that by leaving the house I was saying I was ok with his death.

It is one of the “things people say” that I hated the most. I’m sure they would have been horrified to hear how I saw their comments. But it is what it is.

10 ANDMom { 07.29.14 at 6:59 pm }

I think “strong” is a better word than “brave” or “courageous”, but still not really quite right. I agree with fifi that it seems like low expectations to commend everyone who gets out of bed in the morning if something bad has happened – when did we become such a soft society that it seems *notable*? It wasn’t that long ago that infertility (among countless other diseases and conditions) was untreatable, that death was a much more common feature of life (even/especially among infants and children), and I really don’t see people of our grandparents’ generation thinking anyone is special for living life when something bad happens.

There’s still *something* there, it does take a certain amount of something to do what needs doing, to live up to your responsibilities even when you feel like you had to actively make the choice to live instead of let yourself slip away. But I’m not sure what that word is.

11 Cristy { 07.29.14 at 10:47 pm }

The comments for this post really have me thinking.

I’m with you, as I do think it takes a certain amount of strength to pick oneself up and continue living in the face a tragedy. But I also agree with some commenters that the times I’ve been called “brave” or “strong” have made me question the person saying them. Because I felt so far from either of those descriptions and in some cases it made me feel worse as it felt like I was somehow in the wrong for trying to live te way I was. I guess what it comes down to is understanding both sides of this coin.

Thanks for the thoughtful post.

12 Tiara { 07.30.14 at 10:27 am }

Wow, very thought provoking post…& the comments too. Do we ever FEEL brave when we’re BEING brave? I think realizing courage is a bit of a hindsight thing…when you look back you can see how brave you were to get out of bed, to face going into the world with the pregnant bellies & the newborns, but in the moment, you just do it.

13 Mali { 07.30.14 at 11:50 pm }

Great post and comments.

I don’t like the sloppy writing of the author – “Courage is only possible when you choose to do something. I didn’t choose to lose him.”

She’s not being called brave because she lost her son. Argh. She’s being called brave because of what she chooses to do afterwards. It may seem as if there is no option but to be brave, but there are always choices, as others have said.

I think there are two sides to the “brave” thing. Often when we do things after a trauma we don’t feel brave, because we’re comparing ourselves to what we were before. We feel broken and weak and terrified and trapped. But the truth is that we feel the fear, but we do it anyway. And to me, that is true bravery.

And when a person calls someone else brave, I think they are doing a number of things. They’re acknowledging how hard something can be to do, they’re acknowledging that the person is probably afraid, almost certainly doesn’t want to do that thing, and yet they are doing it anyway, in the face of their fear. And to me, those unspoken acknowledgements are the important things, not really the issue of bravery or not. Because acknowledging that something is hard, that it takes guts to do – even if that is simply getting out of bed and facing the day – means that there is a degree of understanding, of compassion, of empathy. So even if we don’t feel brave, if someone is telling us that we are, then they’re telling us a bit more than that. They’re going beyond the platitude, and letting us know we’re being heard.

14 Lori Lavender Luz { 07.31.14 at 9:34 am }

I wish I had more bandwidth to ponder the question.

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