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May 23, 2019

The Problem with Grieving on Society’s Terms.


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When my husband completed suicide in 2012, everyone told me grief was a journey, and for the most part, I believed it.

Journeys can be difficult and unpredictable, with rocky terrain, dead ends, and plenty of backtracking. What I didn’t understand was that this journey—which, for me, continues to this day—would involve so many outside voices.

Some of those are welcome: the caring support of a lifelong friend, or the thoughtful guidance of a family member. Others only added confusion, shame, and embarrassment to a process that already felt like a waking nightmare.

Those voices—often reflections of society’s stigma on grief and loss—attempted to govern my journey from the outside, telling me which turn to take, when it was okay or not okay to stop and rest, or even that my journey should already be over.

Grieving is a complicated, personal process, and society’s opinions, requirements, and stigmas only roughen the terrain and weaken the griever.

Grieving without society’s “rules”

While the death of a family member or loved one is certainly a loss, it is far from the only loss for which we grieve.

As a certified grief counselor, I work with people from all walks of life who experience a wide spectrum of losses: divorce, a move to a new place, losing or quitting a job, estrangement from a friend or family member, their own deteriorating health (or that of a loved one) and, of course, death.

Each person I counsel is as unique in their grief as they are as a person.

What is a simple change or transition to one person, may be a debilitating loss to another. One person could process their grief in a few weeks or months, while another feels stuck for months or even years in a dark tunnel of despair.

The problem comes when outsiders assert their rules on an experience as unique and personal as grief.

Even if they mean well, family members, friends, and acquaintances can be quick to place limitations on our grief. These attitudes are nothing more than a reflection of society’s stigma associated with the process.

We may hear phrases like:

>> “She’s still hung up on her ex, but I don’t know why, because he cheated on her.”

>> “He just needs to find a new job rather than moping around the house because he lost the other one.”

>> “She’s acting really depressed, but she chose to have an abortion.”

>> “The whole family acts like he’s dead; he just has dementia.”

>> “It was just a miscarriage. It’s not like she lost a baby.”

>> “He needs to move on. It’s been long enough.”

Even when these statements are coming from a place of love and concern, they qualify losses as either worthy or unworthy of grief, and place arbitrary parameters around the grieving process.

We wouldn’t tell someone undergoing chemotherapy that their cancer isn’t going away fast enough. Likewise, it’s never our place to determine what and how someone should grieve.

Experiencing a stigmatized loss

Blame and guilt are two key players in the grief process—especially when experiencing a stigmatized loss like suicide, or a substance-or HIV-related death.

I came to know these feelings all too well when my husband completed suicide by standing in front of an oncoming train. His death didn’t just shock me; it shocked our community and made headlines.

In the aftermath, I came to know the long, lonely road of a suicide survivor, or the spouse or significant other of someone who completed suicide.

Suicide survivors experience stigma in the form of shame, blame, and avoidance.

These survivors face both the “normal” feelings associated with grief, and the added burden of finding reasons to explain the death, guilt for not preventing it, blame of self and others, and feelings of abandonment.

For me, society’s stigma interfered with an already complicated grieving process. While I had amazing support from friends and family, wondering—or fearing—what the world around me was thinking or saying about my husband’s suicide made me want to shut it all out.

I experienced firsthand how the abundance of blame, gossip, and negative attitudes of suicide stigma could exacerbate the feelings of guilt and shame I already had in spades.

Supporting those in grief

We cannot single-handedly break any long-held stigmas associated with loss and grief. But what we can do is help others recognize when their words and actions are perpetuating the stigma.

When a loved one is grieving, we need to be open to the idea that their feelings are beyond our comprehension. Rather than telling them how to feel or act, we need to ask how they feel, then listen, and try to understand.

Of course, there are times when grief isn’t “normal” anymore.

When we are concerned that our loved one is suffering from depression or mental illness caused or exacerbated by grief, it’s important for them to talk to a professional.

Those who are struggling need encouragement and support, but they also need rational minds to tell them when they might need professional help.

The journey of grief can be long and hard. Rather than directing our friend or loved one’s every turn from the outside, we ought to throw on a backpack and hold their hand as they find their own way along their path.

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