Bearing Witness To Grief

04/26/2017 10:35 am ET Updated Apr 26, 2017

 

If, as a culture, we don’t bear witness to grief, the burden of loss is placed entirely on the bereaved, while the rest of us avert our eyes and wait for those in mourning to stop being sad, to let go, to move on, to cheer up. And if they don’t – if they have loved too deeply, if they do wake each morning thinking, I cannot continue to live – well, then we pathologize their pain; we call their suffering a disease. We do not help them. We tell them that they need to get help. – Cheryl Strayed

If you are a widow, or a parent who has lost a child, you know that most people are uncomfortable around you...adding another layer onto your already complex pain. I don’t believe people intentionally ostracize. The truth is, the griever is a glaring reminder to others that the same untimely and tragic loss could happen to them as well. This will cause many people to subconsciously keep you at arm’s length in an attempt to avoid the reminder that comes along with seeing you.

Our Western society is not only a death-denying culture, but a pain-denying culture. We tend to be uncomfortable with anything messy. Aging, illness, poverty, death and grief are just a few of the things we try to avoid. We have developed a subconscious aversion to anything that makes us feel negative emotions. Unfortunately for us grievers who are experiencing these life-altering challenges, this subconscious alienation by those from whom we had looked to for support only further increases our suffering. The griever’s life is in pieces, yet we are often left on our own to try to put the pieces together again.

Society’s Expectations of the Griever

Grief is a complex process that affects each of us differently. We each have loved ones who play different roles in our lives – some more significant than others. Your marriage is not like your neighbor’s marriage. Your relationship with your parents is not like your friends’ relationships with their parents. How do we define what it really feels like to be a widow or to lose a child when it is such a subjective experience, an experience based on that particular relationship? Sure, there are universal aspects of grief we all endure, but just as no two fingerprints are alike, I believe that every grief path is individual.

Grief that may be a slight disturbance in one person’s life can be a game-stopper in another’s.

Society conditions us to believe that if we live according to the rules, life will remain predictable and under our control. Unexpected death, illness, and grief are not acknowledged in our structured and categorized lives; they are just something we are supposed to fit into our lives. When death does happen to someone we loved, we are expected to quietly bear our pain, while still maintaining our daily lives, and to “get over” our grief in a timely manner without unnecessarily disrupting anyone else’s life.

Despite these expectations, our hearts and emotions refuse to follow the constraints and timeline that society has set. We grievers don’t want to have to pretend we are okay, when we are not okay. We don’t want to act as if we don’t miss our lost loved one, because we do. We don’t want to have to walk on eggshells when someone doesn’t know what to say to us; we are already walking a tightrope and barely keeping our balance. We already feel alone and don’t want to be further isolated because our lives have fallen outside of life’s expected categories.

Society’s expectations of grievers are unrealistic. For a griever who has lost a loved one who was an irreplaceable part of their life, nothing will ever be the same. Life is turned upside-down. Regardless of society’s expectations, grief demands that our emotions and heartache be adequately attended to and healed before we are allowed to move forward in life. Even after we are able to move forward, we will always live with the void and pain of the death of our loved one. We just learn to make room in our lives for the pain.

Don’t let society dictate how your grief should look. Find those supporters who can be with you and your pain, without trying to change or deny how you are feeling.

Honor your pain.

Honor your loss.

Cherish your memories.

Be patient and kind with yourself as you are learning to live with your loss. In time, love and loss can learn to walk side by side.

You can find my book, The Other Side of Complicated Grief, here.

You can find my Facebook grief support group here.

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