Broken Hearts

Exploring myths and truths about grief, loss, and recovery.

Reduced to Joy?

When it comes to grief, we often seem to be going in the wrong direction.

“Wait a minute, don’t you mean ‘reduced to tears’?”

No, we mean exactly what we said. We are making a point which is that there are hordes of expressions that swirl around the twin topics of grief and recovery. Unfortunately, many of them are not helpful when we find ourselves stuck in the middle of grieving situations.

We have been socialized to believe that sadness—which is the normal response to sad news or sad memories—is somehow a reduction rather than an appropriate response.

Several years ago the Republican National Convention was held in San Diego. One of the keynote speakers was former First Lady, Nancy Reagan. At that point in time, President Reagan was already under the impact of full-blown Alzheimer’s Disease. As Mrs. Reagan spoke, she cried, openly and honestly. What a perfect representation of emotional truth, for all the world to see—at least that’s what we thought.

But not so, thought the Los Angeles Times. On August 12, 1996, the Los Angeles Times ran a headline stating that Nancy Reagan broke down while making her speech at the convention. Here’s the headline culled from their archives.

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 "Nancy Reagan loses composure in a tribute to her ailing husband."

 Why do we know about this? Because on August 13, 1996, we wrote a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times. Here is a copy of that letter:

We have been interviewed and quoted many times in the Los Angeles Times View and Life Style sections as experts on the topic of grief and recovery. Our constant refrain is that “grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss.”

Nancy Reagan, along with millions of others, has experienced a major loss in response to the effects of Alzheimer’s disease on President Reagan. Even those with opposing political views share a sense of sadness when thinking about him.

Since grief is normal and natural, so is crying. Crying is not losing composure. Crying is a natural and healthy response to loss or reminder of loss. Sadness and happiness are equal. We would no more wish to take away someone’s sadness than we would take away their joy.

Please do not fall into the trap of identifying sadness as negative or something to be avoided. Millions read your paper. Please give them accurate language about human emotions.

We signed the letter as the principals of The Grief Recovery Institute. Of course, you are wondering if the Times ever published the letter. But you won’t be surprised to find out that they didn’t.

More recently, we wrote about the travesty caused by the depiction of Jackie Kennedy standing with her children, without apparent emotion, as JFK’s funeral procession passed by. We highlighted the fact that the television commentators kept repeating the phrase, “Isn’t she strong,” as if her non-display of emotion was virtuous. It set up the idea and the ideal that being “strong” and not showing emotions was a good thing.

That was in 1963. Thirty three years later, in 1996, another First Lady, Nancy Reagan, showed her emotions and was castigated for it.

 As a society we pride ourselves on our progress, but when it comes to grief and the honest emotions connected to loss, we often seem to be going in the wrong direction.

 

Russell Friedman is Executive Director of The Grief Recovery Institute, and co-author of The Grief Recovery Handbook, When Children Grieve, and Moving On.

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