It feels like grief comes with rules. There are rules about who can grieve which losses, how long grieving can take place, and what losses deserve to be grieved. These rules, silent but present, can make it harder to move through the already present pain and add feelings of guilt, confusion, and shame, and loneliness. These rules deserve to be dismantled. Here are five times we may feel disallowed to grieve.
1. The loss happened 20 years ago. Grievers are often given a socially sanctioned timeline for their grief. Immediately following a death, mourners feel entitled to the full range of emotions and experiences. Religious, spiritual, cultural, and familial rituals mark the death and communities gather to celebrate, mourn, and pay homage. As time passes, however, individuals may be expected to “move on” and not speak about their loss. But grief does not exist on a set schedule and does not progress linearly. Grief also has a way of returning, again and again, triggered by a sight, smell, turn of phrase, time of year, or piece of clothing that reminds a person of their lost loved one. Milestones will carry the burden of that person’s absence.
2. You weren’t very close to the loss. Sometimes, a person struggles to feel entitled to their sense of loss. They don’t feel authorized to feel strongly about the loss because others were closer to it. Perhaps a cousin died but you don’t want to overtake the grief of a sibling. An old friend whom you have not seen in years suddenly passes, leaving you feeling emotional whiplash but feeling too distant or disconnected to speak about it. There is still room for you and your feelings, even if others experience the loss, too. Grief does not discriminate, and we often cannot predict what sort of loss will touch us in a profound way.
3. Somebody else had something “worse” happen to them. You’ll rarely hear somebody say that they aren’t entitled to their joy because others have greater joys happen to them. But often, clients express to me the sense that their pain or grief fails to meet the threshold for compassion and acknowledgment. Others have it worse, so their own grief deserves no space. In truth, others’ pain, regardless of severity, has no bearing on your entitlement to your own pain. Others’ grief does not occupy your grief space, there is room for everybody’s.
4. Nobody died. Grief is not a response to death, it is a response to loss. But because we only use the term grief in relation to death, some may not feel entitled to experience other types of grief. As I’ve written before, grief is an experience that arises throughout life in response to a wide range of experiences. A person may grieve a lost sense of identity, a lost sense of safety, a lost dream, lost expectations, lost autonomy, among others. We often even grieve when joyous occasions or transitions arise, as we’re asked to shift our lives in new and scary ways. All of these forms of grief deserve both our attention. And all of these processes must also be labeled grief, which provides a useful framework for emotionally complicated moments.
5. You also feel relief, gratitude, numbness, resentment, anger, love, and lightness. Emotions do not occur in single file. Grief following a death, loss, or tragedy may be accompanied by other, sometimes seemingly conflicting, emotions. After a person’s prolonged illness, grief for the loss of life may be accompanied by a sense of relief. A person may feel joy at the life lived, anger or resentment toward the death or incident, overwhelming love, or numbness. Despite the widely held belief that everybody will travel neatly through a series of grief emotions (anger, bargaining, etc.), emotions may happen simultaneously, intermittently, cyclically, or messily. They may come and go, washing over a person like waves. They will not be felt in a vacuum from other emotional realities and feelings about the loss.
The Big Picture
All of these caveats – the entitlement to grieve despite the passage of time, the closeness or lack of closeness to the tragedy, how others experience the loss, the lack of death, and other present emotions – speak to one underlying principle. Allow yourself to feel through grief with gentle self-compassion. When judgmental thoughts arise in response to your feelings, “somebody else has it worse” or “but it was so long ago,” pause and remind yourself that it is OK to feel this way. It is OK.
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