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Don’t Let Anyone Tell You How to Grieve

How we can embrace our own unique and authentic coping process.

Key points

  • One of the most devastating events that we can experience is the death of someone we love.
  • And as a society, we often have strong opinions on how people "should" manage their grief and how long they "should" mourn.
  • Under this pressure, we must cope with our loss while conforming to arbitrary societal norms that don't address our needs.
  • There are steps we can take to feel empowered and find our own authentic grieving process in the face of loss.

One of the most devastating events that we can experience is the death of someone we love. The loss of a loved one can be damaging in many ways. The simple absence of someone who has brought joy, companionship, and support to our lives can leave us feeling empty and hollow.

This feeling will be particularly acute when we have lost someone who is central to our life. Often this is a person who we feel really “gets” us in our most real and authentic form. And if we have in some way built our life around the person we lost, our entire world can feel like it has been shattered.

We can’t easily compartmentalize this loss—it affects everything in our lives, from how we see ourselves and our purpose in life to how we relate to others. It’s not simply that we’ve lost one person—we’ve lost our entire orientation to how we see the world and our place in it. How on Earth are we supposed to “cope” with this kind of loss?

Source: Pursuit Photography/Creative Commons
Source: Pursuit Photography/Creative Commons

There are no clear answers as to how we “should” grieve. And yet, it seems that as a society, we often have strong opinions on how to manage grief and struggle with loss—particularly for other people. And perhaps these opinions are well intended. But the problem is that, by definition, the role of grieving in our lives is going to be different than the role that our grieving plays in someone else’s life.

Specifically, what is unfortunately in the best interest of others is for our grief to conform to their needs rather than ours. And what people often need is reassurance that their world will go back to normal, even if our world has not. So we often need to be “better,” whether we feel that way or not.

And what does it mean for us to be “better” in someone else’s eyes? Well, it feels like we have to walk a very narrow path. We are allowed to be deeply sad for a period of time. That reassures the people around us that we value relationships and have a heart. But if we do not appear appropriately sad, people begin to question if we are in denial. Do we actually connect to others in a way that seems genuine? Would we not be devastated if others also passed?

At the same time, there is often pressure from others for us to “move on” within what they consider to be an appropriate time frame. At the very least, we need to appear as though we have moved on so that we can recirculate in society. If not, there is a fear that we are damaged goods—not strong enough to handle a situation that eventually happens to almost all of us. And there is a question as to whether we can be the same person to them that we once were.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone walks this fine line after losing a loved one. And it’s difficult to overstate the damage that these types of expectations can have on a grieving person. We not only have to tolerate a huge loss and the associated damage that we ourselves may never fully understand, but also we must conform to arbitrary societal norms that do not in any way address our loss or our needs.

So what do we do? I have been thinking a lot about this issue since talking on The Hardcore Humanism Podcast with Nancy Wilson, founding member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band Heart, about her new solo album, You and Me, which addresses the loss of her mother. And I was inspired by her willingness to share her unique and authentic journey of understanding her relationship with her mother both before and after her mother’s death.

So I found myself asking: How can we all feel empowered to find our authentic grieving process in the face of loss? In an effort to not inadvertently become someone who tells others how to grieve, I offer up the following suggestions as possible things to consider.

First and foremost, we can reassure ourselves that our grieving process is our own. There is no right or wrong way to grieve—period. Anyone who tells us differently is at best missing the point and, at worse, doing serious damage to our mental and physical health. To be sure, if we choose to adopt a specific model of grieving—so be it. But the stress of loss is enough, and we need the freedom to find our own way if we so choose. So to anyone thinking of telling us how to grieve—either get on board with our approach or get out of the way.

Second, it can often be helpful—particularly at the beginning of the grieving process—to not have any expectations, judgments, or evaluations of how we feel or what we need to do. As long as we are not directly harming ourselves, it can be crucial to give ourselves permission to let our natural thoughts, feelings, and behaviors lead the way. If we want to cry uncontrollably, we can cry. If we want to laugh as we reminisce, so be it. If we want to ignore the whole thing—then that’s what we need to do. Since we don’t know what we need per se, we can’t judge ourselves. I think doing what we need to do to grieve applies forever—because the loss is forever—but especially at the beginning when we are most raw and vulnerable.

Next, at some point, it may be useful to consider how the loss has affected the various areas of our life. We may not be the same. Our relationships may not be the same. The loss of a spouse is different than the loss of a parent. The loss of a child is different from the loss of a friend. We should not feel as though the goal is to have things go back to “normal.” Things may not feel normal. They may not be normal. It’s OK to be open to the possibility that we are different, and our life is different.

Further, if and when we are ready, and before we consider our own long-term approach to grieving, we can consider our approach to life in general. What is our purpose in life? What role do relationships in general play in that purpose? What role did this specific relationship play? What are our spiritual beliefs when it comes to death? Do we feel that we can communicate with people we’ve lost? Do we feel that we will see them after we die?

All of these questions—and there are no doubt many others—frame how we view life, relationships, and loss. And the answers to these questions form the foundation for understanding this particular loss. This will help us understand how the loss has affected us and what we need from a grief process. It may be helpful to think about these issues both before and after we have experienced loss to help guide our thinking on how we want to approach grieving.

Finally, when we have created the space we need to grieve and determined our needs, we can set up our own plan—a framework for how we think our needs will best be met. Maybe this plan involves specific behaviors—reminiscing over photos and videos, talking with others about the person we lost. Perhaps we privately write in a journal about our memories and feelings. We might want to join a support group of people who are grieving to help us cope with loss. Perhaps we want to do something in the spirit of the person we lost, such as charity work or fulfilling goals we had with that person.

This plan may also include being very specific with others about what might be helpful or not helpful in our grieving process. Sometimes communicating our needs to others may be valuable. Other times it may not. Remember, whatever our framework and plan, it is critical that we realize that it is our plan—our grief is our own. And we do not owe anybody—other than ourselves—anything.

References

You can hear Dr. Mike's conversation with Nancy Wilson on the Hardcore Humanism Podcast at HardcoreHumanism.com or on your favorite podcast app.

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