Conversations in Grief Blog: Grieving Together or Not at All
The death of a loved one is one of the hardest things we face. The unbearable pain we feel in their absence often envelopes us without room to breathe. Finding comfort and support from others, especially those who also loved and lost our person, can be incredibly helpful. But what about when it isn’t? Shared suffering can bring us closer to those we love, but there are times when it has the opposite effect.
In March of 2020, Brene Brown interviewed renowned grief expert David Kessler about grief and loss. During their conversation, she inquired about the effects of child loss on a marriage. She had heard it often leads to divorce. David Kessler responded by saying from his understanding that the loss of a child doesn’t cause divorce. Judgment of each other’s grief causes divorce. He went on to share this unspoken belief that, “If we love someone we’ll grieve exactly alike.” When parents lose a child, siblings a parent, etc., there is an unspoken assumption for many that the grief response will be the same. When it isn’t, and when we see someone we know who loved our person grieving differently, it can be painful or unsettling.
Each person’s grief experience is unique. The response we have to losing a loved one is going to reflect our relationship with that person, our cultural/familial values surrounding grief and loss, faith traditions, our personality, and even where we are emotionally when the death occurs. We approach grief from within ourselves and who we are. When we see another person’s (or another person sees ours) grief response and it feels uncomfortable to us, we may question their motives for their expression. Whether they are clearly distraught or showing no emotion at all. It can be hard when we feel as we do about the loss to accept their actions as okay or appropriate.
Collective grief, when a community or nation experiences shared loss, (September 11, 2001, is an example of this), often brings out both the best and worst in us. In these situations, we may also expect others to respond as we do and may feel dismayed when they respond differently. Our sorrow may be another person’s anger. We may want to stay on the couch with a box of tissues, and they may want to take action. Both reflect normal grief responses to loss. When we perceive another’s response as wrong or inappropriate it can compound an already difficult situation for them and for us.
So how do we respond when we feel another person’s grief is inappropriate or when our own grieving process is brought under scrutiny? We can ask how they are doing and genuinely listen. Their grief is their own, and it is okay if they grieve differently. If someone confronts us, we can be honest and say, “I appreciate your concern but this is where I am with my grief right now. I accept your grief, and I would love it if you could make space for mine. We need each other right now.“
Grieving is complicated, and grieving with others can be even more so. Allowing ourselves and our loved ones to express their grief in their own way, even when it is uncomfortable for us, better allows us all to work through our feelings. The best support is the support that sets aside unspoken ideals of grief and simply puts its arm around us, passes a box of tissues, and asks “how are you doing?” We all need support when we lose a loved one, and the best support comes with kindness and a desire for understanding.