A few months ago, another woman who had lost her mate and I were talking about how unstoic we’ve been about our grief. We cried when we needed to, screamed it to the heavens, flung it into the blogosphere. We admitted to feeling a bit childish, because in earlier days, people just accepted death and moved on. We decided that if we had lived in an earlier age — pioneer times, for example — we might have acted the same as they did, but since we live in the times we do, we have the luxury of letting grief take its course.
This conversation niggled at me. How do we know pioneer women just accepted death and moved on? How do we know they didn’t cry themselves to sleep when they lost a child or a their husband? How do we know they didn’t scream their loss to the heavens or suffer a crisis of faith?
So much of what we know about earlier times is from men — probably sociopathic men who have no feelings or sense of empathy for another’s suffering. (Not all sociopaths are serial killers. Some psychologists estimate that there are thirty thousand psychopaths who are not serial killers for every one who is. What makes a sociopath is lack of empathy, conscience, and remorse.) Most pioneer women didn’t read or write. (Which could be another myth?) If so how would they ever be able to convey to future women (us) how they felt?
Last night online I tried to find out the truth about the way early American women grieved, not just as dictated by their societal and religious mores, but how they really coped.
I didn’t find out much. Since grief is such an individual process, I would presume they grieved much like anyone today who has to work from morning to dawn. In other words, they found themselves crying at odd moments of privacy when no one could see them. Grief at the loss of a child or a partner is endemic. The show of grief is what changes from culture to culture.
In my online search, I came across an article in Time Magazine that had been published at the beginning of the year: “New Ways to Think About Grief.” The article started out great, debunking Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief. They agreed with what I’ve been saying all along, that what we bereft mostly feel is a yearning to see our loved ones again. The Kübler-Ross grief model doesn’t hold true for most of us, and why should it? Those stages were conceived as a way of showing how people came to accept their own dying, not how people learned to deal with the death of others.
Then the article entered a gray area: One study of 66 people by George Bonanno, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College who specializes in the psychology of loss and trauma, suggests that tamping down, not expressing, or avoiding negative feelings, known as “repressive coping,” actually has a protective function.
Another 60 person “study conducted by the husband-and-wife research team Wolfgang and Margaret Stroebe of Utrecht University found that widows who avoided confronting their loss were not any more depressed than widows who “worked through” their grief. As to the importance of giving grief a voice, several other studies done by the Stroebes indicated that talking or writing about the death of a spouse did not help people adjust to that loss any better.”
I don’t know who those people in the studies are or how they were chosen. All I know is that in life and on the internet, every one of the bereft I have encountered found comfort in talking about their grief, or in writing a grief journal or letters to their mates. But what really helped all of us was listening to others tell their story. Grief is so isolating that it’s important to know we are not alone. It’s possible some of those people in the study weren’t deeply connected to their spouse — not every spouse is a soul mate — and so it didn’t feel as if they’d had part of them amputated. It’s possible some of those in the studies had young families to care for. Like the pioneer women mentioned above, they would have no time for grief. It’s also possible those in the study had large families or many friends to surround them with love and give them needed hugs. Those at the grief support group I went to were mostly alone and lost, with no one to hang on to. So we hung on to each other. That is the benefit of grief groups. The connection.
Interestingly enough, in not a single discussion, online or offline, did any of the bereft I encountered indulge in negative thinking. We were all trying to find a way through the morass of physical pain and emotional shock. We were bewildered by what had happened to us and our mates, and though some had unresolved issues with their mates, they never gave in to bad mouthing their relationship. It was all about the love that once was there and now is gone.
(This rant of mine was so long, I’ll post the other half tomorrow.)