Ours is not a culture that values emotions except for those we label positive, such as love and joy and happiness. We are taught that being emotionally stable means to show a determinedly happy face, to hide our sorrows, to show public anger only in matters of what we deem to be injustices. Because of this cultural conditioning — and the lack of any enlightenment on the subjects of death and grief — the wild grief at the loss of a life mate shocks us, terrifies us, and angers us. It also tears the fabric of society, leaving us isolated, living a lie, and being manipulated by other people’s feeling about our grief.
Although we all pride ourselves on being independent individuals, we are, at bottom, herd animals. Society functions to keep each of us in our place. If we need space to be our own person, to feel what we feel or to think our own thoughts, we either have to fight for the right (hence all the vituperative political discussions we are subjected to during an election year) or we have to keep our thoughts and feelings to ourselves. Big brother and sister are watching us, but it’s not the “authorities” who are doing the watching; it’s our friends and neighbors and family. For example, I know several women who did not want to get the “Bob” vaccine for various reasons, but their families more or less blackmailed them into getting it. (“We won’t come to visit you unless you’re vaccinated.”)
If we are grieving, those same sociological effects are at work. People try to chivvy us out of our grief with blatant platitudes. They try to cheer us up because society needs us to be happy and productive, not morose and sad and grieving. They urge us to move on because they need us to move on, not because we need to.
The more they try to bring us back to the fold (yes, the sheep metaphor was chosen on purpose), the more it isolates us, and so the more we withdraw. We stop talking about our grief. We try to act “normal” around others so they don’t know how we are still suffering. For the most part, the only way to deal with our pain is to keep it to ourselves.
Oddly, while they are trying to pull us in, they themselves are pushing us away. Our grief triggers the survival mechanisms of those around us. To avoid facing the unfaceable (death), people close to us will indulge in self-protective behaviors that shut us out.
Sometimes old friends, especially couples, draw away from us. The death of our spouse and the demise of our couplehood change the dynamics of our friendships. People fear we will now be uncomfortable in the company of couples. At the same time, they are uncomfortable with us because all unwittingly, we are a reminder of how fragile life — and couplehood — really is.
A strange aspect of all this is that when we do start to “move on,” whatever that means, it’s also the wrong thing to do. Society, in the guise of friends and family, acts as if it has the right to say when it’s time. If we move on too soon (meaning finding someone else to keep company with or even marry) that’s every bit as bad as holding on to our grief too long.
I dislike the cliché that everyone’s grief is different because during the past eleven years of writing about grief and talking to people in person, in emails, or in the comment section of my blog, I have discovered that there are more similarities than differences in grief when it comes to the loss of a spouse. A new connection or even remarriage, however, is an area where the cliché is true: everyone is different. We will each of us find our way to a new relationship when (if) we feel the need, when the time is right, or when we meet the right person.
It’s no one’s business but our own if we struggle on alone or if we find comfort in the presence of another person, though often family and friends disagree.
I know someone who basically lost his children after he remarried. The teenagers would have nothing to do with him or his new wife, and chose to live with their mother’s sister. The preteen remained at home, but she made their life hell until he finally agreed to let her go, too. It’s only now that the children are on their own that a couple of them realize they made a mistake and are finally talking to him. (One still refuses to speak with him.)
Ironically, one woman’s daughter urged her into another marriage, then hated her mother for following through, perhaps because the daughter thought the new groom would not just be a replacement for her father but would be her father, and it came as a shock when the fantasy did not hold true.
As a blog reader pointed out, it’s possible his grown children’s lashing out over his new relationship might be their way of avoiding the painful process of coming to terms with the fact their mother is gone. I wonder if part of the lashing out is also resentment because of what they assume is his too easy acceptance of their mother’s death. And, of course, it’s that sheep herding thing in action: they need their remaining parent to be what they need him to be, not what he needs to be.
No matter what societal pressures are put on a bereaved person, the person’s grief is theirs alone. And how they deal with it going forward is also up to them.
When we are new to grief, so often we are told to look for support from our family and friends, and in an ideal world, this would be a good idea. But we don’t live in an ideal world — we live in a herd. It’s just another one of the ironies of grief that sometimes the very people who should be offering emotional support are the very people are adding to the whole quagmire of painful emotions we call grief.
This post was written at the request of a fellow griever. If anyone wants me to write about a certain aspect of grief, feel free to leave a suggestion. Since little of grief is truly unique to any one of us, chances are I went through whatever you’re concerned about.
Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator