Sociological Aspects of Grief

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

Moving On

The first time I’d heard the phrase “moving on” was a few months after Jeff died, and thereafter I heard it frequently.

Although people often think they are helping by urging grievers to get over it and move on with their life, they are merely showing that they themselves can’t handle the griever’s grief; showing that they can’t handle the new person the griever is becoming. Friends and family want grievers to be the way they were before their loss, and the griever can’t be. Loss changes you. Grief changes you.

Sometimes when people urge grievers to move on, they are not expressing insensitivity so much as a misplaced understanding of the nature of grief. (Which is why my book Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One was written both for grievers and for anyone who wants to understand this thing we call “grief.”)

The truth is, grieving is how we “move on.” Grieving for a spouse is a process, a process of change from a person with a mate and shared life to someone who can deal with the absence, loss, aloneness.

“Moving on” or “moving forward” isn’t just used about grief. It’s used for almost everything, and one of these phrases frequently shows up in tarot card interpretations, such as the card I picked today that is supposed to be about overcoming fears and boldly moving forward. The phrase also appears frequently in novels and in discussions about writing, such as moving the plot forward, or the characters moving on from . . . whatever.

All of sudden today it struck me that I don’t even know what that means. “Moving forward” seems to connote a linear path, which might work for writing, given that the plot has to go from beginning to a satisfying end, but in life, there truly is no forward movement except that which we impose on our lives, such as time or age or career success or even traveling. We feel like we’re moving forward when we walk or drive somewhere, but that’s mostly an illusion. Unless we are permanently moving to a new house or new property, we eventually return to where we started, so that turns out not to be a forward motion at all.

The universe seems to be built more on circular motion, atomic particles and heavenly bodies are always in motion, orbiting around each other, making their way around empty space, but not really going anywhere because if there is not really a “here,” there can’t be a “there” to move on to. It seems as if motion is important, but not necessarily forward motion. For all I know, we could be moving backward, and it is just the way our brain interprets things to make it seem as if we are moving forward.

A kaleidoscope comes to mind. If all the energy that ever was exists today, then a turn of the scope brings us to what seems a different place, but is really all the same place. Karma and the idea that what goes around comes around also connotes a circular life. As does a gyroscope.

A tarot card I randomly picked twice in the past three days was about fluctuation and change. It suggested that a person who is in harmony with her life is one who can adapt to all the changes that comes her way, and keep on moving, Like a gyroscope that only holds its position when it is spinning,

But not “moving on”. Just “moving”.

Assuming we are supposed to be moving on, moving forward, moving toward something, where are we supposed to be going? Well, death, we are all moving inexorably toward death, since death is our end on this earth, but is that really a forward movement? After a certain age, it seems more as we are being pushed rather than moving on our own initiative. But other than that, what are we supposed to be moving toward? Enlightenment, maybe, though that brings up the issue of what is enlightenment.

In the case of grief, even though I am not actively grieving and haven’t been for a long time — I seldom even feel nostalgic anymore — I never actually “moved on,” never “got over” it. It’s more that the loss became subsumed into the very fabric of my life.

Admittedly, I might simply be sensitive to the phraseology because of all the people who used these words or variations of them to urge me to get over my grief, but they still seem to be rather meaningless terms no matter how they are used.


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

Fake News and Grief

I’ve been spending time on Quora in an effort to become known on yet another networking site. Quora is a question and answer site with a news feed similar to Facebook, but what appears on the feed are questions. It’s kind of a fun thing, and even makes me think. When I saw the question, “What do fake news and losing a loved one have in common?” I just passed it by. I mean, they don’t have anything in common, right? And yet, as I got to thinking about it, I realized that in both cases, people believe a lot of things that are not true, and they act on those false beliefs, creating heartache.

The complex and painful experience of grief for a life mate or child is not something we see on television shows, in movies, or read about in novels. Through thousands of movies and books, we are taught to be stoic, to hold back our tears, to be cool. Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven was the epitome of western cool, gliding across the film’s landscape without a single show of emotion.

Fictional folks shed a fictional tear or two, perhaps go on a fictional spree of vengeance, then continue with their fictional lives unchanged.

Because of this cultural conditioning (and because we quickly learn to hide our grief from view), people believe that grieving is a much faster process than it actually is, so just a few weeks after the funeral, the phone stops ringing, people we encounter no longer mention our loved one, and our family and friends start urging us to move on.

This can be disheartening, especially since this is when the awful realization starts to sink in that our loved one really is gone. Those closest to us go home to their husbands and wives and unchanged lives. We go into our sad and empty rooms, apartments, houses to be faced again—and again and again—with the knowledge that who we loved was gone, what we had was gone, what we needed was gone, what we hoped for was gone. All gone.

And we’re supposed to be okay with that.

I had lunch one day with some women friends, and one woman’s husband was off on a trip. The woman went on and on about how much she missed him, and the women were all sympathetic toward her. Yet when I mentioned that I missed my deceased life mate, there was a long moment of silence, and then one of the women told me I had to get over it and move on with my life.

She wasn’t an unsympathetic friend. She just based her advice on the “fake news” that it’s best to forget the dead and concentrate on living.
With news, it’s always good to check your sources and not assume what you hear (and believe) is is true. With grief, it’s always good to check your source (the griever herself) and not assume that what you have heard (and believe) is true.

Becoming a person who can live forever while missing that one special person takes a long time — years, even. Becoming a person who can live happily while missing that person takes even longer. But always, you miss them.


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.

What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 8

Marrying again after the loss of a life mate can be a tricky business because a new love does not negate previous loves. Nor does a new love negate grief.

I’ve met people who started dating quickly after the death of their spouse because they couldn’t stand the pain and loneliness of their grief any longer. To their shock, and to the shock of their new mate, grief did not abate. In at least one case, the new spouse felt betrayed by his wife’s continued grief, thinking his love should have made a difference to her grief, and she felt isolated — and unloved — because he didn’t have compassion for her bouts of sorrow.

Whether we remarry, embark on a long-term relationship without remarrying, or never find anyone else to love, the emotional attachment for the first partner remains a part of us. Despite continued grief for one partner, both men and women are able to form new attachments that can be just as strong as the previous one. The key is to understand the nature of grief and love and to let grief continue to happen, which is why the strongest remarriages are often between widows and widowers.

This concept — that remarrying does not negate grief — is important for both grievers and their friends and family to understand. Sometimes friends and family us urge us to “move on” (meaning to find someone else), and as well-meaning as this might be, it ignores the intrinsic nature of grief — that grief is how we move on after the death of our beloved mate. A new love will not change that. Occasionally, friends or family will feel conned if a widow or widower “moves on” too quickly, thinking that perhaps the grief was a sham or that the griever hadn’t really loved their first partner.

Many of us never find anyone else to love. This doesn’t mean we are holding on to our grief, are not “moving on,” or are refusing to accept a new love. We can’t control what happens to us, and love doesn’t always happen again. We do the best we can with what life (and death) deals us and all we can do is hope that our loved ones will support us even if they can’t understand what we are feeling.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.