Social expectations of grief….and why I haven’t shared a recent death in my life with you
Social expectations around grief and death – what you should feel…what you shouldn’t feel…what is ok to admit to – are so damn powerful. They’ve stopped me from sharing a recent death in my life.
A couple of weeks back my nana died. She had recently turned 98 and was my last living grandparent. I’d taken Kaia up to see her for the second time just a few weeks ago and it was a really nice visit (in contrast to the time before when she kicked us out after 10 minutes!)
If you’ve followed me for a while you may remember when she was dying (except she clearly wasn’t) a couple of years ago. Same nana.
When she died I didn’t blog about it. I didn’t share it on my Facebook page or even on my personal profile. In fact I barely even told anyone the week after it had happened. I think I told two friends.
Was it because it felt too personal?
Was it because I was so cut up and was waiting till I could talk about it without getting too upset?
The exact opposite.
I kept it to myself because I felt….and feel….totally fine, clear, and peaceful about my nana’s death.
Not at all sad in any way. Nope, not even briefly. I sat with it, I thought of her, I waited for sadness to come. It never did.
And in general, in our society, it is not ok to say that and it is not ok to feel that. It’s not ok to be fine. You’re meant to be sad about death. Because death is always sad and grief is always a painful experience…right?
The initial instinct (and perhaps its yours too) is to reach for excuses for this ‘inappropriate’ reaction to make it alright. Like….it’s ok to feel fine because she was very old….or because she didn’t have a good quality of life anymore….or because it was expected (at that age you’re kinda expecting it any day).
Maybe those things make the difference. Or maybe not. The reality is that I feel totally fine. I’m not sure it matters why.
My point is that it’s very socially challenging to not be in bits over a death, even though sometimes, for a whole bunch of reasons, some people don’t feel as they believe they are meant to. And it was this – the feeling that I’m meant to be feeling at least a little sadness – that stopped me from sharing. And it took me a while to realise it.
The thing here though is that I know better. I understand all the different things people can feel. I’ve written repeatedly about the problems social expectations of grief cause, the damage it does, and how it prevents people from healing. For starters I’ve written about just that here, here, here, here, and here.
Also – two of the steps of my G.R.I.E.F. process deal with undoing all the beliefs people hold that absolutely stop them from healing from grief, including social expectation – the belief that it’s wrong not to be in pain. The concern that people will think badly of us, think us heartless, if we aren’t in enough pain (or any pain at all).
That belief is a strong one. Most people, myself definitely included, care a bunch what other people think, and this can affect our decisions, our behaviour, our life. And, like here, our feelings around death, our grief, and our ability to confidently share our experiences.
And the part of this experience that really struck me….and is why I am writing this blog….is that even with how clearly I understand the power of the social expectation and the trouble it causes around grief and death, even with how much I talk about it, write about it, work through it with my clients….it still got me. It still had power over me. So….and this was what concerned me…what does that mean for other people? What does that mean for people who are partially aware, or even totally unaware, of the power of social expectation around death. When my own experience was still affected by social expectation, how strongly most other people’s must be.
What does that mean for you?
How has social expectation affected your own experience of death? Your grief?
Were you aware it could be a problem?
Have you ever thought about it?
Have you ever looked into your own experience to see what lies beneath what you are feeling?
If you haven’t then I invite you to try it. Examine your grief, your feelings around death, your reaction to death. See if there is anything you’ve hidden from others (or from yourself) because it’s not ‘appropriate’, ‘right’ or socially acceptable.
Death and grief are areas that require huge changes if people are to be able to heal. Any area of life where we aren’t able to admit how we truly feel about something and are expected to only feel one way (this happens around parenting, around birth, around mental health, for example) there are huge issues. And part of the way to change this and normalise all aspects of it is for people to start to be more open about what they really feel or don’t feel. To share not just their sadness openly, but all the other things they can feel (and there isn’t a single emotion that can’t rear it’s head in grief).
So if you find something in yourself – in your grief, your reactions to death – that doesn’t feel right or that you may be ashamed of, know that it is not abnormal and not uncommon…just maybe not talked about openly enough in society. And maybe you can start. Maybe you can admit these feelings. Or maybe just admitting it to yourself is enough for now. Write it down. Not just the feelings you expected, but the ones you didn’t too.
When it comes to truly healing from grief be curious and stay curious.
Question what you’re feeling.
Question why it’s there.
Question what’s really behind it.
Question what you could be doing differently.
Because these questions…and their answers….could make all the difference.