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Gadaffi is dead. By all means celebrate………..if that’s what you feel like doing. You could make a world of difference to the way the world experiences and expresses G.R.I.E.F.

Gadaffi is dead. By all means celebrate………..if that’s what you feel like doing. You could make a world of difference to the way the world understands and experiences G.R.I.E.F.

I’ll be honest. I am not great on current events.  My dad, who felt that not knowing what was going on in the world quite simply makes one a ‘dummy’, would’ve been turning in his grave to hear me say that.  But I am less aware of Gadaffi and the things he has done than I am of the reactions to his death.  And these reactions concern me greatly.  And I don’t mean all the celebrating in some parts of the world.  That doesn’t concern me at all.  It’s the reactions to this reaction that do. The cries of “this is wrong, a death should never be celebrated”, “there should be no joy in any death”, etc, etc. These are the reactions that worry me.

And here is why: A woman got in touch with me a couple of days ago.  Let’s call her Alice. Alice lost her husband last week. She expected to be devastated…..but says that she feels ‘nothing’.  And she is concerned that she is weird or abnormal.  She doesn’t need to say the words for me to know that she feels wrong, bad, and guilty.  She knows how she ‘should’ be feeling and reacting…and the fact that she isn’t is causing her distress.  Left to her own devices Alice will either feel numb…..and guilty as heck about it.  Or she’ll create the pain for herself that she thinks she should be in.  And doesn’t she has enough to deal with right now without feeling guilty and wrong for what she is or isn’t feeling?

Can you see the link between thinking it’s wrong to celebrate Gadaffi’s death and a woman who is in extra unnecessary pain over a loss because of how she isn’t feeling? No?

There is one.  It’s about our beliefs and what we tell each other about how death ‘should’ be treated and how we ‘should’ react to it.  Both are examples of ideas about what is the proper reaction to death. In the Gadaffi example we say that death is bad, no matter who it is.  That death is never a cause for any good feeling.  That, if you are going to feel anything about a death, it should be negative.  That there is no space for celebration around death.  And that is what will hurt Alice so much. The ideas about how she should feel.  About what is appropriate.

When someone we love dies we have all sorts of emotions….and I do mean all sorts.  There are the ones we are allowed to admit to – anything negative like sadness and pain.  And there are also the ones we are not – like relief or joy, because these are ‘inappropriate’, ‘disrespectful’ or just plain ‘wrong’.  So we don’t stop feeling them….we just stop admitting them.  To ourselves and to others.  In Alice there will be elements of relief (among other positive emotions) that will create even more guilt for her than her feeling-nothing is.  Because these are other emotions that don’t fit into societies guidelines of what is ok to feel about death.

You may well argue that a women feeling nothing/numb over her husband’s death is a far cry from people whooping it up in the streets over Gadaffi’s seemingly brutal killing.  But any suggestion of what is appropriate and what is not is adding to the problem.  Think of a sliding scale of reactions to death, from suicidal misery on the far left….to ecstatic joy on the far right, with ‘feeling nothing’ in the middle. At what point do we get to step in, pass judgement, and go “woah, now you’ve crossed a boundary. That point right there on the left is where you can go to…but no further”?

My next statements might seem challenging but I’d ask you to think carefully about them:

  • If you are putting any boundaries on how far on the scale, either way, it is ok to go…….you are adding to the problem of people not being able to admit to their real feelings in G.R.I.E.F.
  • If you are suggesting that any reaction is inappropriate or wrong, no matter what that particular reaction is………then you are adding to the problem of people not being able to admit to their real feelings in grief.
  • When I am writing back to Alice telling her than anything at all (good or bad or somewhere in the middle) that she is feeling is absolutely ok…and you are saying “well, some reactions are ok, but some surely aren’t, like celebration at a brutal killing for example…or maybe humour…or relief might be a bit off too”……..then you are adding to the situation that Alice is in and to her pain and the pain of people like her.  ‘People like her’ meaning people dealing with a death…so everybody at some time.  Including you.

If the world understood that there are as many different emotional reactions to death as their are emotions and that all are natural and ok, and we stopped saying what is right and wrong to feel….then people would be able to honestly admit their real feelings around death far easier, without boundaries/guidelines/taboos/guilt.  And I can’t even begin to explain the massive impact this would have on the way the world experiences and understands G.R.I.E.F. and death.

So if you have been thinking the celebrations are wrong……..think of Alice, and of what she believes right now – that there are certain ways she should be feeling and certain ways she shouldn’t…and maybe think again.







Nora October 21, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Another marvelous post, Kristie, and a nice clear example of how we can screw ourselves up just by how we talk about something, and the boundaries our talk imposes on us. I belong to the camp that would like to expunge “should” from all human languages!

I suspect that using your reasonable and compassionate view of the sliding scale of grief could also help the dying person come to grips with their approaching end. Many people feel they need to hide their emotions about what’s going to happen, but the talk they hear around them about it can help them see things in different ways. If the only view is that death is unremittingly tragic, they will likely feel more fear and anger. If they encounter loving expressions of the notion of death as a natural conclusion, they might be able to express relief or simple sadness or even humor without having to worry about how others will react.

Shirley October 21, 2011 at 4:55 pm

Your post so beautifully articulates an unpopular sentiment – and one I completely agree with.

So strange how easy it is for the media to publish pictures of Gaddafi being beaten, shot and paraded after a brutal death. Death is not an issue of being good or bad. Death is death is death.

Kristie West October 21, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Thanks for the comment Shirley. It’s so true – “death is death is death”.

Kristie West October 21, 2011 at 8:45 pm

And yet another fab point Nora! A friend of mine recently met a man who has found out he has a terminal illness and potentially less than a year to live…and from the sounds of it he hasn’t really told anyone yet. My friend was trying to get him to chat with me – just to be able to have an open conversation with someone who won’t freak and say ‘god that’s terrible, you poor thing!’. I wish you were in London. You could come along to the next Death Cafe.

Nora October 22, 2011 at 9:26 pm

I would SO be there, if I could! Maybe someday we can find a way to meet virtually….