The Grief Police

I discovered the term “grief police” while foraging for writing on grief in western culture. It showed up in Psychology Today as it pertains to grief shaming, and in other sources as it relates to cross-cultural examinations of bereavement.

So what does it mean? Basically, the term is applied when talking about a society’s or culture’s grief “rules” — how the associated emotions are to be handled and displayed, both privately and publicly. What intrigues me about the term is that it not only underscores a strong and somewhat fearful grief indoctrination, but also critiques it.

The “grief police” can be thought of as those in our personal and professional spheres who react to, and measure, individual bereavement experiences in accordance with mainstream social prescriptions for how grief should be expressed, how long it should last, what it should mean, and so on. As such, grief policing typically doesn’t acknowledge characteristics and circumstances of particular relationships, and it generally leans toward evaluation and comparison over empathy. Let me just say here that we are all subject to cultural imperatives. It’s impossible not to be influenced by them. I’m sure I have “policed” without even knowing it, or intending to cause any harm.

One of the realities of this cultural and social indoctrination around grief, (not all of it negative), and the policing that sustains it, is that those of us who are grieving the death of a loved one are subject to the shame and anxiety that sometimes result from not feeling “up to cultural snuff,” or being able to satisfy an appropriate social standard. This is hard on those in mourning.

It’s approaching 15 months since Chris died, and part of my struggle continues to be how my mourning of her is perceived, acknowledged, and supported. As social creatures we need feedback from each other to know that we’ll be okay, and to be comforted when our losses are immense and we feel most broken. Raising our own and each others’ awareness of these dynamics feels imperative to me. I hear my own experience reflected back when others share with me their fears of inadequacy as they face the reality of their grief.

I’d like to cover this topic in more depth in future posts, and examine external beliefs and expectations we’ve internalized that may not be accurate, helpful, or compassionate, and that, in fact, may be harmful and flawed.

Poetic Consolation

Mitza’s Hands

Look at the hands 
of the dying
to see the truth
about our dive
through the wave of time.

Look at the hands
of the dying
to break the shell
of your heart open
and feel beauty flow.

With a blindfold over her eyes
she begins to see everything.
With a cloth in her mouth
she speaks with the infinite.

Mitza’s Hands was written by Kevin Lawler, poet and friend. You can read more of Kevin’s wonderfully evocative poetry on his blog, Winding Road.

When nothing else can comfort me, I often turn to poetry. Only to it, and music, do the stubborn vestiges of my intellect completely succumb, and then, I can sometimes find a knowing and quiet solace.

The Power of Vulnerability

There is risk in vulnerability. In letting ourselves acknowledge and feel our wounds and imperfections, and then, in letting others see them. To be vulnerable – to let ourselves be seen as we really are – is to open ourselves to the possibility of rejection. The risk is one of connectedness. Will this vulnerability of mine bring us closer or push us apart? In my grief, if I show you my devastation, will you run?

I highly recommend this moving, informative, and humorous 20-minute talk by researcher Brené Brown. In it, she speaks to the power of vulnerability, the cultural avoidance of it, and the necessity of embracing it, if we are to be “whole-hearted” people. What makes you vulnerable, makes you beautiful.