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.

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