The Culture of Grief Avoidance


 
 

By Matt W Sandford

What do you think about when you hear the word grief? Maybe sadness, loss or death? Maybe you think of particular times in your life when you experienced those things. Then again, maybe you don’t think much about it at all. I’ve seen lots of folks who have only the vaguest conception of grief and they would likely describe it in negative terms, sort of like jury duty. You know you might have to experience it sometime, but you hope you can get out of it or around it and if it comes, you plan to stoically get through it as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Our culture has strongly influenced our understanding and experience of grief. Grief is now generally thought of as a disease only the weak suffer from. There is a strong public notion in the phrases, “It is what it is” and “Fake it till you make it” and many other platitudes that encourage one to press on, be strong and not look back. This notion seems to be that when adversity strikes, the person who is admired is the one who is able to rise above it all unaffected. They stay positive, they keep going, they “turn that frown upside down!” When these particular qualities are prized, other qualities, which are contrary to such positive ones (such as sadness, melancholy, heartache, disappointment and grief) are viewed with disdain. If you are experiencing them, you must have the ability to be positive, to rise above, to move on, and so you are treated with scorn or pity. The message may be delivered subtly, but it’s there. I realize this is not universally true, but it is generally accurate. Our culture has lost an understanding of the value of grieving. And maybe more than simply having lost it, maybe it has been avoided for quite some time. The message now seems to be that one must be presentable in order to be accepted. Why has grieving been rejected as an acceptable way to respond to losses?

Let’s think about it on an individual scale. When someone is grieving, they are sad. What do you feel when you are with someone who is sad or struggling? Usually, you feel a pull to cheer them up, or to fix their problem. Why? Is it simply because you feel keenly in touch with their struggle and want to help them? Actually, often it is because we rather feel awkward. We don’t know what to do with someone’s sadness or neediness, or helplessness. And if we can bring them out of it, or fix the situation, then we don’t have to feel awkward anymore. The problem with this is that many times grieving people don’t cheer up easily or their struggles don’t fix easily. It’s what separates grieving from regular sadness or even from situational depression. Grief is mostly about things that can’t be fixed, because it is about loss and since it can’t be resolved simply, many people just can’t handle it. For the most part, they have not had how to sit or walk with grieving people modeled for them and they probably haven’t been on the receiving end of it either. Instead, what they experienced were trite-isms and expectations to get over it and so that’s what they know.

The problem is that grief is really too deep and raw for most people and our culture is too shallow, so it drowns in those depths. Unfortunately for us, it is in those same depths that maturity, character, virtue and faith grow, so to run from grief is to run from what we need. When we avoid those who are grieving, we abandon those who need us, when someday we may very well be the one in need. We may think we can run from experiencing real grief, but we surely cannot run from experiencing loss.

There is a desperate need in our culture to shift our definitions of strength and weakness. Strength is not in moving on without grieving and grieving our losses is not weakness. On the contrary, avoidance of grief is based in fear, whereas acceptance of the grief process is courage. To come back to honoring the grieving process, we must acknowledge that we have taken a self-centered and shallow approach to the terrible impact of losses. We must own that we as a culture have shied away from truly helping, because it was too hard for us. Then, we need to come to appreciate the value of grieving again.

Grieving is really about facing losses and feeling the depth of the loss, rather than pretending that they didn’t really hurt us. It is about going through stages of wrestling with how to cope with the myriad of feelings and unwanted changes to life situations as well as how to go on without hardening one’s heart. Gerald Sittser in his book on loss, talks about it in terms of a kind of darkness. He says, “A willingness to face the loss and to enter into the darkness is the first step we must take.”1

I love how Sittser explains the process he himself went through and how he grew from it. His book is his own story of struggling with facing loss, and it’s a testament of courage and strength. His is one of those good models of how to grieve.

“The soul is elastic, like a balloon. It can grow larger through suffering. Loss can enlarge its capacity for anger, depression, despair, and anguish, all natural and legitimate emotions whenever we experience loss. Once enlarged, the soul is also capable of experiencing greater joy, strength, peace, and love.”2

Grieving is a God-designed process that can expand the soul. By learning to appreciate this, not only do you prepare yourself for the work to come when you experience loss, but you also bear to learn how to walk with others through their grief. Practically speaking, that means ending the trite-isms and trying to fix or bring someone out of it. Instead, honoring their struggle is to invite the negative emotions and not put a timetable on getting over their sadness. Find ways to take care of yourself, since it will be a drain on you.

For those in the midst of loss, this means simply giving yourself permission to be right where you are and not trying to buck up or move on too quickly. Lean into some safe people with whom you can be vulnerable and open up. If they can’t bear it, don’t buy into the notion that you need to get over it and pretend everything is okay even if it’s not. It simply means that they don’t get the grief process. I know that it is exhausting to have to help someone learn how to help you. If they have been a good friend, it may be worth it to explain the process to them or have them read up on it, so they can learn how to be a better friend. Just because our culture in general doesn’t honor grieving doesn’t mean that people can’t learn to do so.

Let us honor the process of grieving, and change our culture to one that honors true strength!

 

 

1 Sittser, Gerald, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss (Grand Rapids, Michigan:Zondervan, 1995), 37.

2 Ibid., 39.

 

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