Worrying About Other People’s Grief

I recently overheard an adult make this comment about a teenage boy whose father died by suicide six months ago. What stood out to me was not the mode of death, nor that this young man “was not working through his grief,” but that judgments of this kind are made frequently. “She doesn’t seem to be grieving.” “I don’t know if he’s doing his ‘grief work’.”

While the comments may sound harmless, even genuinely caring, they can be dangerous if left unchecked. They set up the commentator as an evaluator and a judge, begging many questions. What is too emotional or not emotional enough? Can you grieve too much? Too little? What is the right amount of time? What is the wrong amount of time? What is the right way to grieve? What is the wrong way? Where and when is it appropriate to express one’s grief? With whom should one express it?

Although we all grieve, and in this respect grief is a universally shared phenomenon, we need to also acknowledge that grief is profoundly personal. Here are at The Dougy Center, we believe that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. We encourage people to grieve in their own way, at their own pace, and in their own time. No two people are alike and thus no two people will grieve alike, even if they’re identical twins grieving the death of the same person. Of course, there are healthy and not so healthy ways to express or experience grief, ways that assist us and ways that inhibit us. For example, it’s not inherently right or wrong to experience the need for some avoidance of the pain; it’s a heavy load to be in intense pain 24/7. Some avoidance strategies can be helpful, like getting lost in a movie or book, distracting oneself with an activity. Others may be understandable, but not necessarily helpful, like over-indulging in alcohol or other ways to become ‘numb.’

Grief is a holistic experience. It encompasses our entire human experience including our physical bodies, emotions, intellect, spiritual beliefs, and social relationships. Some people are emotionally expressive in their grief, shedding tears with others, or when alone. Others grieve physically, feelings aches and pains in their body, or in releasing energy through various activities. Others grieve more from their intellect, searching for answers, wisdom, and guidance or through meditating on personal or spiritual truths. Someone who is emotionally expressive is neither better nor worse than someone who intellectualizes their grief or who manifests their grief physically. And some people grieve in all of these ways.

The best approach we can take when we are concerned about someone is not to evaluate their grief expressions or lack thereof, but to first evaluate ourselves. Have we made it safe for this person to share whatever it is that they are experiencing - without judgment or pre-conceived notions? Have we expressed our care and concern without any strings attached, including not needing a response? Have we recognized that this person may be grieving for the rest of his/her life, and are we okay with that? Have we entertained the thought that they may be expressing their grief in areas of their life that we may not be privy to? Can we respect that we are all different, and that our grief may look totally different from another’s? Finally, have we acknowledged our own need to rescue, solve, minimize, dismiss, or distance ourselves from this person in order to reduce our own anxieties, fears, or emotions?

In asking ourselves and subsequently taking the time to answer these questions, we can start to create a safe and supportive environment, not just for the person who we may be concerned about, but for ourselves as well.

““I’m really worried about him! He’s not working through his grief.””