Grief – The Great Dismissal

When you’re bereaved people say things to you that are so stupid, so crass and insensitive, it takes your breath away.  I’ll give you an example from the last couple of weeks. I told a colleague that I was feeling a bit down because the following weekend would see my first birthday since my father and grandmother died, and also because a supportive colleague had just left the organisation.  This colleague replied, “It’s not all doom and gloom. You have to see the positives”.

I was startled by the way my colleague’s interpretation of what I’d said not only managed to dismiss my pain, but also made my feelings into the problem – I was being gloomy and not seeing the positives.  It was interesting that what she reflected back to me was not what I had actually said – I never said that everything was “doom and gloom” and nor did I imply that I couldn’t see any positives, I just said that I was feeling upset about certain losses in my life.  But of course I shut up, stopped talking about it, and made a mental note not to raise the subject with this particular colleague in future, which I’m fairly certain was the unconscious aim behind her response.  She certainly won’t have to deal with my pain again.

When you’re bereaved you quickly get used to responses that, although they manifest in various ways, all seem to amount to something like the following: “Leave me alone! Don’t bother me with your pain! Stop talking about it! You’re making me uncomfortable! You’re frightening me! Tell me you’re feeling better now, you are feeling better now aren’t you, aren’t you?”  There are so many ways in which people dismiss your pain and try to avoid having to deal with it and not a few involve implying that there’s something wrong with you, the bereaved person.  I was talking to someone on twitter a few months ago about how much time and energy grieving people spend on making other people feel better about them grieving,  how much time we spend managing other peoples feelings and expectations.  As Megan O’ Rourke wrote in a very good article on the subject recently:

In the strange days after her death I wondered what I was supposed to do. So did my friends, especially those who had not yet suffered a major loss. One sent flowers but did not call for weeks. Another sent a kind email, saying she hoped I was “well” and asking me to let her know if there was “anything I can do to help”. But I wasn’t “well”. Within a week, people stopped mentioning her name, uncomfortable with the topic. After a month had passed by, I had the distinct feeling that I was supposed to “muscle through it” and move on, as if I were recovering from flu rather than mourning the passing of my mother.

What most bereaved people want is empathy, acknowledgement and recognition of their loss, so dismissive, judgemental responses are incredibly painful.  In order to protect yourself from this additional pain – when you have quite enough of that on your plate already thank you – you quickly stop talking about it and pretend to be OK, because that feels better than being dismissed or judged.  A few months ago, I was surprised when, out of the blue, someone offered me an empathetic response and started talking to me about how hard the last few months must have been, what with going through the illnesses and deaths of my father and grandmother while trying to hold down a full-time job, and, you know what, I clammed up and couldn’t talk to her because not talking about it had become such a habit.

Bereaved people are extra burdened by all the narratives about grief because those narratives are often used against them in various ways.  One of the narratives I find myself up against is the one that says that the worst of bereavement should be over at the end of the first year, because by then you’ve gone through all the major anniversaries and events.  Several people have told me this.  Perhaps it’s true, but I feel that this narrative is being used against me by people who would very much like it to be true because that would mean they don’t have to deal with my pain after a year.

In my more anxiety-ridden moments, I feel like I have this ‘bereavement deadline’ and have to get all the worst of my grieving done by May 2012, because after that deadline passes peoples’ responses may move from rather dismissive to actively hostile – “why aren’t  you over it by now?” And I feel quite panicked because I don’t know where I am.  I feel a bit threatened by terms like “abnormal grief”.  Is my grief abnormal?  How would I know? I do know that after 10 months I still can’t turn my mobile phone off at night in case my Mum needs to call me about Dad.  Is that abnormal?  Am I FAILING at bereavement?  People talk about “phases” and “stages”?  But after the initial shock wore off I haven’t been aware of experiencing any discrete phases. I’ve been feeling shock, numbness, depression, anxiety, anger, guilt, nightmares, denial etc since last summer and I’m still experiencing all of those things.  Some things seem to have improved a bit, but other things have got worse.  What I really feel is that people want me to move through discrete phases because that makes it easier for them, just like they want to be better after a year because that makes it easier for them and give them an excuse for not dealing with it anymore.

As s.e. smith writes in an excellent post Grief is the Thing that Sinks:

There is a myth, a belief, that grief is something you ‘get over.’ That once you’ve had your allotted mourning period, you become ‘normal again,’ and everything goes back to the way it was. How can it, though, when you are carrying something new inside of you? How can it when an element of your life has been stripped away? Grief is not something that goes away, it is something that changes shape, that has a sense memory.

The other question I ask myself is, “when the fuck am I supposed to be doing this grief work so I can meet my bereavement deadlines?” I work full-time to support myself and my partner (who can’t get a job thanks to the recession), which means that I have to be fit for work no matter how I’m feeling, which means that I repress my feelings most of the time just so I can get on with it.  As I’ve written before, in this context, my personal bereavement experience is profoundly shaped by the late capitalism in which grief can only be a highly disruptive and inconvenient phenomenon.

I know I can’t sustain this repression and denial forever and I think I’ll try and get some grief counselling when I can afford it, but while I have nothing against counselling and have found it helpful in the past, I can’t help wondering how to feel about living in a society so dystopian that people have to pay someone to provide them with empathy and a non-judgemental space in which to talk about their feelings.  Just how fucked up is that?

I’m privileged enough to be in a position to be able to afford counselling at some point in the future, but what about people who can’t? Well, I expect they end up taking anti-depressants so that they can keep working and then everyone is shocked that so many people are on anti-depressants. Personally, I’m shocked that more people aren’t taking them under the circumstances and I can’t rule them out as possibility for myself should I get really depressed.

When I ask myself what would make it better? What would I like to be different? What comes to mind are mainly simple, practical things: empathetic responses, a lack of judgement, emotional support, easy access to some good quality free counselling, a decent amount of time off work in the immediate aftermath, nothing that really seems so very unreasonable.

I was struck this morning by this article about Roger Crouch who recently committed suicide just 19 months after his son Dominic also committed suicide following homophobic bullying.  Roger was rightly praised for his admirable work on homophobic bullying in the aftermath of Dominic’s death, but I can’t help feeling that everyone wanted this work to prove that Roger was OK, that he was dealing with it well, and in some ways all the praise may have become a way to dismiss the pain he was really feeling. Clearly the man was in a state of utter despair and yet this wasn’t addressed and everyone was saying, “Good work, Roger, keep it up, you’re doing so well, you have to keep it up now”.  I was appalled to see his wife saying:

“You feel you shouldn’t be happy. I’m self-conscious about it. If I’m walking the dog and it’s a nice, crisp day that puts a smile on my face I worry that people look at me and think: ‘Oh well, she’s all right then.'”

That a profoundly bereaved woman who’s lost her son and husband to suicide in the last 20 months should even think like this is appalling, that she’s afraid of showing any happiness in case doing so gives people the excuse to dismiss her grief.  She’s getting that message from somewhere.

I haven’t done any research on this, it’s just a thought, but I wonder if this feeling that grief is embarrassing and inconvenient stems from the First and Second World Wars, when so many people were bereaved, that the expression of grief would have been mightily inconvenient to the state. If Victorian mourning rituals had been applied to everyone at the time, the country probably would have ground to a halt.  It’s interesting that the sinister, Orwellian piece of state propaganda that is the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster has become so popular recently because it has resonances on so many levels (including bereavement) and appropriating it and playing around with it is perhaps a way of dealing with our feeling that our society may itself be more than a little dystopian.

In some ways I feel more burdened by the narratives around bereavement than I do by the bereavement itself, which may sound strange, but bereavement is, after all, a perfectly natural experience.  Bereavement can be a horrible experience (sometimes it isn’t and we don’t deal with that either), but it could be less awful if people were properly supported and cared for and given enough time and space to grieve and sort their feelings.  Although most people will experience bereavement at some point in their lives, we don’t talk about death and grief and we got rid of the rituals and mechanisms that we had for dealing with these events.  I don’t blame individuals for their insensitive responses, because I see them as conditioned responses that have their source in a society that teaches people to be hugely death and grief-avoidant and doesn’t teach us about how to respond when someone is bereaved.