Please Don't Tell Me How to Grieve

By Melissa Blake 06/19/19

We are not taught how to grieve. Acknowledging that death is inevitable means that we have to come face-to-face with our own mortality and the mortality of everyone we love in this world. It's incredibly scary.

Woman with hand on her face, crying in a market, grieving.
Grieving is a journey – not a destination. Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

"Get over it."
"I've moved on. You need to move on too."
"Don't talk about that."
"What's wrong with you?"

When it comes to grief, everyone seems to be an expert. We may not have life or death figured out, but life after death? People know how to do that. Or at least they think they do. According to them, there's only one right way to grieve:

Their way.

Grief is universal. The way we experience it and process it, however, is not. To approach grief as if curing it were as easy as taking a pill is both irresponsible and insensitive.

And yet, there are still people who take it upon themselves to try and tell you how, where, and when you should grieve. Now, in the age of social media, the shoulds and should nots have only gotten stricter. Grieving online is perhaps the biggest no-no. Experts have even coined the term “grief police” to describe the trend of policing just how people grieve — telling them they're grieving too much or not enough.

And in the last six months, we’ve even seen this grief-shaming play out in the headlines. First, people criticized The View co-host Meghan McCain for talking too much about her late father Senator John McCain following his death. Then, following actor Luke Perry’s sudden death, online trolls criticized his daughter Sophie for seemingly doing too well and not grieving enough.

We get it: No matter how we grieve, people will have opinions about it. But it’s important to remember there is no “right” way to grieve, says Lauren Consul, a California-based licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in grief. Grief can be difficult to navigate because it’s not something our society is open about.

“We are not taught how to grieve. Acknowledging that death is inevitable means that we have to come face-to-face with our own mortality and the mortality of everyone we love in this world. It's incredibly scary,” said Consul. “Seeing someone who is grieving is a stark reminder that one day that will be us too. It's painful to think about, so people tend to avoid and downplay other people's grief. It can give a sense of control; if they can manage that person's grief, they don't have to think about their own.”

This grief policing is especially true when the death is unexpected, as was the case when my father died from suicide in 2003. I learned pretty quickly that talking about death on places like Facebook makes some people uncomfortable. We may be a society that lives our life online, but for all the sharing we do on social media, there’s still this stigma associated with posting about our grief and the loved ones we’ve lost. It feels like an unspoken rule of sorts: grieve in silence. Don’t talk about it. And, if you do talk about it, make sure you find just the right balance – not too much and not too little.

But here’s the thing about grieving: You’re never going to please everyone. You’re never going to grieve the “right” way because there is no right way to grieve. That’s something that took me a while to learn and understand. At first, I was afraid of what people would think or how they would view my grieving process, which included writing about my father’s suicide regularly on my blog. I even began to feel as though I needed to hold myself back and not talk about it, but you know what? That wasn’t good for me. In fact, it stalled my grieving process, and that wasn’t healthy.

Maybe that’s why I’m always thinking of what I’d like to say to the “grief police.” If I had the chance to sit down with them and have an honest conversation about the realities of figuring out your life after losing a loved one, here are four things I’d tell them:

My grief is not your grief. And your grief is not my grief.

Grief is perhaps one of the most intense and most confusing emotions we’ll ever feel. And even though a plethora of grief books line the self-help sections of bookstores and libraries, how we actually go through our grief is a very personal journey. The strategies and coping skills that work for some may not work for others. Grief is as individual as the person going through it. For every loss, there are a hundred more ways to grieve. There is no right way, no one size fits all. Grief is an individual journey and no one can tell us how to do it. We must find the way that works for us and not judge others because they may grieve differently.

Grieving is a journey – not a destination.

That sounds cliché, but it’s true. Grief has no timetable, no script, and definitely no shortcuts. It’s not as easy as getting from Point A to Point B because the grieving road is far from linear. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross may have outlined the five stages of grief, but it’s not uncommon to vacillate back and forth sometimes. Even 16 years after my father’s death, I find myself returning to emotions like anger every so often. It doesn’t mean that I’m still in the throes of deep grief, though; it just reminds me that the work of grief is never really done.

Sometimes, we just want people to listen.

Grief demands that we feel, think, process, reflect – over and over. And there are times that we need to give voice to those feelings as we process. To put words to our emotions. To try and make sense of everything that’s happened to us. Maybe that’s why my writing has been such a healing part of my grief. I’ve been able to put the unimaginable into words, even at times when those words were hard to come by.

Being there for someone during this time is a powerful thing. You don’t necessarily have to say anything. Trust me, your presence means more than you’ll ever know.

Not everyone wants to be “cured” from their grief.

People might be surprised to learn that I don’t want to “get over” my grief. There’s this misconception that you can easily move on, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. As painful as some of these emotions are (hi, regret), I need to feel them. So while it’s tempting to listen and then try and offer advice to help us move on, I ask that you just listen. In the end, there are no magic words that will make everything better. We need to feel what we feel when we feel it — and feel it without judgment.

I’m always going to talk about my father, my grief and my journey. It’s all part of my life and my story. We each have to move through grief at our own pace and in a way that is comfortable for us. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be there for each other — in a way that is comforting without being condescending, sensitive without shaming, and helpful without being harmful. That just might be the greatest gift we can ever give someone: a safe space to grieve and begin the healing process.

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Melissa Blake is a freelance writer and blogger from Illinois. She covers disability rights, relationships and family life, pop culture and women's issues and has written for The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post, Harper's Bazaar, Good Housekeeping and Glamour, among others. Read her blog, So About What I Said, and follow her on Twitter.