The American Way of Grief

I’ve recently been re-watching Six Feet Under, which is a discussion for a different day, but the series has had me thinking about shifting American norms when it comes to grief. As long-time readers already know, I am very interested in death, dying, funeral practices, and grief traditions, and modern America is really a fascinating place to live if you’re interested in that sort of thing, because we have such bizarre and repressive norms about grief.

It wasn’t so long ago that grief was a very public act, with overt expressions of grief in the form of ostentatious garments and traditions such as funeral parades, public laying out of the body, and sitting in state with family members in the days following a death. Abraham Lincoln himself was paraded across the country by rail after death so that people could see the body. These traditions still endure in many regions of the world, and not just among the “lower classes,” as one careless and culturally illiterate New York Times commenter said last week. Death in modern America, however, is supposed to be clean, sterile, quiet, and above all, private.

The insistence that grief is a private act comes from a desire to not be bothered or confronted with the grief of others. People seem to be far more concerned with the fact that grief makes them uncomfortable than with the reality of grief for people who have lost loved ones. I can’t help but wonder if this is in part due to the erosion of etiquette and cultural traditions in America: with no clear rules about what to do and how to behave, people find the proximity of grief overwhelming and upsetting, so they would prefer not to deal with it.

The open expression of grief is very important for mourners, and the emotional repression which Americans force upon them is shocking and ultimately harmful. There’s a reason that death and dying have been accompanied by elaborate rituals for thousands of years: it’s because people take a long time to process death, and they need to have a context in which to handle it. When that context is ripped away and they are expected to mourn quietly in their homes for one day before briskly returning to work, they are deprived of an opportunity to deal with the death, to treat the deceased with respect and love, to share the grief with the community. Members of the community are also deprived of an opportunity to grieve, because grieving is no longer a community effort.

Growing up in Greece, I was exposed to very different norms surrounding death and dying. A death was accompanied by black widow’s weeds, strident wailing, hired mourners, torn clothing, rolling the dirt, tragic songs, a procession through the village with the body, and several evenings in which the widow and family members presided over the body, laid out in the living room. You were expected to visit to pay your respects, to kiss the deceased, to offer food made by the family, and you showed up for the funeral and intermet just as you showed up at the exhumation when it was time to dig the bones up so that they could be placed in an ossuary. It didn’t matter who you were. You were invited to participate because you had shared in the life of the deceased, and there were no limits on your behavior.

It was public, it was tragic, and it was emotionally draining for everyone, but it was also immensely cathartic and freeing, because people were discouraged from repressing or subverting their grief. It was out there, in the open, in your face, naked. This is how grief should be, yet the same rituals are dismissed as tacky, crude, or intrusive by Americans who have been raised in a highly repressive and rigid culture with very specific rules about grief: do it alone, do it in private, and for Pete’s sake, don’t bother anyone with it. Above all, you must not be a nuisance to anyone while you grieve.

The Greek widow who visits a grave every Friday to light a candle and talk with her deceased husband has reached a state of piece with death, in which the deceased is mourned and honoured every day because he had a profound impact on her life, and she acknowledges that. The American who buries a father on Saturday and goes to work on Monday is supposed to behave as though nothing has happened. Americans must turn their backs on the dead, resolutely pretending that they and their deaths had no impact or meaning. They must not admit their feelings, because to do so might intrude on the delicate sensibilities of others. The Chinese person who honors the ancestors on a shrine every day is digging deep into a cultural tradition, placing ouself within the fabric of history, but the American is allowed to look in only one direction, forward. We have stripped ourselves of our traditions, and we rigidly demand that immigrants with other traditions must look after them in private, and not bother us with them.

Who is healthier? I say it’s the Greek widow and the Chinese person, with the benefit of thousands of years of cultural traditions to serve as a supportive framework during times of grieving. Americans cobble something together (often under the guidance of a funeral director) and as a result they feel lost and adrift. They turn their faces away from public manifestations of grief, they mumble platitudes to the survivors of the deceased because they are not allowed to scream, to cry, to acknowledge the terror and horror which is death, whether it strikes a two week old infant or a 90 year old grandmother.

Americans are expected to turn up their noses at close contact with the body, let alone preparing the body for burial or keeping the body in the home. In fact, aversion to the body is so culturally ingrained that the incredibly powerful funeral lobby hasn’t even bothered to try and make such practices illegal, because they lose only a handful of customers a year to families who insist on caring for their own dead. At many American funeral events, the body is nowhere to be seen, although the family has paid someone a great deal of money to pump it full of chemicals, primp it, and dress it in somber clothing before placing it in an extremely expensive casket, and the ceremony is quick, furtive, and utterly devoid of symbolism, like going to the dentist for an extraction. Just get it over with, and for Pete’s sake, and don’t be a nuisance.

I have run afoul of the repressive American attitudes about grief in the past, and I expect that I will in the future, and I can’t help but wonder why Americans view grief as something restricted to the pathetic, poorly educated, crude lower classes who “don’t know any better” even as they struggle with their incredibly repressed psyches and tormented attitudes about death and dying. This attitude is hardly new: in the Victorian era, the upper classes were snobbish about the funeral traditions of the lower classes, but much of their snobbery went the other way, asking how people could possibly expect to benefit from such abbreviated, simple expressions of grief as seen in the lower classes. How times have changed.

3 Replies to “The American Way of Grief”

  1. Hm. Of course different people have different preferences, but I know that I hate for others to see me being particularly emotional. The thought of sharing grief with so many almost-strangers actually makes me a bit ill… with a close friend, perhaps, but not much more than that.

    You could analyze that by my cultural background — Taiwanese-American — but it’s probably more accurate to point to personality in this case.

  2. Thank you for this beautiful post. I found this by accident while I was looking for another article I once read by a woman from Africa who basically said all the same things you did… I couldn’t agree with you more. My experience after my mother died when I was 18 years old was horrible. All I wanted was for people to talk to, but nobody wanted to be brought down by my grief… Thanks again.

  3. Thank you for speaking out about this taboo issue.
    This last year has been HELL on earth!
    I lost my 21 year old son last Christmas Eve 2008,
    he was ran over by a 24 year old in a pick-up
    truck, who was passing another car on a rural highway.
    I was devestated! Not a single call or a sympathy card came from
    the family whose son killed my son! How can people be so
    cold hearted? Grief is paralyzing & overtakes
    your whole life. Little things can trigger emotions
    to come out of nowhere. At first I was afraid to
    leave the house that I might cry. Then I decided I was
    not going to let fear control my life, and I gave myself
    permission to cry, if someone didn’t like it,
    that was there problem, they were not the one
    who just had their world shattered, I had lost a child, lost
    part of my future, my son had his life ripped out
    from under him
    and am searching everyday for a new normal!
    My priorties have changed. My other children and 7 grandchildren
    are much more precious everyday, everyday is a gift.
    Don’t waste it! I decided to retire from a $94,000. 00 job
    at the age of 51. Life is too short to sweat the
    small stuff. I love my son and I miss him terribly,
    I refuse to stop talking about him because it makes someone
    uncomfortable. I pray for them.

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