Heavy Expectations: Grief and Performance

Our society has a deeply conflicted relationship with grief. It doesn’t really want to see grief and mourning or be made aware that they happen and that people experience real sensations of pain and loss. People want to see grief neatly boxed away and tidied up, want to see people ‘moving on,’ by which they mean that the subject will never arise again and the deceased should simply be forgotten. At the same time, though, they also demand performances of grief; the bereaved is expected to walk the walk and will be viewed as suspect for not performing grief in the expected way.

People seem to maintain a sort of internal rubric for acceptable grief levels, based on degree of relation with the deceased. Dead parents and children rank high on this scale, as intense personal losses that would be intensely traumatic. Siblings. Partners. The rubric tends to rate down aunts and uncles, cousins, more distant relatives. Friends. Pets. For each, there is an assigned level of grief that is allowed, and you should not exceed it, but you also shouldn’t perform below standards.

Not everyone grieves in the same way. Some people may be deeply, deeply upset but they don’t communicate it in ways that are familiar to others. When one friend of mine lost her mother, her boss made arrangements for her to take time off work, but she said she didn’t want time off, and came to work anyway, and worked. People called her cold and hard even though she sobbed at home for months—she just needed one thing, work, to anchor herself to the world, to give herself something normal to do, something to focus on. One place that she didn’t associate with her mother, that was hers. And people condemned her for not grieving the way she was supposed to.

Some people are criers and screamers and tearers of hair. Others look at photo albums or lie quietly in bed. Others work ferociously. Grief takes many forms and they are all valid, despite the beliefs of those who seem to think there is one right way to grieve. Some people want to share their grief with the people around them because they cannot imagine a world without the deceased and they want to cry it out to the heavens and make sure everyone knows. Others are more private and prefer to mourn in closer circles, or entirely alone. The fact that someone isn’t manifesting an outward appearance of grief doesn’t mean that person is not mourning.

And others have nothing to mourn, which many people seem to find particularly discomfiting, especially when they lose someone close under the grief rubric. People are disturbed by the idea that someone might not mourn a parent, for example, and place judgments on that person for not performing grief. There are all kinds of reasons why people may be past the point of mourning; perhaps that parent was hostile and abusive and the survivor is finally free at last. Maybe that parent disowned the child for reasons of identity or affiliation, and the child has lived for years with a parent who is effectively dead. Maybe that child drifted apart from the parent, joined a close religious sect that doesn’t permit contact with outsiders.

It is not for us to speculate why someone might not experience grief after the loss of someone else. Perhaps it is not a loss at all. It might frighten us to think about it, the idea that someone might not mourn. Society puts tremendous pressure on people in this situation. Either they need to perform grief they do not feel to satisfy the needs of those around them, the people who want to see them manifesting emotion, or they need to explain why they are not grieving, which requires disclosing personal information. Information that may be sensitive and uncomfortable for them to discuss.

The pressure to grieve publicly and to do so in a certain way is yet another thing for people to navigate in the wake of a loss. They must do it just right or be branded as cold, or too emotional, or any number of other unpleasant things people can come up with to describe people who do not stick within the confines of the rubric. It is not enough to admit that yes, you have experienced a loss and you want to process it in your own way, not when you are living in a world where everyone thinks that everything is their business, right down to how you deal, or do not deal, with the death of someone in your life.

Pop culture repeatedly stresses the right way to perform grief, whether it’s television shows or novels, and the personal columns people write about death and grieving, the memoirs, also tend to fall within a very narrow range. A model of acceptable grieving behaviour for everyone to take note of. Those who dare to stray outside the lines attract eyebrows, because they are breaking the rules, suggesting perhaps that the rules should be broken and maybe don’t belong there in the first place. And this, we simply cannot have, because it would create a world where people could mourn how they want to, without having to consider what society wants for them during a time that may already be an extremely difficult one.

Death and dying are tangled, messy, complex things. Responses to them cannot be neatly summed up in a set of rules for everyone to read and obey, because death itself does not obey. Death is a cheater, a thief, a sneak, a stealer, and in the face of that, sometimes you have to fight dirty.