There’s an old saying about grief: ‘Your absence goes through me like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its colour.’ It seems to be a popular saying, judging by the number of places I encounter it, which I find quite frankly odd because this saying runs firmly against the grain in terms of how people think grief and mourning should be handled, at least in this society. Far from being an integral part of a person’s life, grief is supposed to be compartmentalised and neatly tucked away so other people do not have to see it. It should be suppressed and ‘processed’ so that people can ‘come out the other side,’ but the timeframe for doing this is kept surprisingly small and narrow. Very limited time is allotted to grieving in the wake of a death and woe betide the person who breaks the rules.
Historically, there were clear rules and guidelines for handling death, dying, and subsequent grief. There were restrictions on what people could do and when after a death, accompanied with clear outward symbols of mourning; people literally wore their mourning. The creation of keepsakes and mementos of the deceased was deemed an important part of the grieving process. There were formulas. People who had recently experienced losses were excused from many social duties and the expectations for their behaviour were different. There was a recognition that loss shifts and changes people and they need time to adjust. Not to ‘get over it,’ as seems to be the push today, but to adjust to a life without.
Grief must be tidy. All you need is a day off for the funeral, right? Why can’t you get over it? Weren’t you expecting the death anyway? Well, she was old, so it was her time. Grief today is only allowed to take place on a highly abbreviated timetable, with a minimum of disruption to everyone else. Over expressions of grief are embarrassing and socially awkward. How dare someone have feelings in public? That just makes everyone feel uncomfortable. It’s not nice and it isn’t done.
Attitudes to death and dying these days seem to be primarily predicated on the idea that people will ‘recover’ in the sense of returning to whoever they were before. Even if this is functionally impossible because the person you were before doesn’t exist anymore. It’s not that you are destined to spend the rest of your life mired in grief and misery, but it does mean that you are a fundamentally different person. Even when you had time to prepare for a death, even when it was ‘someone’s time’ and all the other things people say; people talk about ‘preparation’ like it’s possible to get all your grieving squared away before the person actually dies so as soon as they finally do, you can go back to normal.
Grief is abnormal and scary and frightening. It is alien and it is, often, inappropriate. There’s a time and a place for these things, you know, and that is apparently locked up somewhere in silence so that no one will be inadvertently exposed. But not for too long, because then you would be ‘wallowing.’ People are simultaneously told that grief is not allowed in public, while also being informed that they need to ‘push through it’ as quickly as possible, and primarily on their own. They are not provided with fellowship and support from the community. If anything, they are actively shunned during the grieving period, because people do not want to be embarrassed by encountering emotions.
Grief should be sterile and clean and neat and tidy. And it should happen somewhere else, preferably as far away as possible, seems to be the implication. When someone says something callous or thoughtless and the bereaved points this out, no matter how timidly, it is the bereaved who will be punished, not the other person. It is the bereaved who are told that they are being too sensitive and they need to start living again, and why must they deluge the people around them in their unhappiness? It’s so unkind, really, they’re only trying to help.
Oddly, people who compartmentalise to perform as required, who put on a cheerful face at work, for example, and then go home to handle their grief privately, are also punished. They are told they’re not showing it enough and they are being cold or unfeeling, even though society has already informed them that they cannot feel in public, that to do so would offend others around them. People who have that ability, to put things in boxes and not think about them for a little while, are also used to beat people over the head even as they are punished; Jan lost her mother last year and she was back at work the next day, what’s your problem? There is no way to win, when it comes to how grief is experienced and expressed.
In an ideal world, the process of grieving should take place on its own timetable. It would be allowed to unfold naturally and on the basis of individual needs. Maybe some people do only need a brief period of intense reflection before they are ready to more forward. Maybe others need a much longer period. For some, grief can be such a fundamental change that it really does mean that everything is stitched with its colour. When a loss involves a companion or friend of a lifetime, that does tend to fundamentally alter a person, which is not necessarily a bad thing, even though it is often treated as such.
The many arcane rules surrounding grief historically in this culture were a reminder to have compassion for people in grief as much as they were a creation of a formula for people to have something to focus on and stick to while they experienced grief. The loss of those things has resulted in a corresponding disappearance of compassion as well as leaving people in mourning unmoored and adrift.