One of the "rules" of grief has to do with which causes of grief are validated by wider society as legitimate reasons to grieve.
In general, the death of someone close to us is validated as an acceptable reason to be grieving (although there are exceptions even to this), and there are prescribed forms and rituals to express this in the form of funerals and bereavement leave.
There are many more causes of grief that are not validated by these "rules," though, and these griefs tend to be invalidated by others.
Some of these are because they are private griefs that others don't know about. These may stem from losses like:
- A miscarriage that happened before most people of the pregnancy.
- The ending of a love affair that had not been shared with others (for whatever reason).
- A failure to meet a private goal that no one else knew we were trying for.
- The sharp disappointment of learning that we are not who we thought we were (or that someone close to us is not who we thought they were).
Others may be visible to others but are not situations for which people often acknowledge the grief associated with them. These could be losses like:
- The loss of a deeply meaningful friendship.
- The decline of our own or a loved one’s mental, emotional, or physical health.
- The loss of a job.
- The ending of a marriage or other romance.
- The loss of a community or group membership.
- The loss of a sense of personal safety that can result from experiencing a crime, accident, or other trauma.
- The loss of reputation that comes from a public mistake.
When we face these kinds of grief that are not validated by the "rules" of our society, it's not only a deeply lonely pathway to travel, it's also a place where shame can easily take hold to hijack our grief.
Shame creeps in as others question our lack of focus, our slowed productivity, our sad emotional state as if something is wrong with us instead of seeing these as normal outcomes of the grieving process. We may even be the ones heaping this shame on ourselves because we can't even see our experience as being grief because it's not one we expect according to the "rules."
Grief is a normal response to loss, however, no matter what the "rules" may tell us. It's not just death that causes it; any kind of loss can prompt us to grieve as we work through our reactions to the loss and make meaning of what we have experienced.
I still remember when my own world fell apart so spectacularly several years ago through a whole series of losses that were invalidated griefs.
The unraveling started with the death of my closest friend. By the times the losses slowed a couple of years later, I’d also lost a marriage, step-children, a home, a job, a major educational goal, a career dream, financial security, a new love, and the very foundations of my understanding of myself. In the process, I also lost every close friendship I had, had my faith ripped to shreds, and had to rebuild just about everything I knew about myself and about life from scratch.
While a few of those losses were ones that could be seen publicly, most weren't. More importantly, the underlying connections between all of these losses and the profound disintegration of my sense of self and the world around me were invisible to everyone but me.
People around me had a very difficult time understanding or accepting the fact that I was not at my best for a rather extended period. I was grieving very deeply in the face of so much loss, but even I couldn't always see or accept what I was going through as grief because it didn't fit the "rules." Other people were even less capable of seeing it as grief.
I was shamed by others for struggling so much with what I was facing and for not bouncing back in the time frame expected. I had people dismiss my experience. I had people invalidate my pain. I had people question what was wrong with me. I had people attack me, withdraw from me, and walk away from me during all this.
And I did many of the same things to myself to add shame on top of shame because I could not accept my experience as normal, expected grief.
What finally began to shift things was my recognition that what I was experiencing really was grief and really was normal in the face of so much loss. I had to validate my own grief as real and legitimate, no matter what the "rules" or others had to say.
It was only then that I was able to begin shedding the unhelpful weight of shame and focus instead working through the grief I was experiencing as I needed to.
Perhaps you have gone through a similar time on your own life. Maybe you have encountered your own loss (or set of losses) that no one else was able to see or acknowledge, much less understand or support you through.
It hurts when the people around us can't accept our grief as valid, and that reaction makes the journey harder in its loneliness. But their reaction doesn't mean that you have to invalidate your own grief or that you have to accept any shame that's aimed your way.
Grief really is a normal response to loss—any kind of loss—so valid and invalid are not even in play. Offer yourself the validation you need and seek out those who can echo that back to you when shame sneaks in to hijack you.
When have you experienced grief over losses that were invalidated by others? How did that affect your grieving experience?
Did others shame you for your experience? Did you shame yourself? How did you shame affect your ability to grieve?
How might you validate your own grief in a similar experience in the future?
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