The rules of grief

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While we often think of grief as an individual experience, it’s actually more of a social experience than we realize because it takes place in the context of relationships and is something that can affect others around us—both those who are grieving with us and those who are simply observing our grief.

Like all social experiences, it has commonly accepted rules about how this experience should play out. These rules may be unspoken and unrecorded, but they are still there forming boundaries around what is considered acceptable and what isn’t.

Shame is what we experience when we break those rules. Sometimes we shame ourselves as we become aware that our experience is not matching the rules about grief that surround us. More often we get shamed by others who are uncomfortable with our experience or our expression of that experience.

It’s purpose is to let us know that we are in danger of being excluded by our tribe (however we define that group of people where we belong). Exclusion and isolation are always painful, but they are particularly so when we are already grieving and in pain because we are already more vulnerable than usual.

This makes shame as even bigger threat to us than it might be at other times in our lives, and it therefore requires extra shame resilience to be able to navigate our way through the shame that inevitably arises during times of grief.

One of the ways we can do that is by becoming very consciously aware of these unspoken rules about grief surrounding us. As we identify them consciously, we have a better ability to decide how we will (or won’t) allow them to apply to us and can better seek out support from others who are willing to toss out unhelpful rules with us.

We will all have slightly different sets of these “rules” of grief because of our different family histories, social contexts, and religious beliefs, but some of the “rules” I have heard are things like:

It’s considered normal to cry at a funeral (as long as keep it decorous and under control), but we shouldn’t randomly break down and cry other places.

Our expressions of grief should never make other people uncomfortable.

We shouldn’t grieve as much for a loved one who has died after a long illness because they are now out of pain and in a better place.

We should not keep talking about the person (or other condition, situation, or thing) we have lost because makes us look like we haven’t “moved on.”

It’s important not to let our grief get in the way of our productivity on the job or at home.

We should only grieve for a set amount of time and then be “over it.”

Have you heard any of these or seen them applied to yourself or those around you?

What other “rules” of grief come to mind as you think about your own experience of grief and loss? What “rules” have caused you to feel ashamed when your experience didn’t match the expectations of those around you?

It’s important to remember that none of these “rules” are universally true. If we look across different cultures, times, and places, we will find a vast array of different sets of rules that may well be opposites to the ones that we embrace.

They matter only to the degree that they cause us shame and possible exclusion from our systems of support and belonging in the face of our grief. Knowing what “rules” of grief are affecting us in this way gives us the space to consciously evaluate and work with them.

We may choose to reject certain “rules” altogether and refuse to allow them any control over us.

We may decide play along with the “rules” in some contexts while finding support for breaking the “rules” in other context with people who are also willing to reject them.

We may decide that some belonging is not worth the cost of denying our own experience and choose to focus on other places of belonging instead who can accept our experience as it is.

We may discover in talking with others who are grieving (or who have grieved) that our experience is not outside the norm and that the “rules” are nonsense.

These are just some of the options that open up when we choose to stop forcing our experience into shape the “rules” of grief would dictate by openly acknowledging, evaluating, and making choices about the “rules” we encounter.

We’ll consider some of these “rules” of grief in a bit more detail over the next few weeks, but in the meantime, keep your eyes open for these “rules” as they appear in your experience or as you have seen them arise in the past.

Start forming your own list of the “rules” of grief that surround you and begin considering the ways they do or don’t match your experience and how they might be inducing shame. Your freedom begins with knowing what you’re dealing with.

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