Are there rules for expressing grief?

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Grieving is a hugely personal experience and there is no one way to do it. We will all experience it in different ways and find our own answers to it, writes Mary Jordan.

Grief can be a very selfish emotion. When we are grieving, we rarely recognise fully the pain that others are feeling. Even those close to us are not seen as feeling the pain as badly as we do ourselves. Our pain is often all we can experience. So you may find that you are quite unable to comfort others or even to acknowledge their grief. The truth is that those around us, even if they grieve with us, do not seem to alleviate our own burden. Indeed, sometimes it may increase the burden because we feel we have to ‘be strong for others’.

Grief is a natural process

Grieving involves experiencing pain and perhaps we fear feeling overwhelmed and losing control. We may look for a way to avoid our feelings of grief or try to bury ourselves in work or throw ourselves into family life and support everyone around us, thinking we will be able to avoid the worst of it. This, though, is taking a short cut when seeing a traffic jam ahead and this may not be the best way to cope. You may find that when the shortcut ends you will face that same ‘traffic jam’ but just a little further down the road. It may be that you will find out that the pain that you have been trying to avoid has been waiting for an opportunity or an (in)opportune moment to reveal itself.

There no right or wrong way to grieve

Often we can feel that it is not appropriate to express our grief. We may upset our friends, our family or our children. We may make others feel uncomfortable. This is indeed true. When we express grief, we may well upset others and we may cause others to feel uncomfortable and helpless. But this should not mean that we have to withhold our feelings and emotions. To grieve is natural and to express grief is both natural and therapeutic. For some, the best way is to cry, to express anger to shout and even scream. Others would find this undignified and unhelpful. Some people prefer to express their grief in private or in ritual. No one should ever feel that there is only one ‘proper’ way to express grief.

The expression of grief is highly personal but it can be influenced by what is ‘expected of us’ by the society in which we live, the cultural, religious, ethical boundaries which are part of our being and which influence us all. However, the only proper way to express our grief is in a way that feels right for us. One friend of mine found that she could best express her feelings by writing letters to her dead husband – letters that she would never send. People who have a strong faith can find great solace in prayer and the company of their faith community. My Roman Catholic aunt found it comforting to have Masses said for her mother’s soul. Another friend spent several months after her father died collecting photographs of him from amongst the family and making up a ‘memory album’ in his name. It is becoming increasingly common to set up ‘memorial pages’ on social media and this can allow friends and family to express their grief in a tangible way.

Understanding grief

If you are trying to support someone who is grieving then the kindest thing you can do is allow them to express their grief in the way that is right for them. You commonly hear statements such as ‘She hasn’t cried yet - everyone has to cry’ or that ‘he/she is wallowing in grief’ but these phrases are meaningless and unhelpful. Each person finds their own way through the hideous fog and pain of grief and each of us deserves support in finding that route. There is no ‘map of grief’ but there are – or should be – friends who will walk the route with us.

Read more about expressing grief in my books, End of Life – The Essential Guide to Caring (Hammersmith Press) and The Essential Guide to Life After Bereavement (Jessica Kingsley Publishers).

Tags: bereavement Grief grieving loss feelings of grief

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