Stifled Grief: How the West Has It Wrong

After nearly seven years of personal experience surrounding loss, I can tell who is going to read, share and comment on this article and it’s not necessarily the audience I’ve intended. Those who have walked the horrific road of loss will shake their collective heads “Yes” at many of my points below and share with pleads for the rest of the Western World to read, learn, evolve and embrace these concepts. Unfortunately, my words will fall short for my intended audience because the premise does not apply to their lives…yet. In time, my words will resonate with every human on the face of this earth, but until a personal journey with loss takes place, my words will be passed over in exchange for articles about gorillas and fights over public bathroom usage.

There is nothing sexy or exciting about grief.

There is nothing that grabs a reader with no personal interest to open my words and take heed to my writing.

I’m here to say that the West has the concept of grieving all wrong.

I’d like to point out that we are a culture of emotionally stunted individuals who are scared of our mortality and have mastered the concept of stuffing our pain. Western society has created a neat little “grief box” where we place the grieving and wait for them to emerge fixed and whole again. The grief box is small and compact, and it comes full of expectations like that range from time frames to physical appearance. Everyone who has been pushed into the grief box understands it’s confining limitations, but all of our collective voices together can’t seem to change the intense indignation of a society too emotionally stifled to speak the truth.  It’s become easier to hide our emotional depth than to reveal our vulnerability and risk harsh judgment. When asked if we are alright, it’s simpler to say yes and fake a smile then, to be honest, and show genuine human emotion.

Let me share below a few of the expectations and realities that surround grief for those who are open to listening. None of my concepts fit into societies grief box and despite the resounding amount of mutual support by the grieving for what I write below, many will discount my words and label us as “stuck” or “in need of good therapy.”  I’m here to say those who are honest with the emotions that surround loss are the ones who are the least “stuck” and have received the best therapy around. You see, getting in touch with our true feelings, embracing the honest emotions of death only serve to expand the heart and allow us to move forward in a genuine and honest way. Death happens to us all so let’s turn the corner and embrace the truth behind life after loss.

Expectation: Grief looks a certain way in the early days. Tears, intense sadness, and hopelessness.

Reality: Grief looks different for every single person. Some people cry intensely, and some don’t cry at all. Some people break down, and others stand firm. There is no way to label what raw grief looks like as we all handle our loss in different ways due to different circumstances and various life backgrounds that shape who we are.

Expectation: The grieving need about a year to heal.

Reality: Sometimes grief does not even get started till after the first year. I’ve heard countless grieving people say year two is harder than year one. There is the shock, end of life arrangements and other business matters that often consume the first year and the grieving do not have the time actually to sit back and take the time to grieve. The reality is there is no acceptable time frame associated with grief.

Expectation: The grieving will need you most the first few weeks.

Reality: The grieving are flooded with offers of help the first few weeks. In many cases, helping the grieving six months or a year down the line can be far more helpful because everyone has returned to their lives and the grief stricken are left to figure it out alone.

Expectation: The grieving should bury the dead forever. After a year, it is uncomfortable for the grieving to speak of their lost loved one. If they continue to talk about them, they are stuck in their grief and need to “move on.”

Reality: The grieving should speak of the dead forever if that’s what they wish to do. When someone dies, that does not erase the memories you made, the love you shared and their place in your heart. It is not only okay to speak of the dead after they are gone, but it’s also a healthy and peaceful way to move forward.

Expectation: For the widowed – If you remarry you shouldn’t speak of your lost loved one otherwise you take away from your new spouse.

Reality: You never stop loving what came before, and that does not in any way lessen the love you have for what comes after. When you lose a friend – you don’t stop having friends, and you love them all uniquely. If you lose a child and have another, the next child does not replace or diminish the love you had for the first. If you lose a spouse, you are capable of loving what was and loving what is….one does not cancel out or minimize the next. Love expands the heart, and it’s okay to honor the past and embrace the future.

Expectation: Time heals all wounds.

Reality: Time softens the impact of the pain, but you are never completely healed. Rather than setting up false expectations of healing let’s talk about realistic expectations of growth and forward movement. Grief changes who you are at the deepest levels and while you may not forever be in an active mode of grief you will forever be shaped by the loss you have endured.

Expectation: If you reflect on loss beyond a year you are “stuck.”

Reality: Not a day goes by where I am not personally affected by my loss. Seeing my children play sports, looking at my son who is the carbon copy of his Dad or hearing a song on the radio or smell in the air. Loss because part of who you are and even though I don’t choose to dwell on grief it has a way of sneaking in now and again even when I’m most in love with life at the current moment. It’s not because we dwell or focus, and it’s not because we don’t make daily choices to move forward. It’s because we loved and we lost, and it touches us for the remainder of our days in the most profound ways.

Expectation: When you speak of the dead you make the griever sad, so it’s best not to bring them up.

Reality: When we talk about our lost loved one we are often happy and filled with joy. My loss was six and a half years ago and to this day, my late husband is one of my favorite people to talk and hear about. Hearing his name makes me smile and floods my mind with happy memories of a life well lived. It makes the grieving sadder when everyone around them refuses to say their name. Forgetting they existed is cruel and a perfect example of our stifled need to fix the unfixable.

Expectation: If you move forward you never loved them or conversely if you don’t move forward you never loved them.

Reality: The grieving need to do what is right for them, and nobody knows what that is except the person going through it.

Expectation: It’s time to “move on.”

Reality: There is no moving on – there is only moving forward. From the time death touches our lives we move forward, in fact, we are not given a choice but to move forward. However, we never get to a place where the words move on resonate. The words “move on” have a negative connotation to the grieving. They suggest a closure that is nonexistent and a fictitious door we pass through.

Expectation: Grief is a linear process and a series of steps to be taken. Each level is neatly defined and the order predetermined.

Reality: Grief is an ugly mess full of pitfalls, missteps, sinking, and swimming. Like a game of shoots and ladders, you never know when the board might pull you back and send you down the ladder screaming at the top of your lungs. Just when you think you’ve arrived at the finish, you draw a card that sends you back to start and just when it appears you’ve lost the game you jump ahead and come one step closer to the front of the line.

Expectation: The grieving should seek professional forms of counseling exclusively.

Reality: The grieving should seek professional forms of counseling but also the grieving should look strongly towards alternative modes of therapy like fitness, art, music, meditation, journaling and animal therapy. The grieving should take an “active” part in their grief process and understand that coping comes in many different forms for all the different people who walk this earth.

Expectation: The grieving either live in the past or the present. IT is not possible to have a multitude of emotions.

Reality: The grieving live their lives with intense moments of duality. Moments of incredible happiness mixed with feelings of deep sadness. There is a depth of emotion that forever accompany those who have lived with a loss. That duality can cause constant reflection and a deeper appreciation of all life has to offer.

Expectation: The grieving should be able to handle business as usual within a few weeks.

Reality: The brain of a grieving person can be in a thick fog, especially for those who have experienced extreme shock, for more than a year. Expect forgetfulness, a reduced ability to handle stress and grayness to be commonplace after a loss.

I’ve just scratched the surface above on the many areas where grief is misunderstood in our society.

One hundred percent of the people who walk this earth will deal with death. Each of us will experience the passing of someone close that we love or our personal morality.  It is about time we open up the discussion around death, dying and grief and stop the stigma that surrounds our common bond. Judgment, time frames, and neat little grief boxes have no place in the reality that surrounds loss. Western culture asks us to suppress our pain, stuff our emotions and restrain our cries. Social media has given many who grieve the opportunity to open up dialogue, be vulnerable on a large scale level and take the combined heat that comes with that honesty. As a whole, society does not want to hear or accept that grief stays with us in some capacity for the rest of our lives. Just like so many other aspects of our culture, we want to hear there is a quick fix, a cure-all, a pill or a healthy dose of “get over it” to be handed out discreetly and dealt with quietly.

The reality is you will grieve in some capacity for the rest of your life. Once loss touches you-you are forever changed despite what society tells you. Stop looking at the expectations of an emotionally numbed society as your threshold and measuring stick for success. Instead, turn inward and look at the vulnerable reality of a heart that knows the truth about loss.  With your firsthand knowledge escape the grief box and run out screaming truth as you go. If we make enough noise maybe someday societies warped expectation will shift to align with reality.

Written with love and truth,

Michelle

 

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Michelle Steinke-Baumgard is an author, speaker, fitness coach, mother and remarried widow. After losing her husband Mitch in 2009, she turned to exercise as an outlet for grief and a way to handle stress. Michelle found it so powerful that she eventually quit her corporate job to become a fitness trainer. Since then Michelle has been featured in Fitness Magazine, Shape Magazine, Woman’s Day Magazine, contributed to articles for Prevention Magazine, The Huffington Post, and countless other media outlets. In addition to her virtual training business, Michelle recently launched her nonprofit focused on helping widows and widowers complete bucket list dreams to honor their late spouse while moving boldly into their future. Michelle is in the process writing her first book for HarperCollins where she writes about using fitness as a grief coping mechanism.  The book will be released in 2017.

You can find out more about Michelle’s training programs at: My 1 Fit Life

You can find out more about Michelle’s nonprofit at: Live the List

 

47 thoughts on “Stifled Grief: How the West Has It Wrong

  1. You have stated everything I have experienced – expectations vs reality are so very different! Five years into my journey which changes year to year. Thankyou to someone who “gets it”!!

  2. Thank you, Michelle, for putting in print what so many of us feel and go through. You have helped me personally and I am sure many many more with verbalizing our daily struggles post loss.

  3. You hit the nail on the head! I was told I needed to remarry to “honor” my husband. Told by co-workers to “get over it”. I told someone recently I would never be the person I once was prior to my husband’s death. I remember the look they gave me. One of utter confusion.
    Thank you

  4. I lost the love of my life last year and your posts have been very helpful to me. I feel that part of me has gone and find myself apologizing to others for being teary-eyed and emotional at unexpected times. Your posts enlightened me to the fact that my reactions are not unusual and are normal. Thank you. Leah J.

  5. I so appreciated your article. Although I am not a widow the grief I have dealt with after being told by my husband of over 30 years that he was leaving me for a woman 20 years his junior and pastor of our church has taken me through a grieving much the same as that of being widowed; alone, empty, scared.. three years later I find myself living mostly on the positive and still there are times when the grief of what happened falls on me like a deep fog. Each of our experiences are deeply personal and each of us deals with them in our personal way. Grief in any form must be traveled through. We cannot go around it or over it, but hopefully each one will, each day grow stronger from it.

  6. Michelle, you are addressing essential issues for us survivors.
    I think our culture is stilted in all types of emotional expression. We’re so afraid to speak life’s truths. Most folks merely skim the surface of experience , not learning, not growing their psyche.
    🙏🏽

  7. You have really hit it out of the ball park in this article. All the emotions and issues that one deals with grief, loss of a loved one (spouse for me) you have touched on all facets. Thanks for sharing, I inturn am going to share with a couple of others that I know are also going thru this.

  8. Great article. I wonder how many other widows, like me, will feel reluctant to share this article. Its wonderful and everything about it is true, but still, I know as soon as I share it people will be whispering about how “stuck” I am and how I need to “move on” or go to counseling or do something else to “fix” myself. With all of the other pains of being a widow, we also feel the pain of not being understood. Thanks for much for writing it.

  9. I have lost two sons, one in 2011 and one in 2016. I had not clearly made my way through the loss of my first son Rian when his brother Tyler died. I want to go somewhere and scream my pain, somewhere that no one will hear me. I try not to show how badly I am feeling fearing making others so uncomfortable. Ty left behind two children, I try and keep my world together for them. They talk about their Dad a lot and it helps me to hear his name and laugh at something crazy he did.
    I can never be the person I was with two sons, that Mom does not exist anymore. Thankfully I have a daughter that I adore. She and I can hug and cry and miss the boys together. She has no expectations of me.
    Thank-you for your article, I don’t know why we feel like we need permission to grieve, as you say it is the expectations of others and our culture.

    • awa54, First, I want to say that I am so very sorry for your loss. I can’t imagine what you are feeling, and I truly care. I very much appreciate your sharing a little of your story.

      I have worked informally to be a support to the grieving. I can so relate to your comment about the feeling that one almost needs permission to grieve. It seems that, right off the bat, so many grieving people will make excuses and apologize for their grief, this is especially true for those who believe their loved one is in a peaceful place and that they will one day see their loved one again. (Just for the record, I believe in the afterlife) I can’t tell you the relief that seems to flood over a grieving person when I assure them that there is no need to apologize for their grief. Then I sometimes have to remind them that regardless of where their loved one is, or their future reunion with them, it is perfectly normal and in fact it’s very necessary to grieve the loss of that person from their daily lives in the here and now.

      Also, I’ve noticed that often times the person will apologize for their grieving with words such as: “I know I should be past this by now…” Again, I love the opportunity to assure them that “there are no time lines in grief… we just are where we are.”

      Thank you again for sharing a portion of your story. I just whispered a prayer for you.

  10. Thank you. My husband died last summer in an accident and I don’t know when I’ll ever get over it, but having read your message, perhaps I won’t. I will hopefully learn to live with it.

  11. Year 2 has been my challenge … starting with a sobbing breakdown in front of 8 friends a week before the 1st anniversary of my Husband’s passing. Those friends – and many more – have been VERY loving and supportive. And yet, I still hesitate to tell others when I am in pain. Working on taking myself out of the Grief Box – thank you for this article!

  12. I have been able to relate to everything you have written here. I sometimes think I am going crazy. I have also experienced put downs of my grief that its not important. Someone else’s grief is more important. I am the strong one so I don’t have feelings. That I am here to take care of others instead. Thank you for writing this. It’s hard to find someone who relates. You can only fully understand grief if you are experiencing it. Every moment of the day it hurts and I remember the pain in his eyes and of me not being to take it away. This is so lonely

  13. Grief and grieving is not reserved for physical death and loss. We as a society ignore and demean the very real and often devastating grief that comes with the end of friendships and unexpected job loss. At least when someone dies people acknowledge that your feelings are genuine and legitimate, even if it is only for 3-6 months. In every other scenario, the griever is “overreacting” and should be “moving on”, “getting out there”, and replacing that which is lost.

  14. I am employed in a funeral home. I have seen evidence of what you are talking about. Friends all want to fix the grieving person and make them feel better. If I am given the chance to talk to the ones who are broken hearted, I tell them, first- NEVER let anyone tell you how to grieve. There are no rules or guidelines and no time tables! Second, God made tears for a very good reason. Don’t hold them back, use them and don’t worry about how the tears will make others uncomfortable. Grief will come out somehow. If you try to be strong and hold it all in, it will show itself in other ways such as ulcers and other physical ailments. Death of a loved one is NOT something we have to “get over”….I don’t think we should even WANT to get over it. We just learn to live with the knowledge that the loved one is gone and somehow we will learn just a little at time to live in a new way without the physical presence of our loved one. God bless all of us who are grieving with His peace and comfort!

  15. I lost both parents four months apart 8 years ago. The day after my Mom’s funeral we were with my Dad at the oncologist’s office having a port put in for chemo. He died 4 months later. I didn’t have a chance to grieve properly for my Mom because we needed to do so much for my Dad. When Dad died it was being hit with a sledgehammer. There are times now that trigger grief, we call them landmines, and I feel like I should “be over it”. Thank you for the article.

  16. My ex-husband was like my best friend when he was killed in a freak accident. Along with having to console our daughter, I felt like I couldn’t afford to really grieve because I was working so hard to help our daughter. I had so many people telling me to be strong, to keep my chin up. Inside though, I was falling apart. I soon learned to put my hand up and stop people from saying things I really didn’t need to hear, because how could they really know how I felt? I’m in a new relationship now and the best thing is that my daughter feels free to talk about her dad to my partner. Thank you for posting this article.

  17. I don’t think I really “got” all of this until I experienced the loss of my 24 yea old son 15 months ago. People just want to help but in the process some alienated me. I had to distance myself from some family members and friends. Oh, yes, everyone does grief differently but PLEASE don’t start talking about your 92 year old grandmother that passed 8 years ago and expect me to be comforted when my young adult has tragically died.
    Well written. Thank you.

  18. I watched a young black man die o heat stroke. Actually I was trying to save him when he died. I had at least 20 young men drown in their own blood while I and another fellow tried to save them. I saw a couple thousand with flesh and limbs ripped from their bodies and for fourty years I buried it all with a busy life. Then it hit me. I cried for months and I never even new the names of those young men. I got to the point I couldn’t work. It is better now but it never goes away and it probably shouldn’t.

  19. When I was 32 my husband went to work one morning and I was told that afternoon that he had a heart attack on the job. Sudden deaths are so excruciating !! I was in a fog for a year while struggling to raise 5 children alone. After remarrying years later , I watched my husband die of lung cancer. 10 years later I watched my daughter fight her battle with lung cancer and lose. 18 months after loosing her I just found my son in the bathroom collapsed and he could not be revived. That was 6 weeks ago…. I am still reeling from loosing my daughter and now my son. Your words are so right on… We never “get over” it….

  20. It has been 6 1/2 years since I lost my beautiful, six month old grandson to cancer. He is never out of my thoughts and I still cry. I not only grieve for my grandson , but I grieve for my son( who is my baby) because he lost his baby. I will never “get over it”.

  21. Michele, on target. I do wish the bigger audience would read this. I lost my first husband over a decade ago, and my second only 2 years past. The raw emotions in grief cannot be understood unless others have suffered a significant loss as well. And if the death is traumatic (as was my last husband’s death), then it becomes more misunderstood. How could I work or function at my previous level when his death led me into deep depression & suicidal thoughts? How could I handle the everyday when the raw shock held on for 6 months?
    The point about help in later months/years is spot on. I was drowning in help for 3 months. 13 months later I was wishing the dog knew how to drive. Everyone Needs Their Own Time to Grieve! If I’m not social 18 months later, don’t judge; accept its what I need to heal. (And yes, professional therapy did save my life….. And now I know my first grandchild.)
    Thank you!!

  22. Wonderful article. You hit all the main points. I am a retired hospital chaplain and so was used to telling other people these things. Then just over three years ago, my spouse of 16 years died suddenly in her sleep and I had to try to practice what I had been telling others. This was complicated by it being a same-sex relationship which made it difficult for me to talk about in some circumstances. I am lucky in having understanding friends and family, some of whom are also grieving the death of a spouse.

  23. You hit the nail on the head so to speak when I read this post. I lost one of my best friends ever in June 2015. I will always honor her on that day, on her birthday, on her favorite holidays, when I think of our travels together & when I see her daughter’s beautiful face among other times. I will speak to her as usual, I will speak of her whenever I need to say her name and I will not let any rules tell me how or when to miss her. My grief is part of my strong and unbreakable tie to her. I still miss her every day…

  24. Great post. I spoke about this western way of NOT looking at grief appropriately in my book, Dancing in Two Realms and shared this on my Facebook page, Wise Wonderful Widowed!

  25. Yes – we will all have losses, we will all experience grief and we live in a death denying, grief illiterate culture. We all need to be grief advocates. Thank you, Michelle.

  26. Thank-you for helping me feel less alone. Myhusband died suddenly two years ago. We had no children and my family lives out of state. I find myself vasillating between two worlds. I journal everyday trying to find the words for my new reality. I dream about him and that brings me comfort. I’v remained active swimming-yoga-weights. This helps. But God sending me like minded people who are grieving and listen to me without judgement has been my lifesaver. My family doesn’t understand-theirs famlies are intacted. I feel closer to my husbands brothers and their wives. I feel closer to God. My faith has supported me through the dark times.

  27. Brilliant post, and the comments too. I will share it widely with my audience – the world NEEDS TO KNOW THIS!!! – you cannot ‘get over’ a death; rather, it becomes part of who you are, a different person since your loved one died. That is one of the things that is difficult about living – you grow and change. And that is okay, it is meant to happen. Thanks Michele

  28. Just discovered your blog. All your articles are spot on! I’m a young widow with a baby. Our first Father’s Day without my husband. Thank you for all your posts ❤️

  29. Michelle, thank you for brilliant honesty. I went to elementary school and high school with Mitch and he was a beautiful person. I lost my husband in a car accident this January and your words have helped tremendously.

  30. Thank you – I am on year two and am grappling with how much worse it is than year one. I thought maybe it was just me….

  31. Thank-You for this post. Not yet one week since my partner died suddenly of a heart attack, and some people are already nudging me toward the future. Right now, for me, there is only this moment, this second. One step, one task, one breath. “You are going to be fine”. If I hear that again I will scream. Fine? What does that even mean?

  32. Three of my friends have had their husbands die this past year. One from cancer, one suddenly from heart failure and one from a brain tumour. Thank you so much for this article so I can better walk this journey with each of these women!!.

  33. I can associate with what you have shared. Being widowed twice, has ben challenging. We both we widowed and I always said it was a matched made in heaven but it happened again, but this time grief consumes me when I least expect it. As you say I will not be mving on but trying to move forward but not necessarily in a straight line. Unless someone has been through this life altering even I don’t think people really get it. A difficult part is trying to rebuild and figure out who I am.

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