No-one really thinks about the social implications of grief. Why would we really?
In our Western society death is something to be ignored, pushed aside and we certainly don’t want to think about it. If we can avoid the words ‘dying, death or dead’, we will. We then find ourselves in a double bind, because what remains after a death is a family, a loved one, a spouse or friends and children who are floundering with grief and all the myriad of feelings that go with it, and we should be facing them, supporting them but they are closely associated with the very death we have been trying to avoid (even unconsciously).
The grieving can make us feel very uncomfortable. We might be thinking, how can we face them? Can we avoid them? Do we have to talk to them, and if we do, what shall we say? We don’t want to make them cry (because that will be really uncomfortable). We avoid the word died, we might even speak in hushed tones and use euphemisms, for example, “she has just gone to sleep”, and we certainly may consider not mentioning the deceased at all.
To cover our own discomfort we might resort to talking about our own losses and/or bereavements or we might proselytise about our own belief systems. We may end up relating stories about people who have died in similar ways or in worse ways (to somehow make the recent death look better by comparison). We may judge the behaviour of the bereaved person as inappropriate or somehow wrong? None of this is done with intentional harm of course, but it can be wounding and isolating for the bereaved.
All of the above only end up making the bereaved feel worse and somehow socially unacceptable or unpalatable.
There is a plethora of ways that the bereaved may feel socially unacceptable. Think about all the deaths of loved ones that cannot be acknowledged. For example, a married man who has a gay lover or a mistress whose long term lover dies, but who remains hidden to keep the secret. It may be that the bereaved is the first wife, and senses from others that it is not appropriate to be seen to grieve since they divorced their husband anyway. To be an ‘ex’ can be very difficult when a death occurs.
Widows and widowers may feel they don’t fit in anymore at social occasions. At an all couple event, for example a widow may experience her new single status acutely. It is not uncommon for widows to face a complete lack of invitations. Many of them have told me they think their friends worry that they will steal their husbands (though this is the last thing on widow’s minds in my view). Strangely, this is not so apparent for widowers, who often seem to be swept up by supportive female friends, fed and watered and cared for. This leads to another social implication, because they may not want to be! They may see this as unwelcome or a betrayal of their wife or partner.
Another social implication is that the bereaved’s circumstances may change in any variety of ways. They may have to move and they may become more socially alienated from their community. Their financial situation might change radically; perhaps there was no Will for example. Their job may be unsustainable during a difficult bereavement period, or their partner was the main bread-winner. Holidays may be unachievable now because there is no-one to go with, because they can no longer afford them or because they feel left out of groups that used to go away together previously.
In the case of the death of an adult child, if the child’s spouse did not have a good relationship with his or her parent-in-laws, grandparents can find themselves having grandchildren withheld from them which at the time of a bereavement leads to additional heartache and sadness.
For young boys and men, if their father dies, they may be expected (either overtly or covertly) to step up to be the ‘man of the house’. They may be told things like, “your mother needs you now” or “big boys don’t cry”. Although they may not be able to articulate it clearly or understand it at the time, they may feel their status as a child in the house has come to an end and they now feel a full sense of responsibility towards their mother and siblings.
How can friends and families help the bereaved to alleviate some of these social implications?
Here are a few simple ideas to think about:
• Persist in inviting the bereaved out, even when they keep saying no because one day they will say yes, and they will feel wanted and connected
• Used the deceased’s name liberally in conversation, they want to know you haven’t forgotten him or her
• Don’t pretend nothing has happened…..it has
• Don’t assume others will be there to help, they may not be
• You can say the D words, dying, death and died
• Accept the new person they have become, they had no choice but to adapt and grow through their bereavement
• Suggest they find someone to talk to, a counsellor is just one way to do that
If you have been bereaved and this article resonates with you, feel free to call me about the possibility of counselling if you want to, you can do that here
Photo credit: armadano / Foter / CC BY
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