Death and grief are painful, yet inevitable, parts of life. And yet many of us still have a hard time talking about loss.
As our culture develops a more accepting view of mental health, it’s time to expand the conversation on grief and loss. Therapist Elizabeth Tschoegl spoke with us about opportunities for, and challenges to, changing the way we talk about and grapple with grief in our busy, technological culture.
How do we treat grief?
Workplaces in the United States provide, on average, 3 days of paid time off when an employee experiences the loss of a parent, grandparent, domestic partner, or child. Organizations give even less time for bereavement of an extended family member or the family member of one’s partner. These policies reflect a cultural view of grief that is time-bound and brief. “You have 3 days to mourn, be with loved ones, make arrangements, and then the expectation is that you get back to work. That just isn’t realistic.” says Tschoegl.
Grief rarely, if ever, fits into the confines of a handful of days. In fact, Harvard researchers find that grief symptoms actually peak six months after a loss, when visits and calls have tapered off, life is taking on a “new normal”, and the mourner is expected to have “bounced back”. So many factors affecting the grieving process – religious or cultural beliefs, circumstances of the loss, support systems available, etc. This makes it impossible to put a time frame around grief, or to expect it to follow a prescribed pattern.
Workplace bereavement policies may reflect our own individual discomfort with grief. When a friend is grieving, we can feel overwhelmed by the enormity of their pain and want desperately to make the pain go away. In our desperation we may offer platitudes like “time heals all wounds,” “they’re in a better place,” and “everything happens for a reason.” While these messages may be well-intended, they reflect how difficult it is for many of us to sit with painful emotions. We want to fix people’s grief, which just isn’t realistic when we understand what it really is: not something that we move on from, but move on with, as so eloquently shared by Nora McInerny in her 2018 Ted Talk.
What does grief really look like?
Everyone’s grief journey is different, but here are a few commonalities: grief is messy, it comes in unpredictable waves, and may stick with you for a long time. Common grief reactions include crying spells, anger, feelings of helplessness, withdrawing from others, difficulty concentrating, low energy, and physical pain. These symptoms may come and go, shift and change, from hour to hour and day to day.
Elizabeth Tschoegl shared, “Grief is like a scar. It won’t always be as red and raw and painful as when it’s a new wound, but it won’t completely go away either. Scar tissue develops and the wound becomes incorporated into the body. Like this, we incorporate grief into our lives.”
How Technology is Changing the Way We Grieve
Heightening our struggle with grief are new cultural trends. The pervasiveness of technology and social media simultaneously connects and disconnects us from one another. Despite the ability to instantly connect with others, Americans feel lonelier and more isolated than ever before.
“You can have a million followers, but 3 close friends,” says Tschoegl. “And few people are truly sharing the ugly, messy sides of themselves on Instagram. We share perfect latte pictures posed artfully next to our gratitude journals, our funny but relatable kitchen mishaps, and our perfect vacations. We are very rarely being raw because it is messy, uncomfortable, and oftentimes, without a clear ‘fix’”.
But there are ways that social media can be used in the grieving process. We might share memories and photographs of their loved ones who have passed. We can also reach out quickly, send funny videos to brighten someone’s day, or instantly send money.
But how often do we actually do these things? How often do we do more than just “like” or comment on a post to connect with someone who has experienced a loss?
Grief and Religion
Another cultural shift that impacts the way we grieve is that Americans are leaving religion en masse. Whether or not you believe this to be good, bad, or neutral, it impacts grief in two main ways.
Two major functions religion serves are 1) a sense of community, and 2) creating and performing rituals. As Americans leave religion, they may lose both a sense of community and some built-in ways of ritualizing grief.
Tschoegl says, “In many cultural traditions the grieving period is one year. I’ve always thought that there is a lot of beauty in that. Because what that says is that for a year, your community and your family will be around you as you navigate your way through all the firsts – first birthday, first holiday – and will create a space that says ‘we know you’re struggling during this time, and we are here for you.’”
Non-religious Americans are challenged with finding or creating new communities that offer support with, and help honor, the grieving process. “We’re having to redefine what that community is going to be for us, in the modern age. It’s in our best interest to find those communities, whether they’re religious or not. They can be your book club, your neighbors, or your CrossFit family. Finding those communities that show up for you in those times of grief is crucial.”
Shifting the Narrative
Alongside the contemporary challenges for grieving in today’s society are great opportunities. Millennials are sometimes referred to as the “therapy generation” because they seek out and talk publicly about therapeutic support at much higher rates than previous generations. This presents a great opportunity for shifting how we deal with grief.
Though therapy may not be necessary for everyone in the grieving process, it can be very beneficial for some. Tschoegl says, “What therapy can do is normalize grief in a way that our culture does not. Whereas the messages you may get from work are ‘we need you back here’ or ‘are you done?’ from family and friends, therapy provides a space that recognizes that you are normal for not being ‘done’ grieving.”
Therapy can also provide us with support that even our most loving friends and family aren’t capable of giving. Tschoegl says, “Oftentimes, it’s not that your friends and family don’t care. But people can feel overwhelmed at how to help or they don’t know how, or they get impatient. Therapy is a space where you can show up with grief, and someone can hold it without turning away. In therapy, you know that you will not exhaust that person’s capacity to provide empathy.”
There are some signs that this pro-therapy zeitgeist is having an impact on a larger scale. Though the current national average is 3 days of bereavement, companies like Facebook and Mastercard are moving towards providing 20 days off for grieving employees. This is consistent with what grief experts recommend. Though we know that grief can’t be limited to any particular number of days, this is a huge improvement that more realistically represents bereavement.
Need some extra support?
Though it may sound cliché, it is important to remember that when you are grieving, you are not alone. You are not ‘abnormal’, and you are not failing. If it feels like your family and friends aren’t able to provide the support you need, or you are looking to process the trauma experienced as a result of a loss or death, consider reaching out to a therapist or a support group.
The Resilient Brain Project also provides dozens of free resources related to grief and loss, for those who are grieving, and for those wanting to support a loved one.
As always, you are welcome to reach out to us at any time to make an appointment, or for more resources.