On the Highly Subjective Topic of Grief

Dedication: this is for my Baby Bro, inspired by a conversation he and I had this year. We both needed it.

The expression of grief is an intensely private, deeply personal thing. Everybody experiences and exhibits grief differently, and on a unique timeline. Where it gets tricky, in my mind, is when people judge others based on their personal rules of behavior for “socially acceptable” grieving.

Family can be friends, and friends can be family, and the way we grieve when we lose the people who matter to us cannot be expected to conform to a behavioral construct invented by one or more Social Hall Monitors. I am related by blood to people I simply don’t have a relationship with, yet am deeply connected to a handful of people that I consider my true core “family.” This impacts my personal response to somebody’s passing, and means that I often don’t react as others might expect based on their own internal context.

Individual reactions to somebody passing are infinite in variety. It takes all kinds to make the world go ‘round, it really does – whether you understand them fully or not. Some types I’ve observed during my lifetime thus far are:

The Public Wailer

Some folks act out in public when somebody passes, as though they’ve been conditioned from a young age to tear at their hair and beat their breasts over personal loss. I am always a bit bemused by such exhibits, and not entirely sure what to think. It could be genuine overwhelming grief, it could be a stage cue that only kicks in when an audience is present. It’s so very hard to tell with this one, and best to keep your observations to yourself in order not to offend. 

The Town Crier

Some folks treat loss as “hot news” that must be immediately disseminated via The Grief Grapevine. They spread it around in every manner available like a social firehose, and are genuinely surprised by those who do not respond with apparent mutual angst. On the one hand, I find this awkward at best, but on the other, I’m not exactly known for my ability to clue in socially when appropriate.

The Salt of the Earth

Some folks express sorrow and offer quiet yet sincere condolences and of course feel the loss, but not enough to impact their day-to-day behavior. They offer gentle, steady support to those most impacted by a given loss, but know when to back off and give others space. I call these folks “very well balanced,” and am deeply grateful for their existence in general.

The Empath Masquerading as a Stoic

Some folks are so sensitive to strong emotion that they have necessarily developed into highly compartmentalized personalities. They cram their most intense feelings into a mental lockbox until they feel capable of taking them out for examination without melting down in public. They grieve silently, tucked away in private spaces. When their internal dam eventually breaks and they weep uncontrollably, few (if any) others know it even happened. In public, they may seem emotionally detached, and those who do not know them very well indeed might incorrectly believe that they are entirely unaffected.


My point here is that because we are all so very different in our response to traumatic events, nobody has any business whatsoever judging the manner in which another experiences or expresses (or does not publicly express) grief at the loss of another person. We might not understand another’s response and coping mechanisms, but that does not give us leave to be judgmental. How can we possibly tell another what to feel or not feel, simply because they don’t perform on schedule as we might expect them to? 

Are we a mass of trained seals, to weep on cue or keep a stiff upper lip when others feel it’s appropriate, as though we should even care to obtain tacit approval of our perceived public behavior?

Nope. Nothing but Nope. It’s all subjective

I am an empath, an involuntary victim of the tidal wave of ‘“vibes” that flood the atmosphere during Bad Times. It’s a tough row to hoe, because I rarely share my own deepest feelings in public – yet there I am, soaking it all in like a Human Pampers. Oh, sure, I’m known as “a pistol” and “a character,” but … I very, very rarely express what I am truly feeling when I am overwhelmed by strong emotion. I’m one of the ones who doesn’t appear to be feeling anything outwardly because I am so publicly self-contained during the Darkest Hour. I suck at memorial events and funerals, I really do.

I remember when my maternal grandmother died – her illness was horribly fast, and completely unexpected to those of us who were her core family. She was our Matriarch, and we just didn’t think we could lose her so soon. Looking back, we were in collective Dumbass mode, given her age and genetics, despite her near-impeccable lifestyle. Hindsight, amiright? At the time, I was fortunate to work for a lovely lady who offered me my Bereavement Leave in advance of Gogi’s actual passing. I was able to spend a full week with my grandmother before she moved on: talking, laughing, crying, and just sitting quietly while we held hands on the sofa. It’s an irreplaceable time I’ll never, ever forget being gifted with.

I am oversharing here because of the fact that having made the decision to be with Gogi while she was still here on earth, I was unable to attend her funeral. Life is a series of trade-offs if you’re a responsible adult. I know that Mom and Unc had to deal with some socially awkward moments when members of the extended family asked where I was. Well, I was 700 miles away, holding my shit together via a steadily fraying thread during the workday and grieving at night in the privacy of my own home because I’d just lost my Rock. It didn’t matter to me what the extended family thought of me – I’d  had precious time with my grandmother at the end, when she could know how much I valued and loved her. I could have been more considerate of the impact of my personal decisions on others, but I’ve never been known for making the right social decision at the right time. Meh.

Anyhoo. Just because somebody acts a certain way that does not match your own anticipated behavior when dealing with the loss of a loved one, should never invalidate that person’s feelings. You cannot know what those feelings are. We should never, ever judge others, because we cannot see inside their heads and hearts. We cannot know each other’s every thought, and Dear God, how truly horrific it would be if we could. 

Some folks flip their shit in public at the drop of a hat, and expect everybody else to join in like it’s The Wave at a sporting event. Some folks shed a discreet tear, go through the socially acceptable motions, and move on. Some folks are so self-contained that you might wonder if they even realize what happened. We’re all over the place, man.

We are human. We are unique. We all operate differently. 

Be understanding. Be open-minded. Be patient. Be kind. We are those left to carry on. Let’s make the ones who crossed before us proud, shall we?

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