How do you explain grief to someone who hasn’t experienced significant grief and loss? This is probably one of the most difficult and frustrating aspects of life after loss for grieving people.
No one seems to really understand them. So the result is usually anger, frustration, pulling away or self-isolation, or just shutting it down and “keeping calm and carrying on.”
As David Kessler says “grief needs to be witnessed.” If someone doesn’t “get it,” perhaps they haven’t experienced significant loss personally—lucky for them! Or perhaps they did, but believe that grief should be suppressed, and you should “go about your business” and are now imposing that expectation onto you.
If it’s that they’ve not experienced big loss—a death of someone close to them—ask them what’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to them in their life so far. Then ask, “imagine if you had to relive that worst thing every day for the foreseeable future, multiplied x100 or more, Groundhog’s Day movie-style, with no end in sight.” How would they feel and react? Now, ask them to imagine that everything in their life has shifted. A key person, their most beloved and important person, was no longer there, meaning everything that happened because of that person also ceased to happen. The routines, the conversations, the physical presence, their voice, perhaps the income, household chores or management, and everything that person did—now is gone.
Are they getting the idea? Maybe, if they’re still talking to you at this point. It’s similar to explaining what suicidal depression looks and feels like to someone who has never experienced depression at that level before. Or perhaps drug addiction, or parenthood.
Honestly, if someone figures it out, please let me know! People don’t understand because they can’t, at least not fully, but also because there’s a real incentive NOT to in Western culture. We sanitize death and dying by outsourcing it to hospitals and funeral homes to handle. We give a few days or maybe a week of bereavement leave at workplaces—if at all. It’s an inconvenience at best for employers with its messy tendency to interrupt efficiency, productivity and workflow. People will try to talk you out of your grief.
Writers, poets, philosophers, musicians, artists and everyday people have attempted to express grief and loss throughout human history. It’s a highly individual experience, and a creative one too.
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