One of the most common questions grief expert David Kessler gets in his online grief group is, “How do I handle my friend or family member who thinks I’m doing grief wrong?”
How a person responds boils down to style, he says. If someone says something judgmental or unwelcome about another person’s grief, the griever can simply say, “that’s not helpful” or perhaps offer a gentle “ouch.” In certain situations, Kessler has even encouraged the unmediated, “who made you the grief police?”
Grief policing stems from a belief that there is a right way to behave after loss. That belief can vary among individuals and communities. Well-meaning people who try to control another person’s grief may misunderstand that grief is a singular experience, or may be unwittingly trying to assuage their own discomfort.
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Grief policing includes judging someone’s grieving behavior as well as judging the precipitating event. While grief is significantly associated with the loss of a loved one, it can show up in our lives in less expected ways – when we witness the nation’s trajectory, when we mourn for a younger version of ourselves, when we ache for the “before” pandemic times.
“Grief policing is judging the appropriateness of other people’s grieving because it doesn’t hold to your own norms or to your own expectations,” said Dr. Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist and president of Barnard College at Columbia University.
The grief police are everywhere, but are especially visible on social media. A 2017 study from researchers at CU Boulder performed an analysis of public Facebook comments in response to the deaths of Alan Rickman, David Bowie and Prince and found “prominent grief policing practices,” concluding that “grief policing is a result of conflicting norms in a transient online space.”
were expecting their fourth child) lost their third baby, Jack, in 2020, social media users criticized her for sharing pictures from the hospital documenting the rawest moments of their loss. Some parents said they had lost babies themselves, and never would have posted publicly about the experience.
When actress and activist Ashley Judd’s mother country music star Naomi Judd died in April, social media users criticized Ashley for not immediately sharing that her mother died by suicide. When she eventually did disclose, Judd told “Good Morning America” that “We’re aware that although grieving the loss of a wife and a mother, we are, in an uncanny way, a public family. So that’s really the impetus for this timing. Otherwise, it’s obviously way too soon.”
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Scroll through any online COVID loss support group and you’ll find the grieved not only mourning their loved ones, but also the commentary from people who suggest they aren’t healing fast enough. Since the pandemic began, more than one million people have died from COVID-19. More than 12,500 Americans died in July alone.
“The grief police is in force because our grief makes them uncomfortable,” Kessler says. “The grief police feel like we are grieving too long, we’re not grieving enough, we’re crying too much, we’re crying too little. We’re too angry or not angry enough.”
Grief is omnipresent but Kessler says it is not a universal experience.
“Our grief is as unique as our fingerprint,” he says. “No two griefs are alike.”
In an episode of the “Healing with David Kessler” podcast that aired last week, Ashley Judd said that each of her family members have “really given each other the dignity and the allowance to grieve in our individual and respective ways.”
“We can be at the same supper table and recognize, ‘Oh, this one’s in anger, this one’s in denial, this one’s in bargaining, this one’s in acceptance, I’m in shock right now,’ ” Judd said of their different processes. “We don’t try to control or redirect or dictate how the other one should be feeling at any particular moment.”
The five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – are tools to help name what a grieved person may be feeling, though not everyone experiences every stage and there is no set order, according to Kessler.
Behaviors around grief vary among individuals, communities and, as with Judd’s example, within family units.
“How people grieve is influenced by the relationship they had with the person they lost, also what our religion taught us, what our culture taught us, and what our family taught us,” Kessler says.
Experts say people tend to police others’ grief in response to their own discomfort around death and loss.
“From my research on anxiety, we don’t like to be in situations where we feel uncomfortable. You may be uncomfortable because you see your family member being uncomfortable, or you’re uncomfortable because you would grieve in a different way,” Beilock says. “I tend to think that people are not working with malice, but they’re trying to create a situation that they can make sense of.”
Even when grief policing is not malicious, it can still harm the grieving individual.
“When we are not compassionate with ourselves, when we’re hard on ourselves and our own feelings, that can lead to more distress, so you can imagine that if other people are being harsh on us, that could lead us to even criticize ourselves for how we’re grieving,” Beilock says.
Kessler says grief policing complicates grief because when we experience another person’s judgment we don’t feel safe.
“If my best friend judges my grief, that’s one less person I have to talk to,” he says.
Experts say concerned loved ones ought to remember that a person who has experienced profound loss may never completely look like themselves again. Unless grief is severely impacting someone’s life – not being able to keep their job, for example, or their home, or experiencing prolonged clinical depression – grieving people need space to process their loss.
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“One of the things I find is that people will tell me about how they want the old person back. And I try to remind the family member that she would like to have the old her back too,” Kessler says. “But that would mean us getting her dead husband back. And I don’t know how to do that. Do you?”
Experts say there is no quick fix for grief. It would be helpful for people to remember that grief itself is not a problem. It’s an experience.
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Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.