After her 11-year-old son, Willie, died of typhoid, Mary Todd Lincoln’s “inconsolable” mourning brought on convulsions, her dressmaker and confidante, Elizabeth Keckly, wrote in an 1868 memoir.
As the first lady suffered one of her “paroxysms of grief” after losing the second of her children to illness, Abraham Lincoln reportedly drew her to the window and pointed out a “lunatic asylum,” telling his wife: “Try to control your grief, or it will drive you mad, and we may have to send you there.” Later, after the president was assassinated in his wife’s presence, Keckly described “the wails of a broken heart, the unearthly shrieks, the terrible convulsions, the wild, tempestuous outbursts of grief from the soul.”
The public found much to criticize in the widow’s public expressions of grief for her husband: She was faulted for her demonstrative emotions; for not attending her husband’s funeral and turning away sympathy callers; for choosing to wear only black for the rest of her life, well beyond the ritual widowhood mourning period of two and a half years.
I don’t bring this up to wade into the complex and much-reviewed history of Mrs. Lincoln’s mental and physical health, but to say that grief and mourning have always been influenced by and also judged according to the social and cultural norms of the time and place. The inclusion of “prolonged grief disorder” in the new edition of psychiatry’s compendium, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — which defines “prolonged” as lasting at least a year for adults — has set off another conversation about what is “normal” grief and what is “excessive.”
When should a grieving person be advised to seek psychiatric help or prescribed medication? Should we expect those who are grieving to keep to some timetable for returning to the business of life? How best to alleviate the suffering of those whose lives have been derailed by grief, while acknowledging that losing someone you love might very plausibly derail your life?
This discussion comes, of course, as we live through a time of great — and unequally distributed — grief, amid a pandemic that has killed more than a million Americans and as we contend also with relentless news of war and other horrors, including mass shootings like the one that leaves us grieving together this week for the children and teachers of Uvalde, Texas.
These days, few of us demonstrate our grief outwardly, with formal mourning clothes, death photos or bereavement jewelry incorporating locks of hair. But we will all mourn, and we will all eventually be mourned. Grief is personal, individual, idiosyncratic — but it is also public and universal. And public expression of grief is regulated and guided by every culture, every religion, with its particular rituals and timings.
Peculiarly, human universals seem to call forth judgment as well as fellow feeling; the same irresistible urge that makes pregnancy and parenthood such ready topics of community judgment, in person or online, comes into play in judging the grief of others, whether neighbors, strangers or celebrities. How much people grieve, how they show their grief, even the language of loss and mourning — all are sensitive subjects, areas where you can offend.
Grief can have physical as well as psychological effects, and shaming others for their grief can be corrosive. In an essay lamenting the “grief police,” the cognitive scientist Sian Beilock argues: “We need to give ourselves license to express positive emotions and affirm other aspects of ourselves that we value outside of the tragedy. Doing so means we will feel more in control and cope better down the line.”
Cultures around the world have explicit expectations of what grief should look like, said Dr. Paul Rosenblatt, a professor emeritus of family social science at the University of Minnesota, told me. “If you grieve properly you support the cultural rules regarding grief and affirm everyone else who has grieved properly,” Dr. Rosenblatt, who co-founded the Grief and Families Focus Group of the National Council on Family Relations, wrote in an email.
But people are idiosyncratic, he told me, and grief is diverse from culture to culture, and even within cultures: “We have to be open to people being very different from what we expect in their grieving — but they may hide it if we’re going to be judgey.”
In today’s celebrity-obsessed culture, we watch and assess how the famous grieve. Look at the way, for example, Queen Elizabeth II was criticized when Diana, her former daughter-in-law, died, and Buckingham Palace did not initially issue a statement expressing grief or lower the flag. More recently, the queen’s grief at the loss of her husband was occasion for sympathy, but some commenters looked for a way to place some blame on Meghan Markle.
But even if you aren’t a celebrity, people expect you to get grief “right” and they take it personally when you don’t. When I wrote in these pages about missing my deceased parents and the recurring surprise of realizing over and over that they were gone, I was very sternly dressed down by commenters for referring to my then almost 60-year-old self (I had thought self-deprecatingly) as a very elderly orphan. Readers who had lost their parents in childhood felt that I had callously appropriated the word, and had thereby claimed a level of tragedy and suffering that was not properly mine.
We are also living through a time when certain losses and griefs that frequently used to go unacknowledged are being recognized. Younger people, in particular, are asserting the ways that the loss of friends, exes and relatives outside the nuclear family can cause powerful grief. And in a time of “parasocial” attachment, there has been a lot of discussion about the impact of celebrity deaths on fans.
Some are speaking up about griefs that previously they were expected to endure only in private, such as the grief many feel after a miscarriage. The model and social media influencer Chrissy Teigen wrote movingly about her pregnancy loss in a Medium post, and Ms. Markle shared her experience in a Times essay.
Judging others’ grief is a way we try to protect ourselves from it, explained Dr. Elena Lister, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and co-author of the forthcoming book “Giving Hope: Conversations With Children About Illness, Death, and Loss.” “Grief makes us horribly uncomfortable; to see other people grieving reminds us we are mortal, we could die ourselves or lose people we love,” said Dr. Lister. “We need to distance ourselves, and one of the ways we distance ourselves from pain is by putting it down, judging — ‘you’re grieving too much,’ ‘you’re grieving too little.’ Either way you’re saying, ‘that’s not me.’”
Today, people often look to psychotherapists or books for advice on how to grieve. In the 19th century, when childhood death was much more common, there was a proliferation of “comfort books” for grieving parents and siblings, which sometimes relied heavily on assuring parents that the deceased child was in heaven and had escaped the vicissitudes and temptations of life on earth.
In her 1838 book, “Letters to Mothers,” the Connecticut writer Lydia Sigourney included a chapter on “Loss of Children,”which instructed the grieving mothers: “You will not then, become a prey to despondence, though loneliness broods over your dwelling, when you realize that its once cherished inmates have but gone a little in advance, to those mansions which the Saviour hath prepared for all who love him.”
The idea that beautiful and virtuous children, the angels on earth, were called early up to heaven, was meant to be a salve, of course — and it’s likely that it was for many. But it also placed grieving parents in the unfortunate position of feeling that sorrow — instead of joy at their child’s ascension — made them less than pious. The promise of comfort carried with it a rubric for grief, which, if you couldn’t abide by it, might leave you feeling that you weren’t doing it right.
In the public debate about the D.S.M. diagnosis, we hear from those who are horrified by the implied judgment of people who experience long and debilitating grief, and also from those seeking help because of their long and debilitating grief. Some argue that powerful and lengthy grief is an appropriate and proportional response to tragedy. That is true, and always has been.
Others describe being tortured by grief that does not abate, or by regrets, self-blame and second-guessing to a point where they need something more than sympathy in order to take care of themselves and the people who depend upon them. For them the hope is that the new D.S.M. diagnosis could make help more accessible.
The 18th-century poet Ann Eliza Bleecker described clinging to her own grief, not wishing for comfort. In the early years of the American Revolution, she had to flee her home near Albany with her two young daughters because British troops were approaching. Her baby, Abella, died of dysentery during the journey, and later, Bleecker’s mother and sister died as well. In her poem “Lines Written in the Retreat From Burgoyne,” she described her grief for Abella as a kind of companion:
Bleecker returned to the topic of her daughter’s death again and again as the central tragedy of her life, rejecting the resignation and Christian fortitude that was expected of her, the scholar Allison Giffen writes. Her surviving daughter, Margaretta Faugères, also a writer, commented in an introduction to her mother’s works that being reminded of the circumstances that led to Abella’s death “never failed to awaken all her sorrows; and she being naturally of a pensive turn of mind, too freely indulged them.”
You can hear the echoes across the centuries, the grief that cannot be healed because the departed child cannot be retrieved, the sorrow of the surviving daughter who feels that her mother’s persistent grief overshadowed her own childhood.
I have quoted here a poet whose subject is grief, but for me, when my father died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2001, one of the surprises was that the beautiful words of all the poets and novelists and playwrights didn’t seem particularly relevant. I don’t mean that they didn’t resonate with me; I just mean that the loss still felt unbearably shocking and terrible.
The whole history of humankind, all the other people who had lost their fathers, everything they had written down — none of it had really prepared me for this feeling. “I think we’re all beginners again and again with grieving,” Dr. Rosenblatt told me when I asked him about this.
It shouldn’t need to be said that there is no “right” way to grieve, that it’s a piece of living we each have to explore in a way that reflects the person you are and also the person you’ve lost. I have experienced aspects of grief that I wasn’t sure I could live with forever: intrusive, repetitive sleep-destroying thoughts about what could have been or should have been different, for example. And I was grateful for the possibility of therapy and counseling.
But is there not some way to take some judgment out of the equation, whether we’re judging someone for grieving too much, too little or too long; for using the wrong language; or for daring to suggest that grief can be profound even after what may seem like a lesser bereavement? People who are mourning a pregnancy that ended in a loss do not need to be told that it is harder to lose a 1-year-old; people who are grieving parents whom they loved don’t need to be reproached for causing pain to those who are estranged from their own parents.
There is always a greater grief. You can acknowledge the rich history of human sadness and still mourn your own loss. You can lean on the ones you love, you can turn to poetry, you can seek professional help if you need it. Perhaps there is even some comfort to glean from our tendency to measure and assess the grief of others, to pick apart what a loss is and what it should be. To observe and judge and parse the narratives of others, to mind one another’s business, is a part of being human.
We may each navigate the landscape of grief alone, but we also are all in this together. In the words of Jim Morrison, no one here gets out alive.
Dr. Perri Klass, a professor of journalism and pediatrics at New York University, is the author of the book “The Best Medicine: How Science and Public Health Gave Children a Future,” on how our world has been transformed by the radical decline of infant and child mortality.
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