Our cultural narrative about grief is that it is something best left unmentioned. However, grief actually has quite a few positive results including helping us manage our world better.
I admit it: I’m a sap. Just this morning, I teared up while watching the Glee kids sing the Do They Know It’s Christmas song. There’s just something about how the song mixes the overtones of grief with the joys of the season that spoke to me. Of course, as a counseling psychologist, I spend a lot of my professional life on the edge of grief, so perhaps that leaves me more emotional than most. My job provides me with a good helping of grief on a daily basis. The nature of my vocation puts me on the front lines of pain as I help my patients deal with miscarriage, job loss, addiction, the deterioration of their body and/or health, divorce, death, the loss of their youth, abortion, the loss of safety, infertility, violence, loss of control and, all too often, the grief that accompanies the awful knowledge that someone they love — their parents, romantic partner, friend or child — doesn’t love them in the way they need them to.
It’s a lot to handle and sometimes it gets to be too much. What am I supposed to do (other than become tearful during purposefully sentimental Christmas episodes) with this grief? How do we expect people in general to behave when grief overwhelms them? Yes, there are groups like divorce recovery, the 12 step programs for addiction, and various groups for other kinds of support. These are great resources but the big problem with them (other than they may be hard to find) is that they are only for a specific time. In other words, your grief has to be compartmentalized and brought out only during groups whose meetings may be as infrequent as once a month. The rest of the time you’re expected to “buck up” and get on with things as grief is something we rarely mention.
Really stop and think about this for a moment. When you are grieving, what kind of responses do you get? If you’re lucky and have at least one good friend who is comfortable with emotion, you may be encouraged to talk about your grief. However, the more likely response is a quick “I’m sorry to hear that” or “That’s tough” and then a change in subject. That’s from people who know you. When you venture into the larger world, the response gets even worse.
Physicians and hospitals are notorious for treating your physical complaints then shoving you out the door. The human element, the acknowledgement that you may be emotionally hurting, is not frequently honored. So, for example, women who suffer miscarriages are quickly sent home, people are given bad news about their health and just sent on their way, and addiction programs focus mostly on sobriety and information rather than on what caused the addiction to begin with. I think the absolute worst example I have of medical indifference happened to my great-aunt. Her husband was in recovery following a surgical procedure. Everyone thought he was fine and my great-aunt was at her home resting when she received a call from the hospital telling her to come get my great-uncle’s things because he had died. That’s pretty cold.
The medical community is not alone in their apathy toward grief though. In the business world, a death in the family earns you a couple of days off if you’re lucky and then it’s supposed to be business as usual. Employees are expected to leave their emotional baggage at home (yeah right, like anyone can do that) and those who cannot may find themselves in trouble. The judicial system can be even more detached. Legal proceedings often dredge up incredibly painful memories but participants often find themselves without emotional support as lawyers simply adjudicate only the facts of their lives.
I can hear the protests now that emotions in general and grief in particular don’t belong in business and legal settings. They are places where logic and objectivity are supposed to prevail. Lawyers especially are required to represent their clients “without passion or prejudice.”
That’s all good in theory but the best lawyers are the ones with passion and if you think that prejudice is not present in our courtrooms, then I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. Therefore, the big question I have for people who want emotions nowhere near a boardroom or a courtroom is: why not? Just like prayer in schools, emotions are already present. There’s no getting away from them yet we pretend that we can and, what’s more, that we should. And maybe that’s the problem. Maybe the avoidance of emotion is at the heart (heh) of the problems we’re having with our business and legal systems. I don’t know about you but I’d sure feel better if I knew that the people in charge of dispensing justice and making economic decisions that affect millions involved their heart and not just their head.
It’s not like emotion and logic are mutually exclusive. In fact, combining the two may be the way to go. Dr. Marsha Linehan sure thinks it is. In her pioneering work with people suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder, she conceptualized good decision-making skills as those that are made from what she calls the Wise Mind. Being a diehard Star Trek fan, I understand it this way. Mr. Spock frequently made his decisions exclusively from reason (Reasonable Mind) while Captain Kirk often made his decisions solely from emotion (Emotional Mind). However, the best decisions came when the two merged their perspectives so that logic was tempered with compassion (the Wise Mind). We could certainly use more of that.
Emotions can help us make better decisions but that’s not all they can do. Feelings, especially grief, can make us into better people. Whenever I talk about grief in a positive way, people are surprised. We as a culture are so used to avoiding strong emotion that most people don’t know what to do with it when it hits them. The cultural narrative surrounding grief is that it makes us weak and unable to function. Certainly this is true during the initial storm of grief but after that passes, it can actually transform us, make us stronger. Transformative grief gives people who deal positively with their grief the ability to handle things that others cannot. People who experience this report a deepening of social relationships, including a heightened sense of compassion, a willingness to take on new roles, existential growth, and a changed sense of self. That sounds pretty good.
So, given that grieving can be a powerful process and one that can enhance the way we interact with the world, it seems like we should find ways to accept it. Instead of shutting down people who are grieving, we should find ways to encourage them to talk. I’m not suggesting that we open up grieving centers or make places of business set aside grieving cubicles, but perhaps we should utilize grief counselors a bit more (hospitals, I’m looking at you!). At the very least, I think that we need to acknowledge that, left to their own devices, Mr. Spock was unpopular and Captain Kirk always got into trouble. It was only when they were working in tandem that the crew of the Enterprise was safe, happy and efficient. So, the next time I break into tears during an obviously sentimental moment, I guess I shouldn’t be embarrassed; I should instead be proud of my personal growth.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by