Stop Stereotyping How We Express Grief And Shaming People For ‘Too Little Or Too Much Grief’!

Losing a loved one is heartbreaking. To be judged by the world for your emotions, or the lack of them, is just cruel.

Trigger Warning: This deals with death, loss, and grief, and may be triggering to survivors.

Recently, I heard the sad news that the husband of an acquaintance passed away. It was sudden and unexpected. He died in his sleep due to a heart attack. He had no known heart conditions, and his demise came as a shock to everyone. I wondered what the poor wife must be going through. She and her husband were the ideal couple, always supportive of each other.

I wasn’t sure how to express my condolences. That is when a colleague informed me that she had beaten me to it, and had already spoken to the bereaved woman.

“She sounded very normal. How can she be so calm? Her husband just died a week ago!”

This statement hit me hard. Losing a loved one is heartbreaking. To be judged by the world for your emotions, or the lack of them, is just cruel.

Why are there these stereotypes attached to grief?

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard something like this. I was thirteen when I lost my father. We were staying in my grandparents’ home, and the place was swarming with relatives (some of whom I’d never seen before). They had come to offer their condolences. The house was double-storeyed. My mother sat upstairs in her room, grieving. She was summoned on and off downstairs, so that an elderly relative who couldn’t climb the stairs could express their sorrow.

Amma needed space and time to digest what happened, yet she was forced to accept regret from unknown ‘well-wishers’ in the name of ‘social obligation’. A teenage me could only watch in frustration. Additionally, Amma had barely eaten. I was worried for her. I had lost one parent and was clinging to my only living parent. I went to the kitchen and found Idlis, and hurriedly heaped them onto a plate.

An old woman stopped me and asked, “Is that for your mother? Will she be able to eat? She just lost her husband!”

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I felt numb. My biggest worry was that someone would snatch the plate away.

Should living beings stop living to honour the dead? My father wouldn’t have tolerated this if he had been around. But he wasn’t.

They say life teaches you many lessons. That day, I learnt that even death has lessons to impart.

Gender specific expectations about how we express grief can even become dangerous

The expectations attached to grief are what make it so much harder, especially those that are gender-specific.

The film Pagglait starring Sanya Malhotra portrays this point well. The societal pressures associated with a funeral and mourning are depicted in their full, mad glory. A free-spirited girl loses her husband five months into their marriage. She is given instructions on how to behave, and told to present the image of an ideal grieving widow at the funeral. Ironically, she didn’t have enough time with her husband to know him well enough to grieve for him.

Such stereotypes around grief are deep-rooted in society. In 2008, a 14-year-old was murdered and her parents were tried by the courts of law. The main evidence against the mother was that she did not cry or show any grief. Shockingly, the absence of emotion became a critical point in a legal proceeding. This is why it is dangerous to support such stereotypes.

The differences are stark

Women are supposed to be more demonstrative of emotion, and any deviation is only an outlier, not the norm. Here are some examples:

The ability to emote

He is calm and collected. He lost his loved one. He is so strong!

She just lost her spouse. Why isn’t she crying? Didn’t she love him at all?

The appropriate period to ‘move on’

He remarried within a year. Good! No point in thinking about the past.

She remarried within a year! That was quick.

Why is she all dressed up and going out? It’s barely six months!

The distinction between boys and girls

Boys don’t cry. Be a man. Don’t be weak.

Not a teardrop shed! How is she a woman? A wife? A mother?

We grieve in different ways; the only commonality being the sense of loss and yearning for those who can never return. Is it necessary to put on a display of loud emotions to demonstrate that you loved someone? What if we didn’t want to wear our emotions on our sleeves? Would it make us any less of a human?

It takes an enormous amount of courage to maintain an outwardly calm appearance when there is turbulence within.

Loss is a personal emotion. How can we assign expectations and stereotypes to it? Grief doesn’t follow any rules. The focus must be on healing and shutting out all the external noise.

“Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.” Vicki Harrison

Image source: a still from the film Pagglait

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About the Author

Lalitha Ramanathan

Lalitha is a blogger and a dreamer. Her career is in finance, but writing is her way to unwind! Her little one is the center of her Universe. read more...

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