Fending off Bereavement Bullies: Beware the All-Knowing Rules Maker Who, in Pat Cliches, Tells Us How We Should Act and Feel, and How Long Our Grief Should Last and What Form It Should Take

Article excerpt

MOST OF US think of grief as a time when others will come to our aid with understanding and compassion. We also so like to think of ourselves as being understanding and compassionate with others in their time of need. The three people in the following anecdotes were not prepared for the response they received to their grief.

* Susan's father had died quite unexpectedly just one year ago and, as she sat at the memorial service, tears fell silently down her face. Remembering the richness of her relationship with her father and how much she missed him, she began to sob in earnest. After the service, an old friend of the family approached. Susan looked up, anticipating a warm hug and consoling words. Instead, she was greeted with a frown. "It's time for you to snap out of it," he instructed her. "Your father would not have wanted you to behave like this. You are making everyone else here uncomfortable!"

* John's wife of 30 years died after battling a long illness. One of his friends came to the house for a visit. "It's been nine months," he scolded. "Don't you think it's time for you to start going out socially again? It's also time to get rid of all of your wife's clothes. It's morbid to keep them this long. Just give them to Goodwill. Other people have things much worse. At least you had a wife for 30 years."

* Maureen was fighting a deep and almost paralyzing grief. Her adult daughter had committed suicide, and the pain of the loss, as well as the manner of death, was devastating. A distant relative called her on the phone to offer condolences. "It could be much worse," she stated. "At least you have other children."

Sound familiar? It is not difficult for any of us to imagine these scenarios. Many of us have been on the receiving end or, unwittingly, have been the well-intentioned perpetrators.

Dealing with death and the grief that survivors experience is extremely difficult. As in many of life's challenging situations, although we often try our best, we still end up putting our foot in our mouths. Enter the bereavement bully, the all-knowing rules maker, that seemingly well-meaning soul who has all the answers, delivered in pat cliches: Life goes on. Time heals all wounds. He was so sick; he's better off now. The bereavement bully tells us how we should act and feel, and how long our grief should last and what form it should take.

Loss never has been an easy subject to discuss. We do have clearly defined rules for what to do and say in the first few days or even months after a loss. There are condolence cards to send, a wake or funeral to attend, casseroles to bring to the home of the bereaved, and many people surrounding the grief-stricken to help share the emotional burden.

After the initial few months, however, when the casseroles no longer are showing up at the back door, it seems we often convince ourselves that it is time for everyone to "get on with life." Are we being compassionate toward the bereaved or is it our own discomfort with the situation that we are attempting to ameliorate?

Since each person's experience with loss is unique, why would we try to mandate rules for dealing with the death of a loved one? Perhaps the answer lies in the very commonality--sooner or later, all of us will feel this pain and be faced with the troubling task of overcoming it. Actually, what we often are experiencing when a friend or neighbor loses someone they love is fear.

We are afraid of uttering the wrong thing and inadvertently causing more pain. We just do not know what to say. We simply are not well prepared for dealing with such extreme feelings. However, since we do want to be helpful, we employ the same strategy that we have learned to use in other difficult situations--push. It is what our teachers model for us in school and our parents do at home. We are pushed, bullied, and "shoulded" through all sorts of tough situations from the time we wake up in the morning until we go to bed at night. …