Don’t Be the Grief Police—Please!

The Grief Police is what I call people who feel they can judge other people’s grieving and tell them they are doing it wrong—or sometimes even worse, commend them for doing it well. There’s a faction of the Grief Police specifically dedicated to widows: the Widow Police. Those are the people who feel they can dictate who gets to call themselves a widow, determining that someone who lost their long-term partner but wasn’t married isn’t a “real widow” and the like.

Glennon Doyle’s podcast, We Can Do Hard Things, recently featured a conversation with grief advocate Marisa Renee Lee, author of Grief is Love. The title of the episode, “Why Grief—Like Love—is Forever,” gives the gist of Lee’s philosophy of grief: it doesn’t go away. It may become more familiar, comfortable, and bearable, but it will never go away. But the Grief Police still think they can say when and how grievers should “move on” or “get over” their grief.

Lee’s message that grief is forever resonates with me. I’m now 13 months out from my husband’s death, and most days I do not feel overwhelmed by grief, but I still have the occasional day in which I seem unable to function in any meaningful way beyond napping, moping, and crying. Even days that are not napping-moping-crying days often have a napping-moping-crying component. I still miss my husband terribly every single day.

Lee says “the love that we share with people leaves a permanent mark on our brains,” and people grieving a loss will never “get over it”; rather, they learn to live with the loss.  In my experience, learning to live with the loss happens one day at a time and you’re never done learning. My mother died 40 years ago, and I’m still learning to live with that loss. My husband only died about a year ago, so I have a lot more learning to do there.

Lee emphasizes that grievers need to give themselves permission to “be a mess,” and notes that this is harder to do for some folks than others. I’ve been grateful to be in a relatively supportive work environment for that, but I recently spoke to another widow whose boss told her that after three years, she should be over her husband’s death and not need to take his birthday and death day off from work. Yes, that boss is a member of the Grief Police.

Beyond supportive bosses, there’s an aspect of privilege involved in being able to express your grief at work or in social situations; as Lee says, “Vulnerability requires a sense of safety that is not equally distributed in our society. Some people are too busy, too female, too poor, too Black for vulnerability.” The Grief Police I’ve met are not interested in unpacking issues of privilege or in creating safe spaces for vulnerability.

One of the most heartbreaking Grief Police stories comes from an amazing woman I know whose son died many years ago. Someone told her, “You must never speak his name again.” I like to think we are past that kind of ridiculousness in 2022, but unfortunately, I know we are not. In the widow support groups I belong to, people frequently share stories about being told that they need to stop talking about their spouses who died. The Widow Police tell them that it’s off-putting for potential romantic partners or confusing for children. I think it would be more confusing for a child to see that a flesh and blood human who died is erased from their loved ones’ memories.

Lee points out that one of the best ways to support a friend who is grieving is to let them talk about their dead loved one. I think hearing your dead loved one’s name is magical. Many grief support group meetings begin with each participant introducing them self and saying something about who they are remembering. I love saying, “I’m remembering my husband Tom, who died last year.” Saying his name out loud to people feels concrete. In those moments, he has not evaporated into the ether. He feels present with me. I can never say that sentence without crying, but I’m smiling, too.

I have the same sensation when I go to the bench commemorated to him a few blocks from my house. There’s a small plaque on the bench that reads “Tom DeBlaker, 1960-2021. Audacious life. Indomitable spirit.” Seeing his name on the plaque always makes me smile, and often makes me cry. I often read the plaque out loud when I’m at the bench and sometimes run my fingers over the engraving.

I never tire of hearing his name from other people. His brother texted me last week to say something funny had happened to him that he wished he could share with Tom. Just seeing Tom’s name in the text made me smile—and cry. The smiling and crying seem to coincide regularly.

The Grief Police only notice the crying and deem it awkward, inappropriate, and upsetting to others.  It’s easy enough for me, as a white person with tenure, to dismiss the Grief Police with an eye roll or a curt comment, but folks with less privilege may not have that luxury. It’s up to those of us who do to push back where we can.

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