Apples And Oranges: How No Two People Grieve The Same Way


grieveIn a culture that thrives on diagnosing, categorizing, and compartmentalizing, we are very good at putting people, groups, or ideas into ‘boxes’. Starting in early childhood development, where children are taught to separate the red block from the green blocks, we learned the art of sorting. We learned to segment our studies in school, spending an hour in math class working on equations, then closing our algebra book, walking to the science lab, opening our biology book, and studying something else.

When we adults go to work, we enter ‘the zone’, where our entire focus goes to the job. Once five o’clock hits, we go home and spend time with our kids. When our kids are sufficiently filled/taken care of, we put them to bed, and transition to ‘our time’. Although there is of course nothing wrong with these patterns, it cannot be denied that we are proficient categorizers.

Unfortunately, as this branches out of our physical, logistical, day-to-day world, and into the realms of the mind and emotions, we like to categorize those phenomena as well. Rather than identifying everyone we meet as truly individual and one-of-a-kind, we sort them into categories or groups, perhaps simply as an result of the sheer quantity of people we encounter. Even though this approach is certainly efficient, we sometimes devalue ourselves or others by stripping individuality and uniqueness.

The need to be more individualized and one-on-one is pervasive; such a paradigm shift could be beneficial in just about any setting or area of life, but grief is one in particular where a certain lack of individualization exists. Perhaps because the grieving process after death or loss is typically uncomfortable as it is, we generalize more than usual because we’re often uneasy or hesitant about truly being with someone while they struggle so mightily.

Regarding death, episodes of sadness and crying, or feeling the need or urge to ‘talk it out’ with others are often considered standard modes of grieving in our culture. Although certainly helpful to some, other may take a more solitary approach, needing to greatly process their emotions on their own before disclosing them to others. Men may be categorized as more cerebral than their female counterparts, yet a man you know may rely heavily on his emotions to process grief.

As it applies to other modes of loss, many of us have had friend or family member that has been adversely affected by a separation or break-up with a romantic partner. In a situation where someone has expressed sadness, frustration, heartache, or even remorse regarding the separation, one of the apparently standard things to say is: “Don’t worry, there are other fish in the sea.” Such a statement may perhaps be helpful to some, but giving such a piece of advice assumes that the person is feeling some sense of hopelessness or doubt about filling the romantic void. In reality, that may not be their concern at all, and may perhaps be disrespectful or indifferent as to what they are actually feeling.

If there is something to be taken away from this discussion, it is that assuming that a certain person will react to the death of a loved one, or some other kind of loss, in a particular way just because of circumstances, gender, age, etc. is not the best way to support them. Recognize that, if you were in that situation, you’d would need those around you to understand what makes you and what you’re going through unique, and would not want to receive categorized, impersonal words. Be present, real, and one-on-one with those who struggle, even if they appear to fall into a category or type.

    • Stephanie, The Recipe Renovator
    • July 31, 2013

    Thank you for this. As I have just finished a pet loss memoir, I found this very helpful. It’s so true that we don’t deal with grief well at all in American culture.

    • Nova Coffron
    • July 29, 2013

    This is a well developed article. In my line of work we are always dealing with grief in some form or another as we lose our elderly clients. Understanding that everyone is different in their responses really helps each of us to know that there is no perfect thing to say. Just be there for them when they are ready to tell you what they need.

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