Bending the grieving rules

words: Dr Bill Webster

When Eleanor Roosevelt died in 1962, Adlai Stevenson said: “I have lost more than a friend. She would rather light candles than curse the darkness and her glow has warmed the world.”

But what is a friend? Traditionally, the underlying assumption is that closeness exists primarily in kin-based relationships between spouses, then parents and children, then among immediate kin. We even use the phrase “just a friend”, suggesting the relationship is somehow less significant than those involving family ties. The problem is, these definitions may not correspond to the nature of attachments today.

This was forcefully brought home to me at the funeral of my 98-year-old friend, Robyn. She lived in the same nursing home as another friend of mine, and I would always stop by and say hello. Over the years I discovered that she had lived a great life. She, like many women, had played a significant yet unrecognised role in the war effort, and afterwards pursued a successful career as a journalist and reporter.

As a professional career woman, Robyn and her husband chose not to have children, and after he died, unable to care for herself, she had become a resident first in a seniors’ home and then, in her later years, the adjoining care facility.

Eight people attended the funeral. Her niece, myself and my friend, and five of the personal support workers who had helped care for Robyn over the years. These staff were surprisingly distressed. “She was like my mother,” one said. Others spoke of her unfailing interest in them.

Wait a minute! Caregivers grieving the loss of a patient? Very unprofessional, don’t you think? Think again. These people, although offering her a service, had been her family, and treated her as such. Of course they are going to grieve.

Our culture has established grieving rules: norms to specify who, when, where, how, and for whom people should grieve. Most often those correspond to family relationships. Today, however, there are many non-traditional roles that may be long-lasting and intensely interactive. The person losing that relationship grieves it.

The danger is traditional norms may not fully validate modern attachments, or the loss and specific feeling of the griever.

Three scenarios can occur:

1. The relationship is not recognised

2. The loss is not recognised

3. The griever is not recognised

I am convinced that to understand any grief process, we must fully comprehend the lost relationship and its unique significance. Even those who have lost a familial relationship do not grieve in the same way. Each relationship was different; what is lost is unique, so every grief process will be dissimilar. It is never wise to make assumptions, for the reality may differ from what seems obvious. The dynamics of each relationship will affect the grief response.

It is time to acknowledge that there are many close and intense relationships that may be overlooked. Some have long and meaningful relationships, sometimes much closer than family. Yet when death comes, that relationship is seen as ‘low level’ grief. Such people are often expected to support the family, whose loss is regarded as ‘high level’. Reality may be just the reverse.

The result of disenfranchised grief is that the grief of the individual is increased while support is denied, minimised or removed.

People who emotionally may be the chief mourners may even be excluded from funeral proceedings. They are given no time off work, little opportunity to verbalise the loss, and don’t receive appropriate sympathy and support. This intensifies the emotions – guilt, anger, sadness, loneliness – and can complicate the situation.

Those who offer comfort and counsel to those who grieve need to realise that millions of people are involved in loss that is effectively disenfranchised. The number of funerals where ex-spouses, stepchildren, co-habiting or same-gender partners, care-givers or patients are involved is certain to increase. The proportion of disenfranchised grievers in our society is set to explode.

Perhaps some will choose to light candles rather than curse the darkness, and build bridges for those who feel at a distance.

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