A Nation Cannot Mourn

BY Jeffrey Nord, MFT

 

“The nation mourns today after the events of ….”.

Too often we have read these headlines after a tragic day.  We heard it after the events of 9/11, after Pearl Harbor, after Sandy Hook, and to some degree after each of the recent acts of terrorism. I believe that this journalistic shorthand for summarizing a widespread emotional process is inaccurate and inadvertently destructive.  Misery might like company but certainly not that much.

 

THREE POINTS ABOUT A NATION IN MOURNING

  1. The concept of Group Mourning insinuates a homogeneity to the deeply personal and unique experience of individual grief.  

  2. The idea of a Nation in Mourning pressures individuals to feel the same thing at the same time.

  3. These expectations can trigger shame and confusion about grief feelings thus fracturing the very supportive relationships that are needed at times of grief.

  

EACH GRIEF PROCESS IS UNIQUE

Grief is a particularly individualized process. I often say that a person's grief is as unique as their fingerprint. (Did you know that even identical twins do not have the same fingerprints?) Famously, Kubler-Ross laid out the "Stages of grief" to help counselors and those grieving to put a framework to this complex and intense process.  

The key mistake that people make when learning about Kubler-Ross’s work is to understand it as a linear process like aging.  Unlike aging, grief moves forward through the stages but also backward and in circles.  So while aging follows a predictable irreversible pace (barring regressions such as sports cars, and Botox), grief behaves more like an unpredictable current current within a mostly predictable tide.  Grief also moves in and out of conscious awareness punctuated by periodic rogue waves and even massive tidal waves of feelings.

One of the big problems with collective grief as opposed to collective aging is that it can’t be choreographed.  It’s like telling all the water molecules to line up and stop making waves or foam.  America tends to want a process to be predictable and linear like aging.  The statement, A Nation Mourns, supports that mistake by lining up millions of people onto a pre-set path of predictable mourning when each individual is actually a swirling water molecule pushed by somewhat predictable tides and unpredictable currents.

 

NORMAL GRIEF

After the newspaper headline lines us all up and sends us on this predetermined grief path, a new dimension of damage is introduced.  As we well know, once America stakes a flag in what is normal, it immediately labels something different as “not normal” and consequently “bad”. America pathologizes the opposite of predictable progressive grief and begins to judge and criticize complex grief.  

I hypothesize that the Americanizing of grief can even infuse a competition toward winning or progressing faster through grief to the ultimate “goal” of “Acceptance”.  The social climate within the group can develop an almost capitalistic grief where the market forces of the collective grief push the individual to “grieve faster and better”.  The truth is that all grief, predictable or complex, eventually comes to an end.  Be it 2 weeks, 2 months, or two years, it will abate.

This rushing of an eventuality reminds me of parents preening as their child learns to stack block, or potty train, or sleep through the night.  All able bodied children eventually learn these skills and there is really no evidence that hitting these milestones early has any meaning.  In fact, some of the most successful people in the world struggle with basic childhood and adolescent life skills.

In summary, rushed grief or judged grief, just adds another layer of work to the bereaved.  It creates the dreaded feelings about feelings.  It is hard enough to be a being with feelings, why add a second layer of feelings about your feelings.  So, please, don’t add shame on top of your grief or defensiveness in front of your grief.

 

GRIEF STAGES RE-FRAMED

I see the stages or phases of grief as more like “attitudes” or “moods” of grief.  I mean that attitudes or moods can change as well as persist, often resetting with a good night's sleep or forgotten when a dominant stimuli is present such as sex, work, or exercise.  

The moods of grief meander and ebb and flow throughout a process that can unapologetically overtake an otherwise healthy individual from anywhere between 3 weeks to 3 years.  Yes, normal and healthy grief can and does last for two years. It moves from daily grief to weekly grief to monthly grief but it can stay present depending on the depth of the loss for a significant period of time.

Although the moods of grief  (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance) are mostly accurate and identifiable, the way each grieving individual behaves while "within" the mood is what varies so widely.  The variety of coping mechanisms and avenues of expression are staggering and that does even include the ways that the unconscious can creatively restrict access to one of the moods of grief.  

It is a puzzle at times to locate what stage a client is in from day to day and hour to hour.  I have watched a person enter my office in denial, move back and forth through anger, depression, and bargaining, and in the matter of a single session leave still in denial.  In short, they might spend some time in each mood, releasing that mood’s energy but leave without having made “progress”.  This concept of progress is damaging because it can uncover feelings of shame at being “bad” at grief or highlight the never-ending feeling of deep grief.  Type A personalities are often harmed by the challenge of moving through the stages quickly and efficiently when the goal of grief is not to get it over with but to“molt” through the loss of a deeply held other. We shed who we previously were with that person in our lives into a person that only holds the person’s memory inside of us.

 

GRIEVING GROUPS ARE FRACTURED

Groups of people cannot grieve.  Nations cannot grieve. Political parties cannot grieve.  This very concept is inherently fracturing and damaging to a group. When parents lose a child, the shockingly diverse expressions of their grief, the unique fingerprints of their grief, often lead to the dissolution of the marriage.  The expectation of "coordinated" or even compatible grief between two intimate people let alone a heterogeneous group like a nation is unfair and destructive.  

Expectations are an important component to our emotional world.  Most people are familiar with the feelings of shame or embarrassment that surface when an expectation is not met.  So if anybody is "expecting" you to grieve your loss during this Inauguration in a certain way or WITH certain people, forward them this blog post.  Grieve like nobody is watching.  Grieve like you are doing it right.

 

SAY IT ALL AGAIN

People cannot truly grieve in groups.  At best, people can grieve in physical proximity to each other or at the same proximal time as each other but in my mind we truly grieve alone.  In fact, some people's grief fingerprint requires solitude and isolation thus preventing any type of group grief altogether.  The Inauguration or a National Funeral or even an individual funeral can create the very damage that this article is trying to illuminate.

If this article makes sense to you then you can tell your fellow democrats:

"Democrats are all grieving in their own ways at the same time in history."

A sort of coordinated cacophonous grief, as if a symphony of grief were playing with each instrument playing different chords at different time signatures with different beats.  All of the possible different booms and peeps and pauses of the different instruments all played to their own rhythm.  If you like the sound of that discord then I guess you can "grieve as a nation".