The Performance of Grief: What people expect from you and what you expect from people in return.
Ok, we’ve discussed Guilt, we’ve discussed Emptiness, now for the the final subject I think many people might be uncomfortable talking about or admitting to: the performance aspect of grieving. Yes, of course, whatever feelings you’re experiencing are real, but often the way we express these emotions, the way we act publicly when grieving, is dictated by a set of social norms. This might well be my paranoia speaking, my fear that everyone is judging my words and actions at all times. But even if that is the case, I know I’m not the only one suffering from the delusion. So, let’s talk about it.
When you lose a loved one—anyone you hold dear—you will find yourself suddenly saddled, not only with the heaviness of Grief, but with a weight of voyeuristic expectation.
Eyes turn toward you, condolences are expressed to you, and you are expected to respond in a certain manner.
People bring you food, they call you, they message you, they might even hug you (Pre-2020).
They’ll tell you things they think will help, like:
“Be strong”, “Everything happens for a reason”, “God always has a plan”, “They’re in a better place now”, “They would want you to move on, be happy”.
And of course, the staple, “I’m sorry for your loss”. When people say this one in particular, it actually makes me feel weird…because it’s not me who lost their life, lost everything. So why should any focus be turned to me at all?
I think the focus should be on the person who died.
I can’t explain to you why I feel like I don’t deserve to be included in the sympathy; but, if I were to take a guess, I would say it probably has something to do with Imposter Syndrome.
They say these things because they care about you and your pain, and they don’t know what else to say or do. And that is completely understandable. They might not even reach out to you at all. Human beings have spent millennia trying to figure out the best way to deal with death. We haven’t quite gotten there yet, in fact, I’d wager that we’re actually farther off the mark than we ever have been. If you were to make a graph of society and emotional availability, you’d definitely see a downward trend towards repression.
It’s HARD to fucking handle. No matter how well meaning, every word and action thrown at you is powerless to bring that person you loved back, to lift that oppressive, sinking weight off of your entire being. It is admirable to try, but I think we really need to spend some time learning the languages of grief. Sit with them, surrender to them, stop deeming one more “correct” or more “eloquent” than another.
It feels as if you express Grief in a foreign language.
Some people try to listen; others turn away confused, maybe frightened by what they cannot (or will not?) understand.
Regardless, the end result is that the language isn’t listened to; and that is because it belongs to you and only you.
There are similar languages.
They share the same root.
But each one is intricate and infinitely varied in its design.
Either you scream and you shake, or you hold it in and it festers.
Still, there is this performative element involved.
Your anguish on display in the form of attire, mood, action, creation, responsiveness to those who reach out. The length of time, the emotional intensity, and the energy you expend doing these things.
There are expectations.
The heaviest of all human enterprises.
And you are overwhelmed with anxiety.
What if you over perform, or under sell your grief?
How will you be judged?
How does your Grief compare to others’?
Will others look to you for guidance, and whose will you seek?
And doesn’t the deceased deserve a spectacle?
Or would they rather it stay quiet? Hush. Tranquil.
Who can say?
It is a language without audible sound to those looking in from the outside.
But for those within its vortex, it is Deafening. Persistent. Penetrating.
The expectations surrounding grief place such a burden on those suffering in whatever fucking way they must.
Immediately after Will’s death was confirmed, I became nervous about when I should post something on social media. How should I do it? What if it isn’t a good enough tribute to him? And here’s the thing, of course it isn’t good enough. There is no way you can sum up 15 years of friendship and the loss you feel in a fucking Facebook post. And yet, you feel this obligation to do just that. And it’s absolutely ridiculous that, while dealing with the pain of losing a friend, I was legitimately worried about how others would perceive my loss, how they would judge my reaction to it in the online public sphere that we spend most of our lives immersed in.
After Theo died, every year I would think of some way to honor him on his birthday or on the anniversary of his death. Some action I could perform outside of my own head. I thought of releasing a balloon in his memory or pouring out a drink for him, for instance. But then, I would feel ashamed and embarrassed. I worried that someone would ask me what I was doing, and I would say “grieving”, and they would go “oh that’s weird, that thing you’re doing”. So, I never did any of those things. Even though I wanted to. Simply because I was afraid of how the performance would land, how the audience would judge it.
Even now, as I’m writing about it, I am so concerned about how it will be received. When I post one of these, I wonder how it will come across to others. Will they see it as genuine, will they feel empathetic? Or will they see it as whiny, attention-seeking behavior?
And then, there is what I call “Hashtag Shame”. This is feeling guilty for using hashtags when posting a serious topic. On one hand, it is the best way to connect with other people, with strangers who might understand, to share the topic, to normalize it. But on the other hand, it feels irreverent and disrespectful to use them when discussing such heavy, somber subjects.
I’m still on the fence about it.
I’m mainly trying to say that there is a lot of social pressure surrounding Grief: how long it should last, how heavy it should be, what it should look like, how you should process it, or handle it. Now, whether this pressure is intentional or accidental, implicit or explicit, is up for questioning. Of course, some of this pressure comes from within. Although I still haven’t figured out where the source is. I suppose you could simply boil it all down to the notion that these modes of thinking are just socially ingrained. Absorbed through observation and imprinted on our psyche.
But something needs to change. Maybe we need a new language for grief. Maybe we should start trying to understand as many of the existing languages as possible so that we can communicate more effectively. I don’t know. Maybe you’ll have some answers that I don’t.
At the beginning of this series, I told you these essays would cover four significant losses. But I forgot to mention a 5th.
My cat, Scratch, who died last year.
Why did I forget to mention it? Not because it wasn’t devastating, not because it was “lesser” in comparison, but because society has taught me that this type of death is unimportant, and that I should be embarrassed to be so affected by it. And this time, it’s not just in my head. I recently read an article which examines this dismissal of pet loss and argues that, “grief over the loss of a cherished pet may be as intense and even as lengthy as when a significant person in our life dies” and that this shame (coming both from internal and external sources) further complicates the healing process[i].
I mean, I watched her die. I watched as she was suddenly stricken by a failing liver for which we could find no cause. I watched as she got sicker, turned yellow, became listless. This went on for four months. We tried to do everything we could to save her; but in the end, nothing worked, and I was left to wonder if we had only prolonged her suffering.
And while she was dying, I lost control. I blew through my mother’s three stashes of xanax and attempted to drink away the brutal reality of the situation, the injustice of it. Coincidentally, this became the first time I realized that I do not, in fact, have complete control over myself. Prior to this moment, I had considered self-control to be one of my most formidable and admirable traits—a talent even. This total lapse in impulse control shook me. I genuinely scared myself. However, looking back over my choices in life, what’s really frightening is the fact that it took this long to become even marginally concerned. But, we’ll revisit this later—as it is still quite some time before I actually come to terms with it.
For now, it serves to show that: a.) I have yet to develop healthy coping mechanisms and b.) that this loss took a profound toll on me.
I wasn’t by her side when she did go. I was in Spain on an intensive training course to get certified in teaching English as a second language. My friends and I were working on our final project. We had finished for the night, gotten food delivered, and were settled in to chill and drink and watch TV.
My mom called from a vet’s office—visibly distressed but suppressing it. She handed the phone to the doctor who told me that Scratch had suffered a stroke that morning and they were going to put her down.
This came as a shock. When I last saw her, she seemed to be getting better. I still had hope that she would be fine, that she would go back to being my favorite cat who I now only saw twice a year but loved with all my heart. A cat who had inspired this thought on more than one occasion: “If I had a child, I don’t think I could love it more than you, Scratch”. Yeah. That cat.
I immediately broke down and began sobbing right there on the couch with my friends. I was utterly heartbroken, and yet, the most pressing thoughts running through my mind were “Omg I’m ruining our whole night; This is ridiculous; I can’t believe I’m putting them through this, that they’re seeing this; It’s just a cat”. But she wasn’t just a cat. She was one of my best friends.
Fortunately, they understood that.
A lot of people don’t, though.
Over the following nights, I would cry alone in my room; stifling it because I lived with a family. The grandmother once asked me if I had been crying. I said no and tried to laugh it off…No, of course not! I don’t know what you were hearing, but I’m totally fine. Estoy totalmente bien.
But I felt compelled to pretend that I was.
What is that?? Seriously? Is it a fear of disturbing the social order, the “norm”? The dread of bothering other people? Embarrassment over feeling? What?
I think if it had been a person and not my cat, I might have told her the truth. But I don’t know.
I do know that it didn’t fucking matter that it wasn’t a person. I know that it hurt, a lot. No one can tell me it didn’t, no matter how dismissive they might be. It doesn’t change my experience.
And it doesn’t make you weak. To care that much about anything only shows the depth of your capacity for empathy. That is strength. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Strange how different losses demand different performances.
I said before that Death changes you irrevocably: The Grief that follows—how you receive it and react to it, as well as how others around you receive it and react to it—has lasting emotional, social, and psychological repercussions.
It changes your psychology, your coping mechanisms. I honestly have been incapable of loving anyone since Theo died. Every subsequent relationship has been toxic and self-destructive because I never processed the Loss in a healthy way. I never dealt with the psychological ramifications of it. And only now, 5 years later, am I really looking at it, looking at how it shaped me, and hoping it’s not too late to heal.
I don’t think it is. I don’t think it ever is. As long as you recognize the need and realize it’s time to start doing something differently—to face the fear and the darkness that you’ve let build up over time. It’s not your fault, it’s OK. No one knows how to handle death when it happens. Everyone deals with grief in their own way, in their own time. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, there is no shame in taking it slowly. However, it is essential that you search for any method that works for you and use it.
Allow yourself to heal.
Because it is a disservice to that person you love to stay broken.
I feel as if I’ve just woken up to realize that I have been sleepwalking for most of the journey. But I am moving forward, eyes open, mind open, heart open. I hope you are finding the strength to move forward, too.