A few years ago, I met a man who was grieving in public. His sobs tore through the night air, over and over again. It felt as though the earth might split open from the sheer force of his pain. My friend and I moved to sit next to him to listen. He had been coming to the same spot to cry about his partner every day for three days, but no one had tried to reach out to him before. After hearing his story, strangers around us began to give him nuggets of advice: ‘Your partner wouldn’t want you to be sad.’ ‘Focus on the positive, she’s in a better place now.’ ‘I am suffering so much, too.’ ‘There will be someone else.’
Our discomfort with pain that was so deep and raw was apparent. It seems that we don’t really know how to hold space for grief or let it be; we seem to have have decided that negative emotions are uncomfortable and unworthy of our attention, so they need to be rapidly processed and then pushed out of our psyche.
But is this strategy actually beneficial for the person in pain? Encouragement to forget their loss and focus on the present can sometimes serve to create guilt and worry that the person is somehow failing at grieving. And if grieving family members or a partner have it hard enough; what happens when you lose a relationship that isn’t considered socially significant?
Some relationships are accorded more significance, leading to some losses receiving more recognition and support than others. These include when people have a miscarriage or lose our pets, close friends, or any other relationship that is deemed ‘less significant’ within our culture. It is also often experienced by people in LGBT+ relationships where the relationship itself may have been a secret, or may not receive recognition by people.
Loss can look even more painful and complex when society doesn’t even recognize that there has been one.
Psychologists call this ‘disenfranchised grief’ and many of us may have experienced this as an endless yearning for normalcy during the pandemic. Even people who are relatively privileged have had to give up things - from celebrating significant milestones as a community, to smaller joys like meeting up with friends routinely, or spending time outside. These are experiences that have barely been acknowledged or spoken about, while there’s been an unspoken expectation for us to continue on with our schooling, work and lives. The lack of conversations about this can create a sense of confusion, guilt, and isolation for people who may think it is only them experiencing distress, when currently these feelings are quite universal.
I write about this now because as the pandemic surges yet again, there’s likely to be more collective uncertainty and anxiety. Grief is experienced not only by people who have lost loved ones to COVID, but also collectively there is a sense of loss many of us are feeling for what normal used to look like. Communities who are marginalised may have experienced losses that can’t be contained by the word ‘grief’: their livelihoods, or access to education when schools and colleges shifted to online learning.
A fair number of conventional psychological theories about grief consider ‘letting go’ to be a goal in such situations of loss and grieving. While psychologists may create space for feeling pain and loss, there’s an assumption that there will be movement; that the final stage of grief will be acceptance and a kind of letting go.
However, some mental health professionals now recognise that human emotions are far more complicated than a series of chronologically linear stages or steps we have to go through in order to heal. Instead of ‘letting go’ or ‘acceptance’ some mental health professionals advocate for allowing grieving people to benefit from rituals and conversations that allow them to hold onto memories of their loved ones. The acknowledgement that people can significantly influence our lives even when they are not physically present in them has been seen to be empowering for people who are grieving.
In her stunning exploration of grief and our collective response to it, culture critic Maria Popova states, “It seems counter intuitive, but the way to help someone feel better is to let them be in pain. This is true of the giant losses. And of the ordinary every day ones... It’s actually a radical act, to let things hurt.”
What would conversations look like, if we were to really listen to people and simply grant them permission to feel?
Farah Maneckshaw is a practicing psychotherapist based in Mumbai