At a widow and widowers support group that I helped facilitate one of the participants reflected on recent and personal encouners as a widow, and what it was like to experience the pain of other people’s reactions such as avoidance and withdrawal of social contact. Her comments revealed how much misunderstanding there is in our culture about grief and how much bad advice is given to mourners out of ignorance and unrealistic expectations. Reflecting on the many stories I have heard from mourners suffering the dual pain of losing a loved one and being the focus of other people’s well-meaning, but misguided, attention, I have put together a short list of “mourners’ rights” that grief entitles them to:
- The right to call for a “time out” whenever you need to step back from interaction with others, to rest, sleep, or vent to a trusted friend or family member in order to grieve.
- The right to tell your truth. If someone asks how you are feeling, you have permission to tell them how you really feel, not just what they expect to hear. Included is the right to smile and say “I am fine” when telling them the truth just isn’t worth it – some people will never fully understand what you are going through so you can choose not to bother.
- The right to have “down days” when you cannot get out of bed, much less fix a meal, take a bath, or walk the dog. Mourning takes energy and you need time in order to heal a broken heart. You are not an “odd ball” or a bad person if you have days when you just want to stay in bed wearing your pajamas and retreating from the world.
- The right to change your mind and reverse a direction or a decision. Grief is unpredictable and your plans to go somewhere or do something may look different to you when the actual day arrives. It is perfectly okay to change your mind and you don’t need to apologize or justify it to anyone.
- The right to start new traditions when the old ones are too painful because they remind you of your former life. New traditions may be more enjoyable and bring new meaning to life; old traditions can be packed away like a favorite memory to be treasured and, perhaps one day, to be restored.
- The right to leave your loved one’s clothes in the closet for as long as you like; there’s no rule that says you have to pack them up to give to charity within the first few weeks or months following your loss. Let them stay there – I know many widows, for ex, that find having their husband’s clothing to smell occasionally and to look at each day is comforting. Eventually you will feel ready to clean the closet out and donate the clothing – but don’t let someone “guilt” you into doing it before then.
- You have the right to laugh at a funny joke or an amusing movie scene, and to laugh hard, loudly and with abandon – there is no rule that says your sense of humor has to be put away until a “respectable” time has passed or that laughing shows disrespect for your loss, or a lack of dignity. It’s impossible to grieve 24 hours a day, and laughing is as good for the soul as crying – it’s all part of healing. Humor gives perspective on loss, as well, and reminds us that life is meant to be enjoyed.
People mourn at their own individual pace; each person’s grief is as unique as their fingerprints. I remember a psychiatrist I once worked with who used to give his patients a prescription for a “tincture of time” to remind them that healing cannot be hurried. We would all do well to remember that simple, but profound, truth when we ourselves are grieving, or when we encounter someone else who is mourning the loss of a loved one. Let’s practice being gentle with one another.