In light of our first Feature Story from Margot Hale, I want to offer some data regarding the social norms of grief. Shauna, Sarah and I were at a conference last November where we learned that in America, the standard timeframe wherein it is socially acceptable to grieve is twelve days. That means that after twelve days, people stop bringing over food. They stop asking how you are doing with a tone of empathy. They begin asking, “How are you?” with a raised inflection at the end of their sentences. This subtle shift is indirectly inferring that the only acceptable answer is that one has moved past grief and is now in the process of healing.
After twelve days, grief is seemingly no longer an acceptable burden for others to bear.
Moreover, this social stance makes it awkward for the person grieving to freely share their roller coaster experiences that inevitably follow a loss. After twelve days, they are likely still feeling sad and want to talk about how things were before they endured their loss. But everyone else has moved on and gives the impression that to live in days gone by is to suffer unnecessarily. However, psychologically, this is actually by far and away the most counterproductive measure.
It is in the retelling of the past that gives a grieving individual a firm and faithful foundation from which to begin their healing. Without a past, there is no hope for a future. They remain stuck in an unanchored present without memory or dreams. Allowing someone space to talk about what has happened (past tense) is rooting him or her in his or her experience (now). Unfortunately, what often happens is that people don’t continue to share the past after twelve days, because society expects them to be moving on to a hopeful future. And yet, I cannot stress this enough. Without a grip on the past, the visions of the future are not clear enough to move toward.
A beloved professor of mine once said,
Give me the norms of grieving in the Jewish community any day before those of the Christian church. They allow space for one another’s grief for a year.”
She went on to describe a Jewish custom of covering the mirrors in the home of one grieving. The mirror is traditionally the means of achieving social acceptance by enhancing the appearance. Covering the mirror allows for one to not feel the pressure to conform to social acceptance and gives them the freedom to render themselves just as they are.
I attended another conference more recently where a therapist was talking about a case in a South American culture where a young boy around the age of ten came into therapy mute. He had suffered watching his home and loved ones carried away by a massive flood. His trauma had left him bound up with emotion without words to communicate his feelings. Having some background information of the traumatic event from the parents, the therapist began by asking him to draw what he remembered. She described his initial drawings as chaotic scribbles and showed slides that were hardly recognizable. She also said that when he began drawing he started to speak and his words were as frantic as his fingers scribbling across the page. He took out another paper and continued to draw and tell the story. Each time he came to therapy he drew and spoke and drew and spoke the details of the event. It took several months of weekly sessions, but the drawings he rendered at the end of treatment were ordered and colorful and clear and bright. His ease of speaking had also returned and gone were the frantic anxious words he used to describe the story and in their place was the optimistic intonation that Americans demand after twelve days.
I want to use one more illustration before summarizing these thoughts. Several years ago when I first began my graduate education I attended a workshop that was aimed at helping children grieve in a group setting. Relatively new to the field, I was perplexed and even shocked to hear how children were encouraged to process their grief. The presenter explained several group therapy techniques to utilize. One was to stage a funeral for whom they lost. They would dress up and have a casket and say prayers. And they would want to enact this scene over and over and over again until they understood in their young minds what had really happened. Another exercise was to have the child lie down on the floor on top of a large piece of paper. Have someone trace a marker around their body so they can visually see themselves. Then, the exercise was for that child to find the hurt and draw where they feel it. They would draw pulse marks around their heart. They might have squiggles where their stomach would be. They could draw something heavy on their chest. Group leaders were encouraged to allow the children to find the pain, name it, describe it and tell their story again and again until they had some map of navigating grief, sorrow, loss.
There is a theme in these three vignettes that is counter to American culture of grief and loss. The antithesis of a twelve-day mourning period is illustrated by these more healthy and helpful measures. Don’t forget. Remember. Don’t go mute. Speak. Don’t stay with all of your confusing and painful feelings trapped on the inside. Get them out in a visual manner until you find some peace.
May we begin a community who will honor grief and loss in a way that is healthy, helpful, and ultimately healing. May we give space to tell stories of the past. May we be the listening ears so one needn’t try and forget. May we offer a blank canvas for friends to paint their pain. May we be the safe haven where the one grieving can go after the culturally mandated twelve-day recovery.