Don't Get Caught by the Grief Police

Grief police or, worse, grief bullies are terms we have been using privately to describe people who have expressed disapproval at our continued grief or questioned that there may be something wrong with us. The grief police felt that we were taking too long to grieve or were too sad, or pressured us to do things they claimed would be good for us. Yet, we noted that these grief police had never been through a similar situation of grieving. We learned to recruit our own grief bodyguards – spouses, friends, or coworkers – who were in charge of shutting down any weird comments or uncomfortable moments. They saved us many times.

We thought that we coined these terms as a funny way to complain about people to each other: “She tried to grief bully me!” So we were surprised to see an article, Enter the Grief Police by Megan Garber, in The Atlantic about grief policing in the wake of the death of David Bowie. It is not, apparently, a term that we originated. The article defines grief policing as a tendency to tell mourners how to mourn the “right way.” Enter the Grief Police also makes the larger point that, culturally, we are confused about how to mourn publicly and, amidst this confusion, social media is offering new ways to express grief and sympathy. Other articles have tackled the topic of grief on social media as well. Before Facebook added new reaction buttons, you might have questioned if it is appropriate to “like” a post about someone’s death or if an emoji is ever an appropriate reaction to death.

But when grief is not about the loss of a public figure, why do the grief police care about me and my grief? People seem to think that they can tell you whenever you aren’t “doing it right” in a variety of areas. You’d think that grief would be the one thing that people would leave alone but, sadly, the grief police can’t let you be. We know that our baggy eyes and extra gray hairs are noticeable, but instead of commenting on how well you think we're coping, maybe you could compliment our effort to wear matching clothes today.

Another article in The New Yorker, Good Grief by Meghan O'Rourke, addresses similar subjects and provides a brief history of how grieving in the West has changed over the past century, with fewer public grieving rituals (now mainly reserved for celebrities and statesmen) and an increase in the privatization of mourning. Good Grief also notes that grief can be isolating because there is a temporal divide between mourners and everyone else. We often experienced this divide: “Oh, so you don’t actually want to hear about how I’m doing, since you’re already walking away?”

Following our loss, we quickly realized that many people are bewildered in the face of grief. Or, perhaps, they are just naive and inexperienced with loss. When uncertain of what to do or say, some people choose to avoid the topic entirely. Others choose to voice their discomfort by telling the bereaved that they “just can’t handle it.” They may be the flip side of the grief police - the grief deniers. In our experience, nothing you could say would upset us more than we already are. There is no perfect thing to say, so why don’t you give it a try. We can’t handle this, either, but have been forced to, so please don’t use that as an excuse to do or say nothing. 

We were fortunate to have supportive and loving family and friends who outnumbered the grief police and we found ways to turn the badgering from the grief police into humor. Thanks to them, we were able to share many laughs over the awkward comments, the blabbering on about sick cats, the propositions to be in the holiday spirit, and the suggestions to get it together. In some ways, we would have had much less to vent and laugh about if it weren’t for the grief police.