ArticlesGrief Loss

Then and Now

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Over one hundred years ago, during the Victorian era, death and grief were popular subjects for poems, songs and stories. Grieving was considered a natural and acceptable part of the culture. People in mourning wore black clothing and/or black arm bands, women wore black veils, and it was common to see a black wreath on the door of the home of a bereaved family, announcing publicly that this was a home of sorrow. Bereavement was conspicuous and there were very specific societal customs designed to support people during the mourning process.

However, during that same era, no person of breeding or gentility would ever openly mention sex! Even any reference to gender was carefully couched in delicate terminology. Arms and legs were referred to as "limbs" and they were covered almost completely. Any form of touching or even intimacy of language was carefully proscribed by the customs of the time. Sex was a taboo subject, and it was largely considered to be dirty, shameful, disgusting, and for most women, barely tolerable!

How different it is now--over one hundred years later! We have done a cultural 180 degree turn. Now, sex has become a subject (and a commodity) that is fair game for every movie and TV screen. It is generally exploited in newspapers and magazines and is commonly and widely used as a sales promotion gimmick.

On the other hand, grief and mourning have suddenly become the closeted issue. In many circles it is not considered polite or in good taste to forthrightly mention the sadness caused by death. Well-mannered bereaved people are expected to keep their pain private and silent. Sometimes, even employment is endangered by any visible sign of emotion.

But both of these conditions--sex and death--are normal, natural parts of the human experience, and, ironically, they are both connected to love. In a truly healthy society, neither sex nor death should be subjects that we ought to fear or loathe or avoid.

It would seem that our current preoccupation with aberrant, bizarre and overabundant sex might be a backlash effect of the hush-hush of the Victorian era. Whenever we create an aura of "forbidden fruit" around any phenomena, we often give it an appealing mystery that makes it more intriguing to investigate in somewhat less healthy ways. When the bans are lifted (as they were for sex in our country in the late 1960s), all cautions can often be thrown aside in favor of an almost insane overreaction.

Unless we liberate mourning from its current place of hiding and unacceptability, we are in danger of having a similar backlash of bizarre proportions in the next ten or twenty years. Sometime in the twenty-first century, grieving could possibly acquire some amazingly out-of-control rituals.

We need to declare our own freedom from the restraints concerning dying and grieving that have been placed on us by a frightened and cobbled society. Let us kindly, but firmly, declare our rights to feel and express our pain in ways that are healthy and open. With that right, of course, comes the responsibility to do no harm either to others or to ourselves.

With kindness and a "do-no-harm" attitude, we can take a firm stand on the solid ground of our rights. We can cry, speak about our losses if we want to, verbalize our memories, safely express our anger and frustrations, withdraw for awhile, be confused and disoriented, solicit and expect help and support, and (maybe most important of all) make no apologies for our condition. We need never crumble under the criticism of those who have not walked in our sandals.

The number is legion of well-meaning caregivers who appoint themselves experts in determining what is "best" for us, so we need to claim for ourselves the basic freedom to trust and follow our own instincts and to disentangle our emotions from their benevolent chains. We have the right to gently explain to them that we've been where they are, but they have not been where we are. We don't even expect them to understand us, but we what do expect-even require-is that they take our word for it when we tell them how it is.

Viva freedom!

Good Grief Resources ( was conceived and founded by Andrea Gambill whose 17-year-old daughter died in 1976. In 1977, she founded one of the earliest chapters of The Compassionate Friends, an international bereaved-parent support group. In 1987, she founded and edited Bereavement magazine, and in 2000, she joined Centering Corporation as Editor of their new magazine, Grief Digest. Twenty eight years of experience in grief support has provided valuable insights into the unique needs of the bereaved and their caregivers and wide access to many excellent resources.

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