Have you wondered why some people don’t grieve? Either they believe that crying makes them weak, or should only be done in the privacy of their own homes. The catch is that the grief doesn’t take place in that private spot either. Not grieving can lead to many disorders such as depression, anxiety, misdirected anger, and/or frustration. Grieving is a necessary part of development. If it is natural for an animal to grieve his owner’s death, why shouldn’t it be natural for man to grieve the death of a spouse, child, parent or friend? Grief will manifest itself, otherwise people would “explode.” Their grief energy explodes in other areas such as work, daring stunts, or depressive mood swings.
This article is for the person who wonders why he or she is not grieving, as well as for the person who knows someone who is not grieving. It is for the person who asks him- or herself two years after someone has died: Why didn’t I feel anything? Why didn’t I allow myself to cry? The person who asks these questions is closer to being able to grieve. The next step is understanding why he hasn’t yet, so that he can understand why it is all right to grieve.
The five factors that can help explain the reasons behind not grieving are: Relational, circumstantial, historical, behavioral, and social.
Relational factors deal with how a survivor handles a death. Some people simply do not relate properly to death, so they do not grieve. Here are two explanations why:
Ambivalence: A survivor has a multitude of feelings about the death, and usually they are opposing feelings. One woman prayed for her husband’s peaceful death, but longed to have him with her. Since these feelings are contradictory, they are difficult to deal with. So, rather than try to balance the two feelings, it is easier to close your mind to the grief and just not grieve.
Selfishness: A survivor does not want to grieve because it would mean having to face the question of one’s own mortality, and that would not be fun. The loved one was an extension of the survivor in the sense that the survivor is forced to think about something he finds unpleasant. Usually a person who is openly grief stricken is accused of selfish behavior; as if their tears are only for himself. In reality, the person who doesn’t grieve is more selfish because it means having to look at life and death and how it relates to oneself.
Circumstantial factors deal with the circumstances surrounding a death. There are three basic designations showing why some people do not grieve due to the conditions of the death.
A loss is uncertain. Many people are still unable to grieve because a son or father is listed as an MIA. It is difficult to grieve someone when the survivor does not actually know the fate of the loved one.
A loss is certain but no body has been found. How many times have we turned on the news to hear of a plane crash, train derailment, or other catastrophe where deaths are reported and tallied but not all the bodies have been recovered? Think how the survivor(s) must feel knowing a loved one is dead, but never being able to see that one as dead. The survivor’s grieving needs closure and it is difficult for it to occur without the body.
Multiple losses can cause so much pain it is easier to not grieve. Sometimes people will just close down the mourning process altogether as an option. A woman who was a wife, mother and grandmother lost all three of those distinctions when the airplane carrying her husband, daughter, and granddaughter plummeted to the ground killing her family in a fiery explosion. She was not alone in the circumstance, but for this woman it was easier to choose not to grieve than to grieve. In making this decision she also chose not to accept the support of the other families who also lost loved ones in the crash.
There are two ways of discussing this occurrence. The first is to think in terms of one’s family history. If people did not grieve in the past, chances are great that they will not grieve in the future. Perhaps they have fallen into this poor behavioral pattern because their parents did not grieve. If their primary male and female role models showed them that grieving was wrong, this non-grieving attitude was passed on and will probably continue to be passed on from generation to generation.
There can also be a misinterpretation of a non-show of grief. A person may appear stoic and strong in public, but at home grieves “openly.” If the person is not a public figure, the only misinterpretation might be done by distant family members. What if, however, the stoic person is very much in the public eye? What if the person is considered a heroic persona?
Jackie Kennedy Onassis was considered stoic and strong. She did not grieve in public, and we, the admiring public looked at Jackie and saw her as an example of proper behavior. Since she did not show grief at such a tragic time, we would not show grief for a loved one either. We know this is not good. Grief is important, and, without trying Jackie Kennedy Onassis set the grieving process back 25 years for being so stoic.
There are two behavioral factors that center around certain personality types. This may be a person who cannot handle emotional distress, or someone who feels he must play a specific role in the family and society.
The first type has an underdeveloped ego, lacks the parental bonding formed in childhood necessary to permit and encourage grieving, or is suffering from a personality disorder such as anti-social behavior, avoidant behavior, or obsessive behavior. These are all a major part of the inability to handle emotional distress and those personality disorders do not permit a natural flow of emotion that the grief process requires.
The second type perceives himself (or herself) as having a role to play in the family unit. This role may have been created by the individual’s beliefs or by society’s. It is something that is usually forced on men because stereo typing has placed them as the head of the house, father, provider, and caretaker. The wife and children should not see the man cry because it will betray his weak character. This is wrong. Tears are healthy.
On January 10, 1984, the Detroit Free Press carried a front page story about a group of medical doctors who brought in 400 people to do a study on tears. The 400 were subjected to the smell of an onion while peeling it. All 400 cried and the doctors collected samples of everyone’s tears to examine them under a microscope. The findings were that all the tears were comprised of water and salt.
The next test given to the same 400 was to have them sit through two very sad movies. One of the movies was “The Champ;” the story of a broken down boxer/father and his son’s relationship. After sitting through the movies, tear samples were collected again from the 400 participants. The findings for these tear samples were a little different. These tears were made of water, salt, and a toxic enzyme released from the brain and removed from the body through the tears.
If an individual didn’t cry during moments of grief or sadness, that poisonous toxic enzyme would stay in the body and possibly, over weeks and months, build up to the point of eventually causing biological or physical harm.
The conclusion? People who cry are healthier than those who don’t. AND men should cry for their health!
Under the heading Social Factors, there are three sub-categories:
The loss is unspeakable.
The loss is socially negative.
The loss suffers from an absence of support.
If a loss is socially “unacceptable,” a survivor is not allowed to speak of the death. This can occur when a death is a suicide, and in some cases, when the death is a homicide. Circumstances surrounding the death may make the survivor uncomfortable worrying what others will think, or the survivor may have a self-imposed promise of silence.
Joanne is a realist. She teaches high school social studies and is always trying to make history real for her students. Naturally, she was upset when she walked into her house, two weeks after her husband’s death, and realized that she had no conscious memory of him. Even after looking at a photograph, she still did not recognize the face in the picture.
She was worried and sought professional help. Something had to be wrong with her since she could not remember the face or the mannerisms of the man to whom she had been married 15 years.
After working with the therapist, one conclusion was reached: If she could somehow remove him from her memory, then his death, by suicide, would never have happened, and neither would he.
Suicide was such a horrible reality for Joanne that she subconsciously removed him from her life. This made it possible for her not to deal with the suicide.
If a loss is socially negative, a survivor is not allowed to grieve openly because of what society will say. A person who has an abortion doesn’t grieve because abortion is a controversial political issue. It is too newsworthy, displaying Pro-Choice activists and Pro-Life activists at odds; each having equal positive and negative reactions. And, although there is more awareness concerning AIDS daily, it still carries a social stigma because it is generally considered a sexually transmitted disease. It is easily forgotten that it is also transmitted through blood transfusions.
When a family discovered their ten-year-old son had AIDS, they were faced with the discomforting question: What do we tell our family and friends? They knew there were legal obligations they would have to face with public schooling, but that would be simple compared to friends’ reactions.
They decided it was better to say nothing of his condition so that when he died, they still couldn’t discuss why their loss was so devastating. Their grief was incomplete, and they chose not to grieve. It was “better” for them than to have to answer all those probing and, many times, insensitive questions.
Years ago it may have been Leukemia. With each generation we find a new socially negative way to die, with the same problem to overcome: Grieving properly and openly. If there is an absence of social (family or friends) support, a person is unable to grieve because he has no one with whom to talk.
What happens when a family has just moved to an area and a tragedy occurs? Who is going to help the survivors grieve? How will that family survive initially?
Maggie and Jesse moved to Michigan from Nebraska because of a job transfer. They had only been in Michigan two months when Jesse died. Maggie had no close friends nor family in town. There was no one to help her grieve, so she did not grieve.
Maggie finally returned to Nebraska and was able to grieve. She had her family and friends around who understood her sorrow and felt the loss as well. However, the first two weeks following Jesse’s death might as well have been two years. They were the longest and most difficult two weeks Maggie had ever known since she was unable to release any of her grief, and have it understood.
Grief is a very important element of human growth and development. There are many stages of grief, all of which must be completed before resolution occurs. There are many types who will avoid grieving, but need the guidance and support directing them to the grief stages. There are also people who simply do not grieve for a variety of complex reasons. However, what should be learned from all of this is that when a person grieves properly, a survivor emerges.
1. Discuss with a friend how you feel after you cry.
2. Review your journal to realize how much improvement you have made.
Canine, J. D. (1990) I Can I Will: Maximum Living Bereavement Support Group Guide. Birmingham, Michigan. Ball Publishers.
Updated: March 13, 2013