Does Being Open About Grief Help Us To Mourn?

This November, President Elect Joe Biden came out to discuss his experience of losing his son, Beau, to cancer in 2015. It’s certainly not been the first time that he has discussed his personal relationship with grief; in fact, it was because of the tragic loss of his son that Biden originally made the decision to run for president yet again in 2020. And he is not alone in sharing his feelings. Just recently in December of 2020, health secretary Matt Hancock opened up in the House of Commons itself about the recent loss of his step grandfather to COVID. 

While there has been an increase in public figures being open about their personal experiences regarding mental health or particularly grief and loss, it’s still not something that is necessarily a given, particularly from figures such as politicians, who are usually expected to remain more stoic and serious in their public personas.

Public response from these sorts of statements is usually one of overwhelming support and gratitude, especially from those who may be going through a similar situation. But how exactly does being open about one’s grief and loss help others with their mourning process, and why is it so important that we hear more about these experiences, not just from celebrities and public figures, but from those closest to us?

The loneliness of grief 

Even in 2020 when death seems to be everywhere, the loneliness that can come with grief and loss is indescribable. Even if millions of people die in the world every year, it doesn’t mean that there will be anyone in your close circle of friends that understands what you’re going through or has lost someone themselves. 

You’re still expected to go to work, attend to your duties and at some point, carry on with the rest of your life after your socially acceptable period of grieving. That is not just a lonely experience, but an isolating one. And when we’ve been brought up in a society that rarely likes to share expressions of deep emotion, or to admit when we’re severely struggling, it is hardly a wonder that some people feel as though there isn’t a soul in the world that understands how they feel.

But of course, that is not entirely true. The truth is that everyone will experience the death of a loved one at some point. And even if you believe that your situation is unlike anyone else’s in the world – beit a particularly tragic circumstance, or due to a rare disease – there will always be someone out there who shares your pain. There is no better balm for that loneliness than hearing another person’s story who is going through the exact same pain as you, who is dealing with the same struggles. This, of course, does not have to come from a famous politician, but could even come from your neighbour, or the owner of your local shop. In the case of grief, a problem shared may not necessarily be a problem halved, but it is certainly a reminder that you are not alone.

Feelings of guilt

Along with loneliness usually comes a feeling of guilt – a guilt of not grieving in the right way, a guilt of not being able to cope, a grief of not living up to expectations, the list is endless. And when we bottle up our own struggles when we grieve, it only perpetuates this expectation and need to suppress any and all difficulties when it comes to death, or really allowing ourselves to own how we really feel;  we see someone else’s outward appearance of grief as a representation of what they’re really experiencing on the inside, when that is not usually the case. 

But when we hear someone admit to struggling with their mental health, or listen to their personal journey and the reality of living with grief, it’s much easier to let go of that guilt.  When Matt Hancock teared up in the House of Commons over the death of a loved one, it set a positive example that faking nonchalance or pretending to be okay does not equal strength. 

Everyone grieves and most of us will have totally different experiences when it comes to knowing how to deal with it. Hearing someone else say that it’s okay to accept your feelings for what they are and that you don’t need to adhere to someone else’s way of grieving can be a powerful message. 

Acceptance of death

As a society, at least in the West, we are notoriously bad at understanding death as a part of life and dreading or burying it, rather than dealing with it in a healthy way. A huge part of this is thanks to the cultural silence we have created around death and grief. 

Accepting death as a reality does not make light of the real and valid mental health struggles that people go through when they experience loss. Sadly, some might argue that the pandemic, with its daily, impersonal stats, has done precisely this; transformed the real cost of what people go through when someone dies, into a number on a screen. 

An honest conversation about grief does not seek to trivialise what that means, but rather to help us and others understand that you shouldn’t have to pretend as though life must go on as it was before, that grief can and probably will change the very essence of your routine, your mental health, and maybe even the rest of your life. Everyone’s grieving process is different, and conversation simply allows us to better understand not only our own process, but also those of our friends and neighbours.

The empowerment of speaking up 

No matter how open or accepting you are about the concept of death or how prepared you may feel, death is never going to be a pleasant thing to come to terms with, at least in the early stages. It’s always going to hurt for at least some time. Talking may not bring back the person you love, but it’s a stepping stone to what could potentially lay on the other side of the mourning process; empowerment and positivity. 

It will perhaps feel impossible at first to create something good out of something so sad, but losing someone you love can fundamentally change your life in ways you never imagined. It helps you to see what matters most to you, it can alter your career path or family dynamics, or even make you into a better person. 

But it is much easier to achieve this sense of peace when there are positive examples to look up to. If you have none in your real life, then experiences like that of Joe Biden’s can be monumental to picking you up and helping you look to the future. After all, if a son can lose his father to cancer and use that loss to fuel him to become the next president, then it gives all of us at least a glimmer of hope that we can carry those we love in our hearts long after they’re gone by doing something amazing with our own lives. Because ultimately, that is what being open about grief and death is all about; reminding ourselves and also others that even though this may be the end of something –  and that that end can be some of the hardest experiences of our lives – there is hopefully something to strive for on the other side of it all.

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