By: Michelle L. Cramer
My friend Tishia was pregnant with triplets, Paul, Kyle, and William. Unfortunately, Paul passed away in the womb while Kyle and William were carried to term. Tishia is also deaf, so most of her adult interaction is through written communication. After losing Paul, she sought support through groups on Facebook specifically for mothers who had lost one triplet.
In the group she mentioned a plan she made with me to celebrate the boys’ first birthday in pictures, by including an empty chair in some of the shots to memorialize Paul’s presence with his brothers. But just a couple of weeks before we were to do the session, she canceled. She had mentioned in the group her excitement at the plan and several other members made her feel as though she was crazy to do a photo shoot like that — that it was disturbing and unhealthy. I assured her that was not true — that I had done many sessions like it throughout my years of working with bereaved families. But they got in her head and we never did the pictures.
Additionally, Tishia has a corner of her home with memorabilia dedicated to Paul, including the urn that holds his remains. “I’ve been told it is disturbing that on milestones, I have the surviving triplets hold the urn and I take a picture, so I have all three in a picture for birthdays and things like that,” she told me. “My friend stopped visiting because she was disturbed by the urn being in the corner. She had visited me weekly just to hang out. I miss her, but my son’s urn stays.”
We each process our environment differently in normal situations.
One person may hate going to concerts, for example, because she can’t stand the crowds. Concerts may be a favorite for someone else because the crowds are, to him, electrifying.
Grief is no different. We can’t tell someone how to grieve because there is no right or wrong way. The unimaginable pain of a deep loss brings with it mental, physical, and emotional processes that are all over the place, even for one person. Grief is not logical, yet somehow, we often seek to make it so. We often put expectations on how someone is grieving, what they should or shouldn’t be doing to honor the child they’ve lost and still function in the day-to-day.
We do it to ourselves too. Those of us grieving often secretly think we’re doing it wrong because it doesn’t conform to our expectations.
Outward, public expression of the turmoil we’re suffering after a loss is certainly one of the most widely frowned upon depictions of grief in modern society. But this hasn’t always been the case. Ancient cultures across the globe expressed grief without restraint, often in public, such as the “death wail” of ancient Celtic cultures, and “keening” (loud wailing) for loved ones lost in Irish and Scottish cultures. These expressive traditions have been documented in other indigenous cultures in Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America even today.
So why do we put expectations on ourselves for how grief should look?
Why do we let others dictate what is “normal” for grieving?
Because the modernization of society has caused us to bow our head and keep our nose to the grindstone. Life goes on, things must get done, others depend on us. Generations have pushed the big, hard emotions down. I personally believe that this has a lot to do with the mental health crisis our world faces today. But yet, we still struggle to normalize grief. Or, rather, we struggle to allow grief to be whatever each person needs it to be.
If she spends weeks in bed after losing her child, that’s grief.
If he builds a treehouse for the child that will never come home, that’s grief.
If she can’t see a baby smile without breaking down into tears, that’s grief.
If he screams into his pillow every night in order to be able to sleep, that’s grief.
If she gets angry at her other children more easily, that’s grief.
The list is infinite. None of these instances of grief expression are wrong. All of them are right. We have to stop telling ourselves the myths of what grief looks like: that we should cry by ourselves, that we should be “over it” after a certain amount of time, that we should stay busy to forget about it. There are no parameters, not measurements of proper grief processes.
There are no timelines, no requisite decibels, no effective distractions.
Grief is everything and nothing; full and empty. Grief is the expression of unending love unrequited by the child, spouse, parent, sibling, friend lost before we were done showing them how wide and deep our love is. It’s the expression of love when there is no one there to see it – screaming into a black hole, as we fight to not be sucked in ourselves.
How then can we try and put expectations on how this looks when it’s felt so monumentally? How can we ever expect grief to be anything other than a very personal experience in whatever way that needs to look?
I don’t write this to be dark or foreboding. I write it to be honest. Because when we can be honest with each other about how we’re feeling on the inside without trying to cover it, push it down, hold it back on the outside – only then will we find a true way forward.
Grief never leaves us – we never get over it – we strive every day to move forward with it in tow.
When we allow one another to feel deeply and express grief in whatever way we need to – without hinderance or expectation – then the concrete begins to chip away from our feet and the move forward becomes a little bit easier.
About Michelle L. Cramer
Michelle is the founder and president of On Angels’ Wings (OAW), a non-profit organization serving Missouri through the provision of free professional photographs and support for families who endure infant loss or whose child is medically fragile. OAW’s mission is celebrating life and encouraging hope. Michelle has been a professional writer, editor and photographer for 12 years. She and her husband of nearly 20 years have two boys, six different animals in their urban home, and an affinity for hiking and all things sci-fi and rock-n-roll.