Attitude is a little thing that makes a huge difference.
Death, loss, and grief are universal experiences that touch everyone, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or gender. But the beliefs, attitudes, and opinions that are held and expressed about these topics are not unanimous.
Long before experiencing a loss of their own, individuals, communities and cultures form beliefs and attitudes about emotions, grief, and the many circumstances that precede and follow deaths or a loss. Some of these mindsets may be helpful in the person’s grief, while others reflect negative attitudes which create unfortunate stereotypes. Our words often reflect implicit attitudes and biases picked up over the years. Most expressions of grief by grievers and observers are fundamentally a learned behaviours.
But that does not make them right … or helpful.
Attitudes after a death or loss often begin with sincere sympathy, which can be classified as “compassionate, empathetic, and helpful.” But sadly, at least from my observation, all too quickly, that moves into misinterpretation of the griever’s experience which might catalogue as “misunderstood, patronising, and otherwise negative or critical.” leading to some adverse attitudes and erroneous stereotypes.
The following statements reflect some of the attitudes grieving people endure:
1. The Negative Statement:
“You need to stop feeling sorry for yourself and move on. I thought you’d be over it by now!”
The Implied Attitude: “People should be able to get over their grief and move on … preferably quickly. There are time frames for grief. Things like empathy and understanding from others are time-limited. It’s weak to continue to grieve for longer than a set amount of time.”
2. The Condescending Statement:
“People have been through worse. Losing your husband is nothing compared to the death of a child. At least he lived a good long life.” “
The Implied Attitude: You are weak compared to others. Certain types of loss are less valid and significant than others. Certain types of loss are less deserving of grief, sympathy, and support than others.
3. The Judgemental Statement:
“I am going to hang up now – call me back when you stop crying. You’ve got to pull yourself together! You can’t go on like this.”
The Implied Attitude: You need to be stronger and less emotional. Your grief is unacceptable. Your expression of grief and emotion is abnormal or undesirable.
Here is an important principle. “Statements usually come out of attitudes.” There are 3 steps in the formation of an attitude:
Even if a negative or stigmatizing statement has not been said personally to someone; even if they’ve heard it expressed in any form about anyone, whether a friend, community member, celebrity or even a TV character, the individual (or the group) is now aware that it exists. They recognize this as a prevalent attitude among their peers and culture.
The second step in the formation of self-stigma is where a person, exposed to negative messages or statements from those around them about their loved one, their loved one’s death, or their grief, decides whether or not they “buy into” this prevalent attitude, bias, or stereotype. “Does this apply to me? Is this what people think of me? What have people been saying about me?” And because they are vulnerable, and because they themselves don’t understand their own behaviours and reactions, they are much more likely to be swayed by the opinions, perceived or actual, of others.
Thus influenced by awareness and agreement, the person applies the stereotype to themselves. “I must be weak; I must not be coping; I must be crying too much or grieving too long.” Thus internalizing these attitudes and statements, and suffer numerous negative consequences as a result
In short, statements lead to stances which create stereotypes.
Words are important. I try to give the benefit of the doubt whenever possible and acknowledge that sometimes people say things they don’t really mean. But even when the harm is unintentional, words can be hurtful.
I am coming to understand that we can only change what people say and do by helping change how they think. How can we encourage people out there to change their attitude towards grief and death? Not an easy task, but there again, nothing worthwhile is ever easy.
But maybe the keys to changing outlooks on grief will come from grieving people themselves. Instead of changing the negative attitude of those who see grief as a weakness, or at the other extreme, those who regard it as a mental disorder, let’s take a new approach.
My goal in 2023 is to help grieving people change the way they’re thinking about their current situation by looking for evidence that contradicts their existing beliefs. How do we do that? Regularly, two or three times a week, we will post a short video on my Facebook page “Bill Webster” (to which you can link in on your own website.)
At the same time we will invite people to respond by sharing their stories giving them a forum to let them express what they have found helpful, and even more to discover that they are not alone in their experiences.
C.S.Lewis puts it, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one!’”
I feel the way forward is to challenge long held negative attitudes and stereotypes. That will come by providing ongoing information and encouragement which will validate and legitimize a more positive and constructive approach to grief. Grieving people, given the right resources and support, can look after themselves because the key to recovery is always to promote personal empowerment.
As my mentor Zig Ziglar expressed it, “Positive thinking will let you do everything better than negative thinking. Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.”