A fair amount of the pain and suffering grieving people endure is not the result of poor choices they make, an inability to adjust, or some deep psychological defect within them; much of it is actually inflicted on them by the cultural norms of our time; beliefs that the griever and all those around them did not consciously choose; beliefs so deeply held they're never questioned or discussed. One of the most uniquely modern, inhuman and destructive myths afoot in the dominant culture of North America is the idea of private pain.
For a variety of reasons - all of them based in false cultural ideology - grieving people tend to either get isolated from their friends and family, or to isolate themselves. When it's the friends and family that pull back, it's because they live in a death-phobic culture that tries to enforce a constant regime of positive thinking. In such a society people fear being emotionally overwhelmed by a grieving person and often pull back pretty quickly. Likewise, when it's the griever who pulls back from social interaction, it's often because they don't want to burden others with their feelings of sadness.
If ever there was a myth that needed to be dispelled it's this one. Just as we want to share the good news that comes into our lives, there is also a deep-seated human need to share our tragedies. The price we pay for our heroic culture, for holding in our emotions and trying to deal with things on our own, is counted in a staggering toll of suicide, addiction, divorce, depression and physical illness. When confronted with this reality most Americans will acknowledge the facts, but then claim there's nothing that can be done about it.
The truth is we can do everything about it, and we can begin by understanding that grief is a place no one knows until they're in it, and when it eventually does arrive, almost everyone is taken by surprise at the obliteration of their social relationships. Even though grieving after the death of any particular loved one is not a certainty, just as recovering from grief when is does come is also not a certainty, no one is really immune because ultimately losses accumulate over time, and sooner or later the death of either a precious loved one or yourself will initiate you into the reality of grief. This is why the culture must change.
The next step is to realize that it hasn't always been this way, and it doesn't have to be this way now. For thousands of years, in villages all over the world, the ancient wisdom of tribal people contained an understanding that whenever anyone is crying there is an obligation for those around them to stop what they're doing and listen. Not an obligation to say anything or fix it, but an obligation to listen and hear about the pain. In such cultures there is no concept of private suffering. Your pain doesn't belong to just you alone, it belongs to the whole community.
The type of emotional support that was once abundant in the village is now scarce in the city, and that's where a Grief Support Group can provide a caring community to share your pain, as well as a framework for understanding the grieving process. Recovering from grief doesn't mean that you'll never have moments of sadness again, but it does mean that you'll be able to regain your enthusiasm for life within a context that includes the memory of your loved one. Grieving is actually a valuable life-skill, essential to our ability to feel both deep love and real joy, rather than a damaging emotion to be resisted and suppressed.
One of the greatest challenges of our time is to confront some of our cultural myths around death and grieving, and create a modern village of emotional support; a village that includes wise elders who have been made skillfully heartbroken by their losses, and thereby become reliable witnesses to the mystery of life.
Ed Preston is the Founder of The Grief & Trauma Resource Center, an online directory created to provide more accurate information to the general public about grief and trauma. His own decades long journey with grief has lead him down many paths. He holds a degree in Cultural Anthropology, is a scholar of the Orphan Wisdom School, and a breath meditation teacher.