Loss and Grief—No Trespassing (in Public)

2014 April 15
by Dr. Zachary White

Our notion of loss and grief is remarkably peculiar.  Loss is too often conceived as a personal, private matter to be handled, managed, overcome, and endured, alone.  Alone, we must live with our grief because public spaces are reserved for joyful occasions and for the perfection of amusement.

No one ever tells us explicitly, but the assumption lurks about—“Go take care of your burden away from us and then re-join us, when you are the way you used to be. When you’re ready to smile.  When we don’t have to ask you if everything is okay.”  This dominant mindset shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise when public life is about being “presentable” to others. On our drive to work or in advance of meeting others for coffee, we talk ourselves into the right mindset: “Get it together. Wipe away your tears. Put a smile on. Don’t let others know what’s really going on in your life. Erase any resemblance of what you are really feeling.”

 It’s as if a NO TRESPASSING sign hangs at the front of the public spaces that we spend most of our time.  At work, we fear that others believe grief and loss don’t go with productivity. “What if my boss knew what I was really thinking?”  When conversing with acquaintances, we admonish ourselves, “No, grief and loss aren’t topics of conversations to bring up. I don’t want to be a downer.”  In these public performances, it is what is not revealed that is most telling.  Grief and loss, we believe, must be handled apart from the world we inhabit, the coffee shops we sit at, the office spaces we spend hours of our waking days, and the disclosures we keep to ourselves in the daily banter with our colleagues.


Why the need to perform? Public spaces don’t seemingly allow us to be authentic—they are places that remind us how we should act rather than how we feel.  So, we mourn in isolation.  We leave our homes ready to be what others expect us to be.  The problem is that loss and grief are processes, they’re not destinations. They are unfolding.  They aren’t static places. They are in-between spaces—somewhere between here and there.  They aren’t permanent, but we withhold because we worry that if we allow others in public to see glimpses of our momentary struggles, they will not forget.

When we get in the habit of performing as if we are not grieving, it’s no surprise that we become even more exhausted.  Performances originate out of a desire to appear a particular way to others, but in the process, they often become our reason for exiting stage left by saying no to opportunities to find solace in the sharing of our struggles.

So, we turn away from others. We walk deeper into our own thoughts. We drop out of the mindless joys of everyday life. We retreat to places few others can follow, quarantining ourselves until our public self can be more in line with our private thoughts. 

 Sometimes, however, we must trespass.  Trespass by seeking out those friends, acquaintances, or strangers who will allow you to indulge in acknowledging your grief in the moment. You will know who these people are (and who they should be) because they, unlike others, will let you know that what you feel in the moment will not define you permanently.





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