Stifled Grief: How The West Has It Wrong

The reality is you will grieve in some capacity for the rest of your life. Once loss touches you-you are forever changed despite what society tells you. Stop looking at the expectations of an emotionally numbed society as your threshold and measuring stick for success.

By Michelle Steinke-Baumgard, Contributor
One Fit Widow

After ten years of personal experience surrounding loss, I can tell who is going to read, share and comment on this article and it’s not necessarily the audience I’ve intended. Those who have walked the horrific road of loss will shake their collective heads “Yes” at many of my points below and share with pleads for the rest of the Western World to read, learn, evolve and embrace these concepts. Unfortunately, my words will fall short for my intended audience because the premise does not yet apply to their lives…yet. In time, my words will resonate with every human on the face of this earth, but until a personal journey with loss takes place, my words will be passed over in exchange for articles about gorillas and fights over public bathroom usage.

There is nothing sexy or exciting about grief.

There is nothing that grabs a reader with no personal interest to open my words and take heed to my writing.

I’m here to say that the West has the concept of grieving all wrong.

I want to point out that we are a culture of emotionally stunted individuals who are scared of our mortality and have mastered the concept of stuffing our pain. Western society has created a neat little “grief box” where we place the grieving and wait for them to emerge fixed and whole again. The grief box is small and compact, and it comes full of expectations like that range from time frames to physical appearance. Everyone who has been pushed into the grief box understands it’s confining limitations, but all of our collective voices together can’t seem to change the intense indignation of a society too emotionally stifled to speak the truth. It’s become easier to hide our emotional depth than to reveal our vulnerability and risk harsh judgment. When asked if we are alright, it’s simpler to say yes and fake a smile then, to be honest, and show genuine human emotion.

Let me share below a few of the expectations and realities that surround grief for those who are open to listening. None of my concepts fit into societies grief box, and despite the resounding amount of mutual support by the grieving for what I write below, many will discount my words and label us as “stuck” or “in need of good therapy.” I’m here to say those who are honest with the emotions that surround loss are the ones who are the least “stuck” and have received the best therapy around. You see, getting in touch with our true feelings, embracing the honest emotions of death only serve to expand the heart and allow us to move forward genuinely and honestly. Death happens to us all so let’s turn the corner and embrace the truth behind life after loss.

Expectation: Grief looks a certain way in the early days: tears, intense sadness, and hopelessness.

Reality: Grief looks different for every single person. Some people cry intensely, and some don’t cry at all. Some people break down, and others stand firm. There is no way to label what raw grief looks like as we all handle our loss in different ways due to unusual circumstances and various life backgrounds that shape who we are.

Expectation: The grieving need about a year to heal.

Reality: Sometimes grief does not even get started until after the first year. I’ve heard countless grieving people say year two is harder than year one. There is the shock, end of life arrangements and other business matters that often consume the first year and the grieving do not have the time actually to sit back and take the time to grieve. The reality is there is no acceptable time frame associated with grief.

Expectation: The grieving will need you most the first few weeks.

Reality: The grieving are flooded with offers of help in the first few weeks. In many cases, helping the grieving six months or a year down the line can be far more helpful because everyone has returned to their lives and the grief-stricken are left to figure it out alone.

Expectation: The grieving should bury the dead forever. After a year, it is uncomfortable for the grieving to speak of a lost loved one. If they continue to talk about them, they are stuck in their grief and need to “move on.”

Reality: The grieving should speak of the dead forever if that’s what they wish to do. When someone dies, that does not erase the memories you made, the love you shared and their place in your heart. It is not only okay to speak of the dead after they are gone, but it’s also a healthy and peaceful way to move forward.

Expectation: For the widowed – If you remarry you shouldn’t speak of your lost loved one otherwise you take away from your new spouse.

Reality: You never stop loving what came before, and that does not in any way lessen the love you have for what happens after. When you lose a friend – you don’t stop having friends, and you love them all uniquely. If you lose a child and have another, the next child does not replace or diminish the love you had for the first. If you lose a spouse, you are capable of loving what was and loving what is….one does not cancel out or minimize the next. Love expands the heart, and it’s okay to honor the past and embrace the future.

Expectation: Time heals all wounds.

Reality: Time softens the impact of the pain, but you are never completely healed. Rather than setting up false expectations of healing let’s talk about realistic expectations of growth and forward movement. Grief changes who you are at the deepest levels and while you may not forever be in an active mode of grief you will forever be shaped by the loss you have endured.

Expectation: If you reflect on loss beyond a year you are “stuck.”

Reality: Not a day goes by where I am not personally affected by my loss. Seeing my children play sports, looking at my son who is the carbon copy of his Dad or hearing a song on the radio or smell in the air. Loss because part of who you are and even though I don’t choose to dwell on grief it has a way of sneaking in now and again even when I’m most in love with life at the current moment. It’s not because we dwell or focus, and it’s not because we don’t make daily choices to move forward. It’s because we loved and we lost, and it touches us for the remainder of our days in the most profound ways.

Expectation: When you speak of the dead you make the griever sad, so it’s best not to bring them up.

Reality: When we talk about our lost loved one we are often happy and filled with joy. My loss was six and a half years ago, and to this day, my late husband is one of my favorite people to talk and hear about. Hearing his name makes me smile and floods my mind with happy memories of a life well lived. It makes the grieving sadder when everyone around them refuses to say their name. Forgetting they existed is cruel and a perfect example of our stifled need to fix the unfixable.

Expectation: If you move forward you never loved them or conversely if you don’t move forward you never loved them.

Reality: The grieving need to do what is right for them, and nobody knows what that is except the person going through it.

Expectation: It’s time to “move on.”

Reality: There is no moving on – there is only moving forward. From the time death touches our lives we move forward, in fact, we are not given a choice but to move forward. However, we never get to a place where the words move on resonate. The words “move on” have a negative connotation to the grieving. They suggest a closure that is nonexistent and a fictitious door we pass through.

Expectation: Grief is a linear process and a series of steps to be taken. Each level is neatly defined and the order predetermined.

Reality: Grief is an ugly mess full of pitfalls, missteps, sinking, and swimming. Like a game of shoots and ladders, you never know when the board might pull you back and send you down the ladder screaming at the top of your lungs. When you think you’ve arrived at the finish, you draw a card that carries you back to start and just when it appears you’ve lost the game you jump ahead and come one step closer to the front of the line.

Expectation: The grieving should seek professional forms of counseling exclusively.

Reality: The grieving should seek professional forms of counseling but also the grieving should look strongly towards alternative modes of therapy like fitness, art, music, meditation, journaling and animal therapy. The grieving should take an “active” part in their grief process and understand that coping comes in many different forms for all the different people who walk this earth.

Expectation: The grieving either live in the past or the present. IT is not possible to have a multitude of emotions.

Reality: The grieving live their lives with intense moments of duality — moments of incredible happiness mixed with feelings of deep sadness. There is a depth of emotion that forever accompany those who have lived with a loss. That duality can cause constant reflection, and a deeper appreciation of all life has to offer.

Expectation: The grieving should be able to handle business as usual within a few weeks.

Reality: The brain of a grieving person can be in a thick fog, especially for those who have experienced extreme shock, for more than a year. Expect forgetfulness, a reduced ability to handle stress and grayness to be commonplace after a loss.

I’ve just scratched the surface above on the many areas where grief is misunderstood in our society.

100% of the people who walk this earth will deal with death. Each of us will experience the passing of someone close that we love or our morality. It is about time we open up the discussion around death, dying and grief and stop the stigma that surrounds our common bond. Judgment, time frames, and neat little grief boxes have no place in the reality that surrounds loss. Western culture asks us to suppress our pain, stuff our emotions and restrain our cries. Social media has given many who grieve the opportunity to open up dialogue, be vulnerable on a large scale level and take the combined heat that comes with that honesty. As a whole, society does not want to hear or accept that grief stays with us in some capacity for the rest of our lives. Just like so many other aspects of our culture, we want to hear there is a quick fix, a cure-all, a pill or a healthy dose of “get over it” to be handed out discreetly and dealt with quietly.

The reality is you will grieve in some capacity for the rest of your life. Once loss touches, you-you are forever changed despite what society tells you. Stop looking at the expectations of an emotionally numbed society as your threshold and measuring stick for success. Instead, turn inward and look at the vulnerable reality of a heart that knows the truth about loss. With your firsthand knowledge escape the grief box and run out screaming truth as you go. If we make enough noise maybe someday societies warped expectation will shift to align with reality.

You can read more from Michelle in her best-selling new book, Healthy Healing, available anywhere books are sold or go to 

This article originally housed on the Huffington Post –

10 thoughts on “Stifled Grief: How The West Has It Wrong

  1. Jill,
    This is a great article. During my life I have learned that many people do not know how to deal with their own grief let alone someone else’s.
    A great book for everone to read is Kubler Ross’s book called the Seven Stages of Death and Dying. It helps with any traumatic event in life.
    We used this in Hospice Nursing.
    I understand your grief. Am glad you reach out for support and share your feelings!!

  2. This is a brilliant article, but of course I’m already part of the ‘grieving club’ so not the audience that you want to read it. I will pass it on to my own FB followers though and maybe somewhere down the track, we can begin to get people talking about death and grieving. Our clinically shiny society needs to stop pushing death into a corner and refusing to talk about it. Well done for writing the truth. 🙂

  3. Thanks for writing this very truthful article…but of course I belong to the ‘grieving club’ so I am not the audience you were writing for. Nevertheless, I will share it with my FB followers in the hope that one day, our clinically shiny society will actually begin to talk about death and the aftermath in the raw and truthful way that it really is. I’m in the process of writing something similar so will be quoting you. 🙂

  4. I really enjoyed reading this- and yes, I am one of those people you thought would read it. It informs a couple of things I have learned:
    Everything you do- counseling, ceremonies, support groups, journaling, talking- helps somewhat but there are no cure-alls- they feel more like moments of enlightenment
    I know you aren’t saying that the concept of “grief boxes” is a useful metaphor, but in one way I use that concept: I feel that those grief boxes grow throughout one’s life- that my capacity for grief has expanded, and every fresh loss opens up that box a little more. The deaths of parents and grandparents and pets and husbands are compounded by other losses- forest habitat, starving polar bears, neglected children.

  5. This is so true. Reading this made so much sense. I lost my mom seven weeks ago and I know I will mourn her loss for the rest of my life. She was so part of my life. I keep saying I wasn’t ready for her to leave, but then I never would be. Forever changed.

  6. 38 years later the song Fields of Gold by Sting still stops me in my tracks. The birth of a grandchild, the suddenly high school and now an upcoming college graduation. Oh, Chris, I say, you would be so very proud of your kids, and I’m gifted with that twinkle in his eye and the smile that melted my heart almost fifty years ago. He is with us all, just beyond the mist. Try to explain that to the regular world and they would think me crazy. So what. Treasure your grief. And smile, even with a tear streaming down your cheek, at the memories.

  7. I have not yet read your book but what you wrote in this article is so true. One major part I have experienced is that there is no one to talk to. All the people I know of have bought into the false idea that nobody can talk to the grieving when as in my case, it would help if they would act as if my loved one still exists. Instead everyone avoids speaking of him at all. This is how to make it seem like he never existed at all. I am supposed to go on living that way and forget my child that is part of me. I am expected to act as though my life is the same as before.
    My faith in God gives me hope of the future and that one day I will see him and be with him again. I know this does not make sense to people, but I mention it anyway.

  8. My husband past away 11 weeks ago after a long illness. Before I experienced loss, I did think the ‘stages of grief’ were a nice little box that once gone through, everything was ok. I am learning there is no little box one can categorize one’s grief in.

    Good article and thank you.

  9. My husband past away 11 weeks ago after a long illness. Before I experienced loss, I did think the ‘stages of grief’ were a nice little box that once gone through, everything was ok. I am learning there is no little box one can categorize one’s grief in.

    Good article and thank you.

  10. Michelle,
    Thank you for this blog. The title of your blog is what caught my attention because I also unfortunately understand the gross misconceptions of grieving the loss of someone you love.
    I lost my husband and my love of 27 years two years ago to cancer.
    Receiving that news that he had cancer was like being hit in the head with a baseball bat. I couldn’t believe it and I couldn’t accept it. I quit my job and career of 17 years, to stay home and spend every second caring for my darling husband. And that’s exactly what I did. I moved his bed into the living room and made myself a bed right beside him. I didn’t leave his side. I bathed him and took care of him. I watched him suffer terribly for six months. While it was tearing my insides out and if I had to do again I would do the same exact thing again. When you are deeply in love with someone, their comfort and their peace and their happiness and whatever they need, comes before you. He was loved and cared for every second. I wanted to take as much pressure off of him as possible, if that’s possible. It was important to me that he was surrounded by my love and he was until he took his very last breath in my arms.
    I feel completely broken inside. I miss him so deeply, that it’s still hard to breathe.
    You are spot on with everything you have said. People do not like to be around people who are grieving. They just want you to be better and move on like it never happened. They just want things to go back to normal.
    I don’t talk to anyone about it because what I have found is shocking and horrifying. The things that people say believing that they are helpful, can just devastate you. When I hear someone say to me, well at least you got to spend some time together. That makes me so furious I feel like my heads going to explode. I’ve resorted to the response of, you have no idea what you’re even saying. There is nothing wonderful About watching someone you are in love with die a horrible painful death every day and you are confusing real life with Hallmark movies.
    I have been traumatized so many times and upset by people who supposedly care about me that I have exiled them from my life. They all have the same believes that you mentioned. That I should be over it by now and I should be smiling and happy and socializing. I can’t stand it when I hear someone tell me that I need to get out of the house. As if they have any kind of concept.
    I currently get through my day with routine. It took me a very long time just to get out of bed. Then the basics going to the grocery store. Everywhere you go, everything you see, is devastating.
    I have resorted to what I call, self-preservation. At first I tried to put on a smile and be happy and pretend that I was fine but that was short-lived. I’m not that good of an actress. So now, I don’t spend time if I don’t feel like it and I don’t care. I do what I want to do when I want to do it the way I want to do it and anyone who doesn’t like it, will just have to get over it. At the end of the day we are all standing alone. That is a realization that you absolutely learn when you lose a spouse.
    My husband and I used to go to the gym every day. We walked in the evenings we went for hikes. We spent every moment together. He was indeed my true love. We were married six months after we met and were still in love after 27 yrs.
    After losing him and my mind. I have lived on a diet of baked french fries and ice cream And any other carb I could get my hands on. I have gone from the physically fit size 6 to a terribly uncomfortable size 14. I’ve never been overweight and my body doesn’t like it. I have lost a lot of hair and I’m still losing it. I have lost two teeth. My health, I’m sure is somewhere between not good and bad.
    I still hate every day that my eyes open. But I have managed to drag myself out of bed and I actually started a new job. That was extremely difficult. Most days I feel dizzy I can’t think straight I don’t know what day it is, I don’t know what month it is so I couldn’t possibly go back to my career. With no desire whatsoever to be around people, my options were very limited. I started jobs and quit them within days. Constantly on edge that someone at work may want to get to know me and ask me personal questions about my life. Being upset at work is not an option, so I was always on edge like a cat with a long tail in a room full of rocking chairs. Fortunately, God has blessed me and help me find the perfect job. It meets my financial needs as well as my mental needs as far as concerns with people.
    So right now this is my life. I’m living it to the best of my ability keeping a roof over my head and the two baby kittens I got for my husband who followed him around like baby ducks. They are spoiled and I gave them all the love that I wish I could give him.
    I still sleep in the living room. Mainly because I broke all of the furniture in the house and a few holes in the walls. I haven’t touched any of his things because I can’t. The way I see it as long as I’m still getting out of bed and able to pay my bills …..I’ll worry about the rest of the shit later. Getting through this life is all I’m concerned with. I’ve recently been thinking about going back to the gym but I can’t go to any we have visited. I’ve been looking for one close to my job and I think I have found one. We loved working out. I remember the way it made me feel and why I was addicted to it. I need to get back into it because I also believe endorphins will give me the positive energy I need and Give me an outlet.
    I have no desire to participate in life. I know I will never have someone new in my life because no one could possibly compare. I was fortunate, to actually find and marry my true love at the age of 20. I will soon be 50 and I think at this point in my life, I just want to be left alone to get through the only way I know how to. For me this is the best path.
    Michelle- Thank you for clearing up all of those ridiculous misconceptions and expectations. It was refreshing to read what real grief actually is and isn’t.

    God bless all of you and carry you whenever you need him too

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