I'm chatting with a young woman who’s father has molested her. She's understandably uncomfortable talking about it. Openly grieving her loss feels like it's out of the question, because the memories terrify her. But when I ask what her greatest fear is, her answer is telling:
"I just don’t want to look like I’m wallowing."
My response: "Why do you feel like you’re wallowing?"
“Because people will think I’m weak. Like I’m playing a victim.”
Ah, the victim card. We hear this one so often. The assumption that people who don't immediately "overcome" their loss prior to some ridiculous, externally-imposed and arbitrary expiration date are whiny losers is extraordinarily prevalent in our culture, particularly in the US. Given our cultural predilections towards individualism and "fixing" everything, it's no wonder that grieving people are terrified of being labeled as wallowers.
In all the conversations I have with grieving people, the most common experience they communicate is that they feel alone. Parallel to that, most feel tremendous shame for having to grieve at all, and a significant amount feel as if their grief is driving them crazy. What usually binds many of these feelings together is a deeply rooted sense of unworthiness that is grounded in the haunting feeling that they'll be "found out" as wallowers. The image of the wallower is deeply embedded in our culture.
THE PERNICIOUS STEREOTYPE
The pervasive cultural image of the grieving person is of one who is tucked away in the corner, doing nothing but weeping all day and “wasting” their time with suffering and pain. For the overwhelming majority of grieving people, this is bullshit.
What's so insidious about this is that it reveals an utter lack of understanding of what wallowing actually is. Wallowing is literally defined as an unrestrained indulgence; as something that creates a pleasurable sensation. Grieving takes many forms, but it sure as hell isn't a pleasurable indulgence.
The activities that truly are wallowing are all around us, but they usually pass by unchallenged because they're so endemic. The coworker who spends six hours a day gossiping about your colleagues? That’s wallowing. Your insufferable uncle who goes on and on about politics? That’s wallowing. That dude who spends his days in front of his computer bitching and arguing with others online? That’s wallowing.
I find it incredible that many of these activities—which are pointless, harmful, and unbelievable wastes of time are usually accepted as nothing worse than minor annoyances. But grieving? Grieving is viewed as this ridiculous whine-fest where the mother who's lost her child or the man who's been paralyzed in a collision with a drunk driver are deemed to be victims if they don't "rise up" on a schedule set by others.
We’re happy to waste four hours a day watching television (perhaps the most indulgent form of wallowing), but grieving is often deemed to be the most pathetic form of wallowing. This is ludicrous.
THE REALITY OF THE GRIEVING LIFE
Observers of those who have suffered a tremendous loss often fail to understand something unbelievably obvious: grieving people are still going about their daily lives. They’re still going to work, taking care of their families, and tending to the mundane and trivial matters of life. Experiencing a terrifying loss isn’t a lottery ticket. It’s a devastating process that carries people into a devastating abyss, which they have to navigate as they continue to deal with the everyday trials of life.
In other words, life already goes on. Grieving people aren’t idiots. They don’t need to be reminded that life goes on, because time moves ever forward, whether we want it to or not.
Unfortunately, perceptual biases are strong. So long as the experience of grieving is deemed to be “negative,” grieving will continue its longstanding association with wallowing and negativity.
However, expressing your pain, seeking out support, feeling the pangs of loss for what they really are, and navigating the devastation of what loss has thrust upon you are all perfectly natural components in the pilgrimage of grieving.
The way to healing is carved via the process of grieving. Not via avoiding it or fighting it or trying to “beat” it. By experiencing it. There really is no other way.
WALLOWING AND FALSE DICHOTOMIES
One of the greatest problems with the wallowing label is that it’s viewed through the lens of false dichotomies.
In other words, it's assumed that you’re either getting better or you're “wallowing” in despair. You're either taking charge of your life or you’re being a whiny victim.
All of this is reductionist nonsense. Loss never works like that. Ever.
Unfortunately these false dichotomies are powerful. They're also illusory. They're completely made up and don't accurately resemble the reality of what grieving people are going through.
The crazy thing is that most grieving people expend inordinate amounts of time and energy such that they appear to not be wallowing. They're so horrified at the prospect of being pitied that they present themselves to the world as detached fighters—they buck up, put on a happy face, and move on. Except that every day they make that decision, they have to wake up and "move on" over and over and over again. In the process, they expend enormous amounts of time suffering needlessly.
The tragedy is that doing everything you can not to grieve is a form of wallowing, because it precludes you from confronting yourself. It suffocates you in the lies you tell yourself by hiding your pain under layer upon layer of shame and fear.
WALLOWING AND BEHAVIOR
Some people might ask, "but what about all those terrible behaviors that grieving people engage in. Surely they must be wallowing?"
Complications and self-sabotaging behaviors can arise in the experience of grief. But those complications are rarely the result of grieving itself. Instead, they are the byproducts of dealing with tremendous loss, and in some cases, they are the result of trying not to grieve.
If you find yourself buried in isolation, if you turn to numbing agents like drugs or alcohol or sexual escape, if you find that anxiety and overwhelm begin to dominate your life, if you fall into debilitating depression or you become suicidal, then by all means, please seek support. These are damaging behaviors that need to be addressed if left unchecked. But the behaviors themselves are not grieving. In fact, there are far more people engaging in self-destructive behaviors that aren't grieving a devastating loss than those that are.
Remember that grieving is a perfectly natural response to pain. And if you’ve been devastated by tragedy, you must allow yourself to experience grief in its fullness.
I’ve grieved many times. Sometimes the pangs of survivor’s guilt hit me. Sometimes the memory of a dear friend shatters the lens by which I view the world around me, and I’m left temporarily paralyzed by the aching love I felt for her. Sometimes my epilepsy throws my mind into a tornado of confusion and inner turmoil.
Every time this happens, I don’t fight it. I stand in it. I accept these feelings as part of my journey; as testaments to the grief and love I will feel in some form for the rest of my life.
Then, and only then, do I rise up. By refusing to flee from grief I move forward, into the beauty and uncertainty of the future, and choose life.
Doing this has played a pivotal role in my creating a meaningful life for myself. I spent years hiding and burying my grief. It nearly destroyed me and it's now one of my deepest regrets. But by learning to fully immerse myself in grief I became more compassionate, more confident, and more vulnerable, both with myself and with others.
I implore you to do the same.
WHEN YOUR LOSS PISSES PEOPLE OFF
Here’s a sobering reality: Over two million people will die in the US this year. Millions more will endure devastating heartbreak, financial disaster, violence and sexual abuse, and debilitating injury and illness. Every person affected by these losses will grieve. Only some of them will have support.
When you've been shattered by loss, some will rally to your side. Others will flee, try to fix you, or outright berate you for "wasting your time wallowing."
If you've ever heard some explicit or implicit version of “oh come on, why are you still sad?” or “I can’t be around all this negative energy," then you've been subjected to what I call conformist wallowing. People who view any sort of "negative" emotions or experiences as "victimy" behaviors are themselves playing into an unconscious desire for control. Paradoxically, this desire for control is often borne of unresolved trauma in their own lives.
If you find yourself in the presence of these people when your world's been torn upside down, remember that you can make the choice to ignore what they say. You also have the right to remove them from your life.
SUPPORTING A GRIEVING PERSON: THE ILLUSION OF "GRIEF PROGRESS"
If you find yourself in the position of supporting a grieving person, it’s absolutely imperative that you are patient with them. This is true even if the person you're supporting appears to be wallowing. The more they seem to be going off track, the more patience and understanding will be required of you.
A mother grieving the loss of a child might spend a few years in persistent difficulty before she begins to appear “normal” again. There’s nothing “abnormal” about this, and the more we spread the message that grief has an expiration date, the more the grieving mother's pain will remain buried, only compounding her suffering.
Telling a grieving person they’re wallowing is like walking up to someone who’s desperately trying to quit smoking, holding a cigarette in his face, and saying, “did you quit yet?”
Yes, it’s that ridiculous.
Remember that it’s not your experience. It’s incredibly easy to assume that if x or y happened to you, you’d move on from it as quickly as possible. Don’t be so sure. Even if you have gone through a similar experience to that of a grieving person, don’t make the mistake of measuring their “grief progress.”
Making judgments about a grieving person’s “grief progress” is really just a form of gossip—albeit a disgusting and tangibly harmful one.
What so many don’t seem to comprehend is that the vast majority of grieving people do not want to be grieving. Grieving isn’t fucking fun. It sucks. The circumstances that lead to intense grief are often horrific. This is why it’s so ridiculous to try to get someone “out” of grief, because the act of doing this precludes them from doing what you want them to do: heal.
Healing is an aching, complicated process that often takes years. It’s not a “waste of time” to grieve, it’s a waste of time to run from grief.
IF YOU ARE GRIEVING
If you find yourself grieving any form of tragic loss—whether the death of a loved one, a broken relationship, a devastating injury, or any other loss, please, do not, under any circumstance, fall into the "I can't grieve because I'll look like a victim." If you do this, you are setting yourself up for a lot of unnecessary suffering. Instead, please remember the following:
1. If you’re not happy or "getting better" all the time, don’t worry about it (no one is anyway).
2. If you fear that the people in your life will think you’re wallowing because you don’t conform to their norms of what you should “appear” to look like, make the choice to ignore these fears and grieve. It's never worth it to base your choices on the expectations of others, and this is even more important when you're grieving.
3. If life feels like hell one moment and then you’re caught in a wave of oh shit I might actually work through this and then the next day you can’t stop weeping and then a few days after that you help another wounded soul and you feel like you’ll still be of service to the world, keep it up and keep going.
Why? Because this is the nature of grief. It's one of the messiest, nonlinear, paradoxical experiences we endure in this life. Some days you'll feel like you're moving forward in confidence—even in hope—while other days your pain will penetrate you to your core. This is normal.
4. If you are terrified of what you might see, experience and feel if you allow yourself to grieve openly and vulnerably, you might be tempted to seek out advice on “how” to grieve. While solidarity and community are essential in grief, don't go looking for some sort of formula, as that is often just an avoidance mechanism.
Rather, engage in some radical self-honesty first. Ask yourself: am I looking for a solution because I’m terrified to grieve? Because I’m scared shitless of what I might see if I do? Because I might actually begin to find new life in this? If so, understand that every grieving person feels all of these things in one form or another. Grieving is never something you're fully prepared for, even when you've experienced devastation in the past. You are not alone in your fears, your cries, and your insecurities.
There are a gazillion other people who feel scared as shit about far more trivial matters. It's ok to be afraid.
And it's ok to not be ok.
Grieving resembles a roller coaster of all that we are and all that we ever will be. It brings out our deepest fears, longings, and aches. The sooner we come to terms with that, the sooner we'll begin to change some of the ridiculous narratives surrounding grief.
SOME CONCLUDING THOUGHTS
Grieving people are already facing the most difficult battles of their lives. Labeling them as victims and wallowers only reinforces their feelings of shame and self-hatred.
With that said, even those we deem to be “wallowing” are still deserving of our love and compassion. In fact, they need our acknowledgment and support even more than others do, as they’re the most likely to be abandoned and forced to navigate their grief terrified and alone.
I've seen this time and again, and it breaks my heart every time.
At the end of the day, if you are grieving, please remember:
Grieving is not wallowing.
Grieving is not synonymous with weakness.
In fact, grieving is courageous. Grieving is a pilgrimage of tremendous love. Given our current cultural climate, grief is an act of rebellion—against the tyranny of positive thinking, against the delusion of the imperative happy ending, and against the forces that want you to believe there’s something “wrong” with grief.