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Prejudice and Discrimination in Grief (Part 1)

Bob Baugher, Ph.D.

Highline College

Des Moines, Washington

Have you felt in some way that you’ve been discriminated against since the death of your loved one? Not in a way that is in-your-face. But in a way that you may have said to yourself, “Hey, what was that?” If so, read on. In the Human Relations course I’ve been teaching for 37 years, one of the topics we discuss is prejudice. Several years ago, I was asked by The Compassionate Friends group in Tacoma to give a talk on prejudice against bereaved people. Here is the substance of that talk in which I applied the causes of and reactions to prejudice to people who are in the midst of coping with the death of a loved one.

First, what is prejudice? It is a prejudgment before all the facts are in. This definition renders it easy to understand that we are all prejudice—no one walks around devoid of prejudgments. Next, what is discrimination? It is the display of our prejudices. Discrimination is what we do, while prejudice is what we think and feel.

In this article we will briefly examine five approaches to understanding causes of prejudice as they relate to grief. In Part 2 of this article, we’ll look at common reactions to prejudice and suggestions for coping with it.

The Sociobiological Approach—This approach states that there is a genetic tendency in which the greater the perceived differences we see in another person, the more likely we will be uncomfortable around him or her which can lead to discrimination. When a woman or man is thrust into widowed status, this now single person is certainly different, but others may see this person as different in ways that are discriminatory. For example, a widowed woman may be seen by some of her friends as “the lonely widow who wants a man—maybe my man.” The death of a child places parents and siblings into a frightful category because friends and relatives may think that death may be catching. Parents have told me, “Bob, it seems that people look into my eyes and think, ‘If it could happen to your child, it could happen to mine.’” One day you’re like everyone else and the next day people see you as a leper.

The Psychological Approach—Stereotyping is a common reaction that emerges when we attempt to characterize a person by ascribing traits based on his or her group membership. A 50-year-old man whose 75-year-old mother dies is seen by others as not really needing to grieve too much since, “she lived to a ripe old age.” Therefore, people’s prejudice or prejudgment against this man’s continuing grief is evident when we find people wondering what’s wrong with this man who is still grieving his mother several years later.

The Sociocultural Approach—We can call this Institutionalized “Griefism.” The media is often a reflection of how our society thinks about the world. For example, several years ago I did an analysis of the way journalists respond to bereaved people on television shows such as Dateline, Primetime, and 20-20 plus newspaper and radio excerpts. Based on my findings I coined an acronym that lists the words or phrases I found media folks (news commentators, journalists, reporters) using in their references to people who’ve experienced a loss. The acronym is CHARGE. C=Closure—as in, “they’ve found the body, now closure can begin”, H=Healing—three days after a tragedy “Let the healing begin,” A=Acceptance, R=Recover, G=Get over it, and E=End it. This is discrimination, pure and simple because these are not the words commonly used by bereaved people. Built into our culture, and by extension, our media, is the prejudicial belief that bereaved people need to have closure, to be healed, to accept, recover, get over it and end it. Those bereaved folks who fail to do so are obviously not following the expectations of society at large. In other words, there’s something wrong with them.

Childhood experiences—Another contributing factor to prejudice are the experiences we’ve had growing up. If we were protected from death by not being allowed to visit a terminally ill person or to be present when a person died or to be banned from funerals, then we inevitably grow up seeing death—and by extension—grief—as a foreign experience. When we come across bereaved people, we may see their behavior as “strange.” Not having a firm foundation for understanding the vast array of grief reactions and the ways grief can transform a person is contributes to prejudgment.

Earned Reputation—This approach to prejudice goes something like this: after years of being oppressed, a group of people revolts saying, “We’re not going to take it anymore.” As soon as these folks call attention to their plight in words or actions, the people who’ve been putting them down say, “What’s wrong with these people? They should be happy with what they’ve got.” So it goes with bereaved people who get frustrated with people who abandon them, or who want them to be over it, or never again mention the name of the deceased loved one. A common example of Earned Reputation is the attempt by well-meaning people who, in an attempt to make things better after a death, begin their sentence with the words “at least.” Phrases such as At least you have other grandchildren, or At least you were married for 29 years or At least he didn’t suffer remind bereaved people that people who mouth such statements just don’t get it. Then, when the bereaved person expresses frustration at these empty attempts, the instigator wonders, “What’s wrong with her? I was only trying to help.”

I believe that, before we each experienced our own significant losses, we all discriminated against bereaved people. We were well-meaning in our attempts to understand “those people,” but with the multiple ways that prejudice crept into our consciousness, we hadn’t learned more supportive ways to help; and we often wondered why our efforts were not appreciated. Today we hopefully know a little better. Grief is a heck of a price for understanding.

Of course there are some who just don’t care what comes out of their mouth while others want you to be over it so they can stop feeling so uncomfortable. As suggested in the Sociocultural approach, the society in which we live has not done a service to bereaved people when they collectively look at their watches and ask, “You’re not over it, yet?”

Look for Part 2 in the next issue in which we look at reactions to prejudice and suggestions for reducing it.

Published in Grief Digest, July, 2011.


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