Prejudice, Discrimination, and Bereaved People
Part 2: Reactions and Suggestions
Bob Baugher, Ph.D.
Des Moines, Washington
In Part 1 of this article we looked at causes of prejudice against bereaved people. In this article we will explore reactions and suggestions for coping with prejudice.
Many times over the years people have said to me following the death of a loved one, “I’ve lost friends. They just drifted away.” or “My brother won’t talk about my son” or “They say they know just how I feel.” Whatever the reason for such statements, they can feel discriminatory. What I mean here is, you’ve done nothing wrong. But people do and say things that are judgmental. Let’s look next at some common reactions to acts of discrimination and relate them to the grief process.
Anger. Think of a time when someone judged you just by looking at you. How did it feel? When we are categorized, put down, misunderstood, or ignored, one possible reaction is anger. In turn it can be directed at the culprit, at the world in general, at oneself, or even the person who died. Coping with grief is tough enough. Doing it in the midst of a world that doesn’t understand is tougher.
Self-denigration. The death of a loved one can certainly negatively affect one’s self-concept. Adding to it the difficulty of dealing with those around you can result in feelings of low self-esteem. Without a support group of like individuals or understanding friends and relatives, a bereaved person may ask, “What is wrong with me?”
Paranoia. When you are drowning in an ocean of emotions, you may begin to believe that people are talking behind your back. And it may be true. You walk into the room and people stop talking, heads turn, people smile. Were they talking about you? Against your will you have been thrust into another category: a bereaved parent, a widower, a fatherless child, a person whose sister died. For a time, you may feel center stage with others looking on. You may wonder what others are saying about you.
Avoidance. Victims of discrimination often avoid those situations where prejudice is likely to come up. Why place yourself around people who don’t/can’t understand you? Why put up with clichés, stares, or abandonment? As a result, you begin to close yourself off to others. It feels easier this way. When people ask how you’re doing, you surmise they don’t really want to know. So, you say, “Fine.”
Backlash. This is similar to anger, but in this case we identify so much with similar others that we begin to feel alienated at those who’ve not experienced a similar loss. Years ago, when I was given permission to attend a support group by group members of a widowed support group as part of my research on widowhood, a woman walked in the first night and asked the ten widowed women sitting in the circle, “Have any of you experienced the suicide of your husband?” Upon being met with silence, she turned and left. Despite later urging from the group facilitators, the woman refused to return, stating that she had nothing in common with the other women. As shown in this example, it can become “us” versus “them” or “in-group” versus “out-group.” For example, if the only books, articles, lectures, or experts on grief or loss that a bereaved sibling will recognize are those of another bereaved sibling, this is its own form of discrimination. It goes something like this: “No one can understand me except another sibling.” In a way this is true. Unless you’ve walked in the shoes of a person whose loved one has died in a similar way, you really can’t see the world from their perspective. On the other hand, to dismiss input from someone who may be able to offer insight is to shut out potential help.
As we avoid those we perceive as “different,” we may also seek similar others. Look around at other victims of prejudice. They gravitate toward others in the same boat. Of course there’s nothing wrong with this. For many people support groups are a Godsend. Many parents and widowed people have told me that they don’t know how they would have made it without their support group.
It is well known that discriminated groups develop their own language. We see it in phrases that carry much more meaning to people who have had similar experiences. For people in grief it is: “How many years has it been?” “I received a sign last night.” “One day at a time is too much. For me it’s one moment at a time.” “We had a difficult Thanksgiving.” “This year he would have graduated.” “I had a tough time sitting at her best friend’s wedding.” People who’ve “been there” immediately understand such phrases.
Given this long history of discrimination against bereaved people, what can we do? Here are some suggestions that come right out of the research on prejudice:
1. Education—You are right when you say that no one can understand your loss. However, you know it is true that people who’ve not experienced what you have can still lend a hand. Find a helpful article (such as those in this magazine), a website, a movie, a book or a YouTube segment that can help those around you gain at least some insight into your grief.
2. Teach directly—I know, I know, you’re tired of trying to tell others how to help. Consider practicing a sentence or two that could help others help you. For example, to you brother you might say, “When we talk on the phone and I bring up my husband, I would love it if you let me talk about him without changing the subject.” Or to your friend you can say, “When I begin to cry, the best you can do is just be silent and let me go until I’m done.” Or “Here’s a book on grief that explains some of what I’ve been going through. Will you read it?”
3. Get Support—If you are in a support group, ask others how they’ve dealt with issues of prejudice. If not, perhaps join an online support group or ask someone you know what their grief-related discriminatory experiences have been.
When a precious loved one dies, wouldn’t you think that the people around you would be able to put aside their prejudgments and step up to help you in any way they can? No, they haven’t walked in your shoes and they fumble around trying to figure you out. However, when you really think about it, you wouldn’t wish that they would suffer a loss like yours, would you? As you so clearly know, no one is immune from suffering tragedy. And so it will be that those who stand in judgment of bereaved people today will someday themselves see the world from an entirely new perspective. In the meantime, with prejudice such an automatic human response, perhaps in our own grief we can take a step back and let go a little of our own tendency to judge those who judge us.
Published in Grief Digest, Oct, 2011.