This is something that has been heavy on my heart, and a topic I've been passionate about as of lately. It feels as though I live in a culture of disenfranchised grief and loss.
Loss conveys a sense of deprivation, that parts of a person have been stripped away against their will. It is an adjustment from a perfectly ordinary life, then the loss happened, and it was no longer a normal day and would never be again. The person becomes powerless, feeling as if they were robbed. Many people have been socialized to only see the described loss and grief in relation to a death event, to bereavement. But, these sentiments of grief and loss are found in the echoes of survivors of sexual trauma.
In fact, sexual trauma is a non-death loss experience. The moment a survivor experienced sexual trauma, they were robbed of the freedom to participate in a life of possibilities and protections. Their life became revolved around loss. Despite the substantial impact that sexual trauma has on many lives and communities, it garners less recognition and support than other losses. Society cannot hope to meet the needs of survivors if their lived realities of grief and loss remain unacknowledged.
Unfortunately for those who go through trauma and experience grief, social support is one of the most powerful determinants of trauma effects. Such support includes acceptance, validation, empathy, the care and nurturing from loved ones, and the availability of additional support. This is unfortunate because of the way we have been socialized to view grief, pain, and loss. I would argue, that at some point all grief becomes disenfranchised and unrecognized on top of there being some losses that begin being unrecognized. The most difficult aspect of disenfranchised grief becomes the unnecessary suffering grieving people are made to carry on top of their actual grief.
The way we deal with grief and loss in American society is broken. It is a symptom of American culture, and I have heard our culture described many clever ways; a pain-avoidant culture, a cult of positivity and fixers, and a culture of grief illiteracy. American culture sees pain and distress as bad things and pain is seen as wrong after a certain amount of time. But pain is not wrong, it is a healthy, normal response when someone or something you love is torn from your life. Living in a pain-avoidant culture of fixers, though, creates suffering.
This stems from the natural human tendency to want to make others feel better and to have order. We all just want to take away the pain, to help those we love. The problem is we have been taught the wrong way to do it. People see pain as something to overcome or fix instead of something to tend or support. As a result, grief gets a narrow window (or none at all) to be expressed. After that, a person is expected to return to normal.
Grief, we say, is something to get through as quickly as possible; trauma and the grief that comes with it is an unfortunate but fleeting experience that is best put behind a person. Pain needs to be removed, medicated, or avoided. In our uncomfortability with pain and our need for there to always be a silver-lining, everyone has an opinion on how someone should be grieving – but even further, how they can grieve better. People tend to skip over the true reality of the situation (even if they don’t feel the same way), which is, this hurts for that person – no matter where it stands on someone’s hierarchy of grief.
Though they don’t mean to, people make grief worse when they try to gloss it over, make it go away, or pretty it up with positivity. The messages we are quick to send others are painful and a disservice to us all. These messages are quick with “comfort,” judgment, meaning-making, dismissal, and abandonment – ignoring the person’s very real and current pain.
Unfortunately, there is a high cost to denying grief. Denying grief is what we have been trained to do: These responses a person receives from their loved ones and supposed support system make it so that it is easier to pretend everything is alright than to continually defend and explain their grief to those who couldn’t understand. The support that has the potential for buffering the effects of trauma exacerbates them instead. Denial and suppression lead to increased chances of intrusive and chronic problems – avoidance increases or sustains posttraumatic symptoms and pain. Unaddressed and unacknowledged pain doesn’t go away; it attempts to be heard in any way it can, often manifesting in anxiety, depression, social isolation, and substance addiction. At a time when we perhaps most need love and support, each one of us has instead felt judged, dismissed, alone, and misunderstood.
But a person’s pain is valid. Even traditionally disenfranchised grief that comes with unrecognized loss from the beginning – such as a miscarriage, lost dream, or death of a pet – is valid. A whole other layer gets added to those who experience not only that their grief is not accepted as valid but that their loss is not accepted as valid either. The difference between what the outside world believes and what a person knows to be true (simply that there is pain in this loss for that person) is one of the hardest aspects of grief. One of the cruelest parts of grief is seeing all of the people who can't or won't support you in your pain. To be told not to feel what one feels, to be told there is something wrong with those feelings or wrong with the person who holds those feelings. People end up with little to no social support and end up avoiding their pain – which, as already stated, makes things worse.
Grievers don't need to be fixed, they need to be supported. They need echoes that say "I'm here" even and especially when you don't know what to do. Resist the natural tendency to make things right. Become a support hero who surrounds a person with love. You might say but that's uncomfortable. It is. And that's way easier said than done. You're right.
The pain paradox is that people are to stay present in their pain, to avoid less, and to experience more. Rather than erase or escape or hide or deny pain and grief, Americans might tend to it as though it were healthy and normal, in need of compassionate care. It is.