Why Most People Don’t Understand Grief

One of the most common complaints from people who have lost a loved one is that others in their life don’t get it. Friends and family have a tendency to make comments that range from awkward to downright cruel, and just don’t seem to understand either the emotional responses to the death of a close family member or the practical challenges that accompany a death in the family.

If you’re in this situation, rest assured that your friends and family are no more tone-deaf than normal—this experience is very common. And there’s three very simple reasons.

Most People Haven’t Experienced a Major Loss

It is actually a good thing, on a societal level, that most people don’t understand grief—it’s because early death is relatively rare in our society. If you’re under 40, chances are that most of your peer group hasn’t experienced the death of a sibling or spouse, and most of them probably have two parents who are alive and well. Even older people often only have experience with the death of parents who lived to a ripe old age.

If you don’t have any first-hand experience with grief (or even experience comforting another friend or family member), it can be very difficult to understand.

We Don’t Talk About Grief

While you might be disappointed to find that many close friends don’t understand what you’re going through, you might also be surprised to find out who does understand. As a culture, we don’t tend to talk much about grief or traumatic events, so people you know who have experienced a major loss might not have told you about, especially if they aren’t close friends.

Not talking about grief means that people are often completely unaware of how grief has effected people in their lives outside of their immediate family and close friends. It makes grief invisible, and makes it even more difficult for people without personal experience with grief to understand.

Grief is Personal

You also might encounter people who have experienced a loss similar to your own—but who say baffling things anyway. Grief is personal and each person’s relationship with his or her parent/sibling/spouse/friend is different, so often even those who have experienced a similar loss don’t really understand another person’s situation. It’s also human nature to generalize from our own experiences—so someone who likes spa treatments might buy a gift card for a spa for a friend who has experienced a similar loss, without reflecting on the fact that the friend in question doesn’t have a babysitter and/or dislikes spas.

Managing and reacting to other people’s expectations and comments can be a significant stressor for people who have recently lost a loved one. Even though most friends and family try to be supportive, their lack of grief experience can lead them to become a burden. If you’re struggling with getting people in your life to understand what you’re going through—and find ways to provide meaningful support—working with a counselor can help you work through both why certain actions or words are hurtful as well as how to communicate your needs.

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