No, We Don't All Grieve Differently
Updated: Sep 3
The Clanging Warning Bells of Abnormal Behaviour
When I lived in the USA, I was truly confused the first time I saw contestants on a quiz show clapping for themselves, after being introduced. What were they doing? You clap for other people, not yourself. Where was their modesty? Their dignity?
It turned out to be commonplace on North American television for contestants to proudly cheer themselves for turning up.
I came to realise that all societies have cultural norms; what I saw as lacking humility might be read by others as enthusiastic engagement. Acceptable etiquette can vary immensely by group, and few specific cultural benchmarks are measurably superior.
But life has taught me I was correct to be suspicious of norms that encourage performative, or egotistical behaviour.
The World Wide SpiderWeb
The internet rewards narcissism to a deeply worrying degree. We are all ensnared in its tendrils. It ambushes our minds, leeches our humanity, intelligence, ethics and decency before devouring our barely human husks.
I am aware of the irony of writing this online.
Most of us have a smidgeon of the narcissist. The magic mirror of the internet, where everyone vies for first place in the "Look at me" Olympics, has fed and distorted unwholesome traits and created millions of enormously inflated yet stunningly fragile egos. Borderline Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder traits seem to be on the rise.
The availability heuristic is doubtless at play to some extent. We see narcissists everywhere because, as is their wont, they demand attention.
But it's my genuine belief that the average human psyche has been gravely damaged by the internet.
The Negatives Outweigh The Positives
There was a time when I thought the benefits of the internet outweighed the obvious negatives. Now, if I could, I'd shut it down. It feeds the worst of us, amplifying the false consensus effect and offering shelter and camaraderie to malevolent anti-socials who do not benefit by encouragement. It encourages ignorance and self-obsession while bolstering the arrogant conceit of Dunning Krugerites who think Googling makes them an expert. To unearth real expertise, you must use your critical faculties, which have atrophied in most individuals, encouraged by the internet.
Humans in groups have rarely been particularly wise or capable of rational, critical decision making (citation: all of history). The internet has taken our trait of obeisance to groupthink and markedly elevated it. And many are conforming to dangerous, malevolent ideas.
In the Scotland of my youth, you were more likely to be vilified and mocked than rewarded for blowing your own trumpet. I am relieved to find that still appears to be the case. (Kevin Bridges is one of my favourite comedians, ever.)
Circling Back Around To My Point
In the hideous toxic hellscape that is the internet, narcissism is rewarded instantly,
As you may have guessed, my formative years were pre-internet, for which I increasingly thank my lucky stars. I therefore know there was a time before "grieving" publicly on Twitter existed, and a time after. And I don't think the new normal is an improvement.
You may prefer to dismiss this as the ravings of a dotard shaking her fists at the clouds, though my self-awareness and neuroplasticity are still quite functional, thank you.
To Tweet, Or Not To Tweet: It's Not A Question
I recently happened upon a tweet from a woman talking about her husband having died. The day before. He was 53. So one of her first actions on such an appalling loss was to seek pity/validation/retweets/likes from the 4000+ strangers who follow her on the machine.
We all grieve in the same ways, though the severity of the grief can be lesser, or greater. And the timeline can be quite different. For some grief can last a few months, for others a lifetime.
That's probably what some of you mean, when you say we all grieve differently.
And I very much believe in allowing people to grieve as they wish for as long as they need, and consider telling someone to get over it or move on to be unnecessary, unhelpful and sometimes even abusive. For what it's worth (and like all appeals to authority, that's not much), I worked as a volunteer grief counsellor with kids for a year, while I was studying counselling. In my opinion:
Tweeting the devastating loss of your husband the day after it happened is not, actually, normal.
And no, we don't all grieve differently, no matter how loudly you chant that mantra.
There are very good - survival-based - reasons why we've evolved to be attuned to abnormal behaviours.
People who behave abnormally can sometimes be dangerous.
Unfortunately, the instinct to protect ourselves from the aberrant has sometimes led to people being bullied for being different, when their difference is not actually dangerous to others. I'm not encouraging that. And I am not excusing that.
But I understand that being aware of abnormal behaviour is a survival instinct rooted deep within us.
I am not saying burn the witch or stone the outsider. For large chunks of my life I've been the witch and the outsider. If life were The Breakfast Club I'd have been Allison Reynolds.
I'm saying: don't dismiss your instincts: because they evolved for a reason. Pay attention. Do not allow your good nature or compelled tolerance (which is in reality venomous intolerance of any opinion outside accepted groupthink) to blind you to the fact that if someone is behaving performatively that's another way of saying they're lying. In public. For attention.
And liars are dangerous.
My automatic, knee-jerk response to perceived or claimed sadness, oppression or victimhood is sympathy and compassion. That response has been dangerous for me, and one day I will write about that.
Allowing your natural empathy and compassion to blind you to abnormal behviour could be dangerous for you too.
When Your Spidey Senses Tingle
We are aware on a bone-deep level when someone isn't really grieving. I've seen the same people you have making famous public statements about their poor children or unfortunate spouse who mysteriously vanished, or turned up dead.
I knew they were lying. So did you. But you've been told, over and over, you're not allowed to think that. It's unkind and judgemental.
Where You Should Fear To Tread
I read the book The Gift Of Fear by Gavin De Becker years ago, and it's still a best seller today for a reason. He discusses the way we are attuned to danger, and how we are all - but women in particular - socialised into being nice, kind and submissive.
My personal experience has taught me that "Don't Judge Me!" Is the catch cry of abusers.
You should judge. We must all judge. It is essential.
And don't instruct me to be kind.
No: We Don't All Grieve Differently
So let's be clear: Humans individually grieve in the same basic ways, across a spectrum. I'm not referring to the cultural trappings of grief, I'm referring to personal reactions to genuine grief.
As I stated, the timeline of grief can vary considerably. The severity of grief can vary.
But the basic behaviours don't.
Most of us are attuned to recognise genuine grief.
You are able to identify another human's agitation, anger or distress with a mere glance at their silhouette as they drive past you. Why do you pretend that what we notice about behaviours isn't real and vital. Why do you allow enforced politeness to trump your instincts?
Listen to yourself. You are the only person in the entire world you can be absolutely certain isn't lying to you.
The Painful Truth
Think of it like this: we all feel pain in the same way. Some of us flinch and scream, some just flinch, wince, some bite their lips. This is dependent on the level of pain, our ability to endure pain, and on many factors.
But we all feel pain along the same spectrum, including the pain of grief.
If I claimed that chuckling merrily at pain was normal you would know I was lying. Laughing at pain might be taught, but it's certainly not normal. And tweeting to get attention from strangers when the most important person in your life has just died isn't normal either.
Normal Is As Normal Does
Normal means approximately average, conforming to a general and accepted standard. Abnormal means just the opposite.
As I said, I believe in allowing people to grieve as they wish for as long as they need, and I consider telling someone to get over it or move on to be unnecessary, unhelpful and sometimes even abusive.
But that's not the point. The point is that the great majority of us know what normal grief looks like.
We have evolved our spidey senses over millennia of evolution. We judge people and situations all the time. "It’s part of our human skill set, we use this unconscious expertise to protect ourselves. We learned long ago in our evolutionary journey to see the tail twitch, to hear the hiss and to respond appropriately. Using judgement in dangerous situations is how our ancestors were able to pass down their DNA to us.
So consider this: If you feel someone's grief isn't really deep and isn't really real, perhaps that's because it isn't.
I'm not suggesting we need to follow sets of rules for human behaviour or even interfere in other people's performances.
I am suggesting you pay attention attention to your gut. I am saying we instinctively know what real grief and looks like.
And real grief does not look like asking for a round of validatory likes and retweets from an audience of thousands of strangers the day after the sudden death of your life partner.
If you're tweeting that you're grief-stricken the day after someone so close to you dies, you're simply not that grief-stricken.
No - you're not in shock. No - we don't all grieve differently. No - this isn't your only form of comfort. It's just aberrant behaviour.
The simplest explanation is usually correct. No need to extrapolate or imagine what if scenarios. The obvious reason is usually the correct one.
The layers and levels of grieving.
I suppose I can understand why some announce deaths on Fakebook. I personally would still send a private message, but at least you probably know those people.
But Twitter? No.
Sorrowful tweets for the death of a celebrity are expected. Surface-level grief. It's a loss when someone famous whom you admire dies, but it's not true grief, which is indeed why we feel able to immediately tweet about it.
I sense the strawman you're itching to set fire to. Tweeting about a national disaster, for example, or a clear and present danger is understandable. You're trying to warn others. Not the same thing at all.
Then there are friends, loved ones, people you've known personally but might not have been close to on a daily basis. Mid level grief. It hurts a lot more, but it might be possible to get on with your life fairly normally after a brief period of mourning. You might indeed be able to tweet about it the next day.
Pets and animal companions are a different grief again. Despite what some claim, it's not the same as losing a human being, of course. But it is certainly a deep, lasting pain and sense of loss that can even last a lifetime.
And then there's your immediate family and loved ones. For example, your husband, just 53 years old, passes away suddenly.
Deep grief looks like many things. But what deep grief doesn't look like is instantaneously tweeting about it to strangers.
In this Brave New World which demands obeisance to feelpinions, where we are all supposed to pretzel knot ourselves to avoid giving even the slightest offence, I daresay it's verboten to state that behaving as though you're not that grief-stricken probably just means you're not that grief-stricken.
Not in my world though. And if you're honest, not in that deep, lizard part of your brain that assesses the authenticity of others.
Pay attention to how people behave, not just what they say.
Don't be silly, this is not an attack
For an accusation of an attack to have any merit (and disagreement, isn't, generally) I'd have had to link to the woman and comment on her specifically. I did not comment on the tweet because:
In the event of the tiny possibility that she might, actually be truly grieving, I wouldn't deliberately take the chance of adding to her pain.
There might be people around her who are, actually, grieving. No need to make them feel worse by pointing out her display.
There could be no actual gain to me or to anybody else by doing so. Explaining that performative grief is highly suspect in 280 characters isn't really possible, would have changed no minds or hearts and might have led to a Twitter mob.
Why does it matter?
So why does this bother me enough to write about it?
Usually, you can simply ignore the performance. Perhaps with a little moue of disgust and an eye roll. There's little else that can be done, unfortunately, because doing nothing allows the performative griever to exist in a little echo chamber of self satisfaction, thereby encouraging others to behave in similar ways in a grotesque snowball effect.
But, for me, there's a deeper issue.
There are, swimming amongst us, sharks prettily larping as dolphins. You cannot tell them apart visually. But you can collect clues from their speech patterns and behaviours.
These people are psychopaths. According to some estimates there exists 1 psychopath for every 100 oblivious dolphins. Some estimates are higher. They feel no guilt, shame or fear. And they exist. At this point, that's not even a discussion.
If you read the book linked above, you should also ignore everything Ron Johnson says on the subject, as his claims to being any kind of an expert on Dr Hare's work have been utterly debunked and repudiated by Dr Hare himself.
Once, I was friends with a psychopath, and will admit this has made me somewhat paranoid. What I now know about the reality of psychopaths among us has forced me to pay attention.
And since I know a person in deep grief doesn't perform grief publicly for attention from strangers, I can't help wondering what the plan is. Is it just to feed their conceit? To gain attention? To set people up for a scam? What's the end game?
Garden Variety Narcissism
The aforementioned tweeter is probably just a common or garden narcissist, who doesn’t have many deep feelings, but is not particularly dangerous unless you trust your emotions or life to her.
But once upon a terrible time, I quashed my natural repugnance at a psychopathic displays and pretences and told myself it was all harmless enough. I tried to pretend that normal humans don't all behave in much the same way in most situations. I tried to fill in the gaps for her and believe her - even though every bone in my body told me she was an insufferable liar milking those around her, including her children, for her own gains. Her claims of suffering were entirely false, unless you count rage at not getting her own way as suffering. It was a difficult year. I learned the hard way not to ignore my own instinctive feelings.
And I feel a natural, instinctive repugnance and disbelief when I see public, performative grief of any kind, but in particular when the person claims to be feeling deep grief.
I feel disgust. And these days I don't ignore my disgust. We feel disgust at cockroaches, poisonous creatures, weeping sores and rotting meat because they're dirty and diseased.
Someone who will use the death of a close family member to gather attention from strangers is not, in my opinion, am authentic or safe person. And it's exactly the sort of stunt that Stacey used to pull. (Name changed to protect the guilty).
If you want to know how fast terrible situations can escalate when you encourage and nourish psychopaths, just ask me.
I really do need to finish that book.
The reason we have expectations of behaviour is that we recognise inherently what is normal and what is aberrant.
Aberrant behaviour can be a warning bell that someone is dangerous.
Let's stop mincing words. Getting straight on the internet to publicly honk your feelings at strangers means you're not heartbroken.
Performative grief is a form of lying.
Liars are dangerous.
I trust my instincts much more now, and I wish I always had.
And finally — as always- do as you please (you will anyway)
This opinion piece in no way prevents you, or anyone else, from behaving as you wish.
These words cause no harm or damage to the tweeter in question. She is not and you are not under attack.
You're allowed to choose to feel offended. I don't care.
There are no rules to grieving and I'm not trying to stipulate any. But there are norms, and they are considered norms because they are within the normal range of behaviours.
This is not a court of law. You’re being asked to do absolutely nothing except to pay attention. Use your instincts. Do not ignore what you feel in the pit of your stomach. And consider the notion that you might want to protect yourself by removing yourself from people who raise your hackles.
Take or leave my words, as you wish. You will anyway.
I will just keep repeating the same thing, till my voice grows hoarse and my fingers grow weary:
People show you who they are all the time. Please believe them.
And as for those of you who don't like the truth being pointed in your direction - you know who you are - know this. I can see you.
I see you very well.
Feel the urge to disagree? No problem. Please disagree with what I've said. Not what you imagine I've said, have inferred that I've said or wish I'd said. Thanks.
Alison Tennent, Queensland, Australia, August 2021 Copyright Alison Tennent 2021, all rights reserved. Scottish by birth, upbringing and bloodline, Australian by citizenship. If you’re reading this anywhere but The Garrulous Glaswegian, Vocal+ or Medium, this work may have been plagiarized.