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  • Writer's pictureDr Jo

Grief Bullies

Art by Hannah Lotz, sister of Tyler Lotz, always loved and always missed

There are different kinds of people with whom we come into contact with after someone we deeply love, like our child, dies.

Here's a history lesson: in the case of Mary Todd Lincoln (Abraham's wife) and too many other grieving women (and sometimes men) through history and around the world, an encounter with grief bullies was far too common. And as a result, she suffered immensely until her own death. That's right: grief bullies ravaged her entire life.

Mary's mother died when she was six years old. As if that's not horrific enough, she and Abraham lost their 4 year old son, Eddie, to tuberculosis. And as if this wasn't excruciating enough for the couple, she then witnessed his assassination at close range and,

"the wails of a broken heart, the unearthly shrieks, the terrible convulsions” of the bereft widow. Though those reactions might seem appropriate for a woman who witnessed her husband’s traumatic assassination at close range, they were seen as indicative of an unladylike craving for attention at the time" (Blackmore, 2018).

Uh huh.  Unladylike craving for attention. Offensive? Yeah. Offensive. So, her mother, child, then husband died, all traumatic deaths.

Then, when her other child, Tad died in 1871, 

"...she began to behave more and more erratically. Her health declined and she began to suffer from paranoid delusions. Appalled by her displays, her son Robert had her committed to a mental institution in 1875" (Blackmore, 2018).

Okay. So, she lost her mother at a very young age, two of her beloved children, and watched her husband murdered at close range.

Why wouldn't she feel paranoid? Like the world was out to get her, maybe? Instead of being met with compassionates, she was a "laughingstock" for all the bullies.

Well, some may think that we've evolved since the late 19th century.

Maybe. Maybe not so much.

Mary's story, sadly, is not too much unlike stories I have heard for the past two decades. We haven't evolved as much as we should have, especially when it comes to grief, and the open display of painful emotions. Such displays elicit strange reactions from people.

And while some people are wonderful, other people are not-so-wonderful.

Yet, still, some others are an absolute nightmare.

If we 'reduced' it down to three types of people who grievers encounter, this is what I see most often (this is reductionistic, I know, but just to make the point):

One kind of person, The Compassionates, is kind, open-hearted, and tender, willing to sit with us and listen to our grief. This person doesn’t run away, terrified, or come with an agenda to cheer us up, change the subject, or infuse us with the spiritual or clinical wisdom that will make us feel better. Instead, this person comes willing to listen to our story, in its constancy or ever-changing form, without judgment. When we are ready to take a walk, this person walks with us. When we are ready to laugh, this person laughs with us. When we want to remember our precious one who died, this person sits on the floor with us and looks at our treasured photos. Maybe this person even weeps with us, or at least this person doesn't run the other way when we do. (If you know this person, tell this person how rare and appreciated he or she is). To those open hearted, compassionates, I humbly bow and thank you embodying such compassion.

There is another kind of person, The Fearful Apathetics, and that is the person who avoids us.  In the grocery story, this person turns the cart the other when as we come down the aisle. This person sees us at church or school or a gathering and doesn’t say anything to us. Or, if this person does, there is no mention of our tragedy or even a, “how are you, really?” He or she may be scared to say something wrong or evoke tears. Sometimes, if this person sees us, maybe this person will take a chance, clumsily falling over words, trying very hard to help us feel better about our loss. There may be platitudes involved like, “Everything happens for a reason,” or “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” or “Well, you’re young, you can have more children (or remarry).”  This person may even have good intentions but can actually incite a sense of despair in a grieving person, especially in early grief. To the terrified avoider, please, learn more. Read my book. Read other books. Learn so you are more comfortable with the grief and suffering of another, better able to act with love, not fear.

Then, there is The Grief Bully who is utterly mindless, dangerous, and sometimes cruel. This person may berate us for still grieving for “so long” and may intimate that something is terribly wrong with us. This person may provoke feelings of fear and insecurity, intense self-doubt and questioning: “Is there something wrong with me for feeling so sad?”  This person may accuse us of “wallowing”, may push their own "happiness cult agenda" ("You have to choose to be happy), or may assume we have some form of mental illness simply because we are grieving. Some of these dangerous people may not have dealt with their own traumas and losses in the past in a healthy way, and so your pain terrifies them. Others are emotionally immature, so set on forcing "good feelings" and suppressing "bad feelings" that they will run roughshod over any express of authentic emotion. Some people may try to persuade the use of drugs or alcohol to escape the pain: "Let's go get a drink," they say. Seductive, perhaps; but very dangerous especially if we have not yet regained our footing in the world. This type of person may engage the harsher, more insidious, platitudes like, “Its time to move on” or “You need to get over it” or even “You’re being selfish.” These assertions can send confusingly painful messages to grieving people. Maybe they've suggested that our tears are unkempt, exaggerated calls for attention, just like Mary Todd Lincoln experienced. Maybe this person has even suggested that we need to be hospitalized because our "grief is too big", just like a bereaved mother I worked with two weeks ago. Tsk tsk. We can't have grief be "too big" now, can we? What kind of bully picks on a vulnerable person during the most vulnerable time in his or her life? 

There has been a long-standing, historical trend to quell human emotions, especially in nonconforming or disobedient women, that hasn't waned enough over the years. As early as 1600 BC, feminine "hysteria" was akin to demonological madness, cured with "herbs, sex or sexual abstinence, punished and purified with fire for its association with sorcery and finally, clinically studied as a disease and treated with innovative therapies" (Tasca, et al, 2012).

Innovative? Barbaric, more like it. Forced hospitalizations, electroconvulsive therapy, and medically proscribed sexual violations to induce "hysterical paroxysm" were hardly 'innovative' for the estimated 75% of women in the 19th century asserted to be plagued with this 'disease'. Feminine emotions were to be controlled, docile, and certainly could not disrupt the home or corporate economic system. Women's emotions, like grief no doubt, had no place in society, and their emotions simply got in the way of their 'household duties', especially for "intellectual women" (Theus, 2014):

"the 'rest-cure could be used to discipline women whose illness became a means of avoiding household duties... This reflects the status of women at the time but their role was to be submissive, docile and in all ways well behaved and subservient to men" (Sigurðardóttir, 2003).  

That's right. Keep women unintellectual and unemotional and they will keep making dinner. This emotional subjugation has not done anyone any favors through the years. It has simply advanced the anti-emotion agenda of social control. My friend, Dr. Robert Stolorow, calls it a "war on emotions." Whatever we call it,  this psychological imperialism and oppression has to stop.

Let's bring forth, and encourage, The Compassionates, educate The Fearful Apathetics, and fight back against The Grief Bullies.

So I say to the bullies:

I am a bereaved mother.

Hear me, and hear me  r o a r.

You will not tell me how to grieve. You will not tell me when to be quiet. You will not tell me where or how I am allowed to express myself.

My emotions are mine

Keep your labels, cliches, drugs, and assumptions off my grief.

Keep your judgment off my grief.

And get over your need for me to get over my grief.


Mary Todd Lincoln eventually got herself declared sane, and moved to Europe. Tragically, when she died in 1882 at the age of 63, she was still being "hounded by bad press and public condemnation" by grief bullies.

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