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Is There a Limit on Mourning?

Three months ago, a child died in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  A memorial was placed near the park, and a woman went there on Thursday and started dismantling it, saying that the neighbourhood had mourned “enough.”  It was her right to do so, she told the person who confronted her, because she also lived in the neighbourhood.  Police came to speak to the woman, and the person who confronted her left, leaving the situation in the hands of law enforcement.

The story is obviously sad in and of itself, and who knows how that act affected that family’s mourning process.  Or his friends.

But it also spoke to this larger question, one that many people who have grappled with loss have confronted at some point in their process: who gets to determine what is “enough” grieving time?

Humans love to quantify things, which is why the Pirahã fascinate us: this culture that quantifies nothing.  Whereas we have an obsession with numbers: price tags, speed limits, time, paid leave.  It doesn’t surprise me that we try to extend it to grief.  Though examining how ridiculous it is when applying a time limit to grief, you see how ridiculous it is to apply numbers to anything.  Why is our maternity leave 12 weeks?  Who ever thought that you could really straighten out your life and your heart in 12 weeks?  And for others, 12 weeks isn’t necessary at all.  The speed limit near the park was deemed safe until a car collided with Sammy Eckstein as he chased his ball.  Now some people want it lower.  Other people drive as if it’s higher.  The truth seems to be different for each individual.

I would caution anyone in determining anyone else’s mourning time; not just when it comes to cutting down memorials, but stepping in for someone’s “own good” and telling them they need to move along.  You never know when your actions are like a fingernail, scratching off a scab, bringing forth fresh blood.

24 comments

1 a { 01.18.14 at 10:45 pm }

Yep. That’s about the only thing I’ve learned from my reproductive trials.

2 Geochick { 01.18.14 at 11:33 pm }

I totally agree. I would also argue that when a child dies, no one should expect there to be ever be a limit on the grieving. As for infertility mourning, I’m finding I have to now hide my mourning. Granted, it’s much faded, not the super sharp knife that it used to be, but it’s not acceptable for me to be upset about pregnancy announcements anymore. At least that’s the vibe I get.

3 Life Breath Present { 01.19.14 at 12:20 am }

I deal with grief and mourning with respect. It’s not my place, as it isn’t/wasn’t my relationship. Besides, I certainly wouldbt want anyone frowning on my grief process.

I once took a month off of work following an unexpected death in my family. That person’s mother I told others to back off from (and still would, years layer) because I don’t think anyone has a place in determining the route of others’ lives, especially when it comes to grief.

I also believe that one never really “gets over it”, they simply learn to live with it’s presence, when can reduce over time…

4 Catwoman73 { 01.19.14 at 5:20 am }

In the city where I reside, I can think of three memorials that have been standing for YEARS. It blows my mind that there are people out there who feel it is their right to decide when enough is enough. The only people who really have that right are the family and friends of the deceased.

From an infertility standpoint, my experience has been similar to that of Geochick- I feel I have to hide how I’m feeling every time there is a pregnancy announcement (there have been 11 for me in the last 6 months- that’s a lot of hidden emotion), because I get the feeling that people think I should be over it by now. And I’m not over it. Truth is, I never will be ‘over it,’ but I’m hoping that the pain starts to ease with the passage of time. It’s sad, because there seems to be this ever-widening gulf between myself and those who can have more children- I feel like I am drifting away from so many people who are important to me because I’m just not able to listen to their pregnancy concerns, hopes and dreams. Grief really can be life-altering- it’s not just a passing state of mind.

5 ANDMom { 01.19.14 at 5:52 am }

I agree in concept … disagree about memorials.

In my old neighborhood, I boy was killed on the sidewalk outside of a private home. People set up a memorial on those people’s fence. People who did not know that boy suddenly had their private property covered with written messages, flags, etc. It is still there 10 years later, because every time they have tried to take it down, people come back and do it again. Can you imagine the frustration of spending the time and money to have your fence repainted, just to have people come along and write all over it again?

As much as it sucks, our grief cannot infringe on someone else’s choices for their life or property. We don’t get to go around saying “I’m sad, so you can’t be happy” or “I can’t have a baby so you can’t either”. There’s no time limit on grief … but there is a limit on patience for the grieving when they won’t allow others to move on.

6 Bionic { 01.19.14 at 9:34 am }

To be clear, the memorial in question was not on private property, and the dismantler of it has no more right to do so than I do.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in light of my mother’s recent death. The DSM now says that mourning past 2 months can be considered depression, which is looney tunes, as far as I’m concerned. (I appreciated the suggestion from a friend’s father that perhaps the people who wrote that did not have such great relationships with their parents.) Meanwhile, I feel that I’m supposed to be back to my old self on social media (which is most of my social contact because I am not working this semester and can’t get out of the house easily), and while I do sometimes find something funny to say, I am not my old self in any real way. Basically, I think there was a lot to be said for the old habit of formal mourning clothes. Not that anyone in NYC would notice if a person wore black all the time….

7 Mrs Thompson { 01.19.14 at 11:28 am }

Great post Mel. I love the reminder that it’s okay to mourn on my own timetable.

8 Pepper { 01.19.14 at 12:31 pm }

I agree.

I think outward expressions of mourning and grief make many people uncomfortable (myself included, often). I also think that everyone deals differently and, for some, a visual reminder keeps them from moving on as they wish they could. I guess what I’m thinking is that no one should tell you to stop grieving, but no one should tell you that you not to stop, either.

9 Lauren { 01.19.14 at 2:42 pm }

This hits me. My son was stillborn 3 months ago today. There isn’t a public memorial or anything, but I would lose it if someone told me to be done mourning.

10 It Is What It Is { 01.19.14 at 5:37 pm }

I just got home from the funeral of a co-worker who died suddenly and too soon. His widow was grief stricken as were his two sons. He was also a Vietnam veteran so his service included military honors, the playing of taps, and the presentation of the American flag placed over his heart to his sons.

Who is any person to tell any other person how to grieve or how long is fitting. It is a process that never ends when you lose someone you love. It NEVER ends. Sure, the acute pain subsides, a scab then a scar forms, but the longing for and the love for that person never ends.

I learned about grief and mourning as an 11 yr when my older brother was killed. I’ve missed him longer than I knew him on this earth.

Knowing that kind of loss made mourning my infertility, and eventually my loss of genetic connection to my second son, easier. We do need time to process things and should be allowed to do so. We all also deserve the loving support of others to help us through and to help and support us in our grief and in our living.

11 Illanare { 01.19.14 at 5:44 pm }

I’ve been told in the past that I should “be over” my losses, infertility, relationship demise by well meaning but mistaken friends. Telling someone to stop grieving doesn’t magically make the grief vanish.

12 Brid { 01.19.14 at 7:54 pm }

I agree with ANDMom… Of course, no one should try to tell someone it’s too long, but then, if I saw someone I loved who was mourning a way that was affecting his/her life in a destructive way, I very likely might step in and approach the subject. I am also sort of conflicted with memorials. I think there is a law in our province that restricts memorials on highways because they are distracting to drivers and have, on occasion, caused secondary accidents. Public spaces are tricky because we all share them and have, to some degree, a right to interfere with those spaces and happens in them. In this case, it sounds like the child ran out into the street and slipped under the rear wheels of the truck. What does that memorial do to the driver who may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, but with no real fault, and who may have to drive by the memorial everyday with a broken heart for that boy?

13 fifi { 01.19.14 at 7:56 pm }

I’m shocked that the DSM considers mourning past 2 months as excessive. I’d be surprised by anyone who would fully recover from a deep loss that quickly.
It makes me think of the strict rules that Victorians had around mourning — except they had the sense to allow a year if you lost a wife/parent/child (widows mourned for longer than widowers for some reason, while other family members got less time).
On the subject of Victorians, I read an article about “memento mori”, photos of the dead, popular in the late 19th century. Some commentators thought them creepy, but others pointed out that this might be the only photo you might have of your loved one back then. Similar to the way someone might take a photo of a stillborn baby today.

14 Mali { 01.19.14 at 8:35 pm }

I dislike the whole “get over it” or “suck it up” mentality for grief. At its root is the fact that others aren’t comfortable with the griever’s emotions. But it is also the desire to see the griever happy again. So I have different tolerances for this view, depending on who is saying it and on their motivations.

When I had my first ectopic, my husband told his doctor, who asked him “is she over it yet?” His response (prophetic at the time) was,
“I don’t think she will ever be over it.” (And the fact that my husband wasn’t asked how he was is a whole different issue.)

I also think that two months is a ridiculous time to expect grief to be dealt with, and have real difficulties with professionals who consider that grieving longer is in fact a mental illness. When I was going through IVF, I remember a friend (also going through it) who was an ER nurse saying that they told family to expect their grief to last at least a year, maybe longer. And that they would always have it to a certain extent. That seems much more realistic to me.

15 Blanche { 01.19.14 at 10:07 pm }

I don’t have a problem with public memorials lasting for whatever time those who are mourning need them (assuming they are not interfering with private property), what bothers me is when they are not regularly refreshed so that the original items suffer the effects of both time and weather.

In this instance, I am thinking of a memorial I passed when leaving work which was up for at least two years without any changes, and the original items were looking awful the last time I went by that location. I appreciate that the family/friends initially wanted to remember the person lost, but it really feels to me if the memorial has not been kept active (for me that would mean new items at least 1x a year, damaged or “tired” items removed at that time) then it is no longer necessary and should be removed by those who installed it or by whomever is responsible for trash removal in that area.

16 Queenie { 01.19.14 at 10:19 pm }

It’s an interesting debate about public space, too, isn’t it? It’s not just about mourning itself, but rather HOW we mourn, and how we affect other people. While memorials make some people acknowledge and remember, while they in some small way show support, for others, they are an unpleasant reminder. When it comes to public space, whose needs should rule, and for how long? After all, there are people who find it impossible to move on with the constant reminders. And what do you do when people who are equally impacted by a terrible event do not agree on the public memorial’s existence, contents, location, etc.?

17 Peg { 01.19.14 at 10:30 pm }

This one really gets me. I’ve actually had people say to me that it’s been 4 years, why aren’t you guys over this? I try to explain that I don’t think I’ve actually really addressed my grief yet and they look at me like I’m crazy.

This also reminded me of the first week after the accident. The accident was actually a week before Halloween. Our yard was decorated with tombstones, ghosts, cobwebs, etc. Our boys LOVE decorating for holidays and this was no exception. Some well meaning neighbor actually went into our yard and cleaned up all the decorations and stacked them on our front porch. I know they meant well, but seriously?? did they think that our kids would actually associate the decorations with our tragedy? Did they think we were being insensitive keeping them up? At that point all we were craving was a bit of normalcy and consistency for our kids and decorations were the least of our worries. It actually really upset the boys and was a pain for me to have to put everything back up.

Mourning is a very personal think. Everybody deals with loss differently. The best thing is for everyone to just respect those differences. Being on the wrong side of tragedy, I think the neighbor cleaning up the memorial was pretty callous. If anything, a calm discussion with the family should have occurred.

thanks for the thoughful post.

18 Amy { 01.20.14 at 2:53 am }

I am a civil engineer and I encounter this regularly in my work. I agree there should be no time period on grief, but there should be on memorials on public property. Imagine if no one ever removed memorials from the site of anyone’s untimely demise… Freeways and streets would be have many of them. They would be distracting, they could become a fire hazard, etc. It seems to me that this is precisely the purpose of cemeteries and memorials : to provide a long term and permanent place for remembering no matter how long grieving needs to take for each person. It’s unreasonable to expect a municipality to maintain or allow to be kept a memorial for unspecified lengths of time.

19 loribeth { 01.20.14 at 9:18 am }

I can still remember asking a colleague to sponsor me for a fundraiser for our support group, about 9 months after our daughter’s stillbirth. “You’re still doing that??” she said with a quizzical look on her face. Ugh.

Nancy Berns’s book “Closure” discussed the topic of public memorials in some detail. I think these things need to be handled with consideration & respect for the families involved. Each case is different. So long as the memorial doesn’t interfere with traffic (vehicle or foot) & is well maintained (I always feel so sad seeing faded, bedraggled stuffed animals & withered bouquets of flowers at the cemetery — and they do have signs up at our cemetery, warning that these things will be removed periodically for lawn maintenance, etc., and bins where they will put the things they remove), I don’t see a lot of harm in leaving memorials up indefinitely.

20 Morgan { 01.20.14 at 12:09 pm }

I agree. It’s been a LONG 6 months since my first loss and 4 months since my second. I have friends and family who encourage me to just ‘move on’… That I should just be over it, and be thankful that ‘at least you know you can get pregnant’ (HA, nice…), That I should be moving forward and looking on to the next one…. That next one hasn’t come, yet, and we’re now met with many more obstacles. I want to grieve in my time, and I want that to be ok.. Cause simply put, it’s hard. Just simply hard. I believe it’s more about just extending grace and patience at all times… both ways.

21 GeekChic { 01.20.14 at 6:42 pm }

Difficult issue. I think mourning is a different process for different people and that so long as there is no obvious harm being done, any mourning process that loved ones wish is perfectly fine.

That said, I think there is now a tendency to demand a certain amount and type of mourning of the bereaved – which doesn’t work either. A close friend’s husband recently died suddenly and she was back at work after a few days. People were scandalized and claimed she wasn’t mourning him “correctly”. In reality, my friend was deeply heartbroken and just wanted one aspect of her live to be normal.

22 fifi { 01.21.14 at 9:12 am }

My aunt once told me that the second year after her husband’s death was the worst. Because in the first year, people were looking out for her, recognizing that this was her first birthday without him, her first Christmas, etc. But the second year, there was just emptiness. Each subsequent year, she got used to the emptiness (she lived 20 years after him and was a very upbeat person). But the second year, that was when the emptiness hurt the most.

23 Erica { 01.21.14 at 1:40 pm }

I don’t think there is a limit on mourning for the people doing it, but for the people around them, well, it seems to be very difficult to understand that after a loss, someone doesn’t just get back to normal in x days or weeks or months or years.

I’m guessing the woman didn’t know the boy’s family well, and from reading the article it sounds like she might be a little off, but my initial reaction to this story was pretty strong – I wanted to shake her, or egg her house. (I’m glad I live a long way from Brooklyn.) Three, four, and five months out was a pretty ghastly place to be for me, and while I don’t want to assume the child’s family has the same grief process that I did, it’s very likely that things are still raw for them.

One of the hardest things about grieving is realizing that other people are tired of you doing it, that you can’t talk about grief (or, oftentimes, even about the person you’re grieving) anymore without getting odd looks and receiving well-meant advice to “see someone” so that (this is often implied rather than stated bluntly) you can get over it. It’s a very effective means of silencing, but is also a big reason why so many mourners feel isolated. It almost makes me wish I lived in Victorian England, where you generally were expected to mourn a close loss for at least a year.

24 SRN { 01.23.14 at 10:12 am }

This is something I think I’ll always struggle it. My brother died of cancer when he was 16, two days after Xmas. As such, every holiday season is really, really hard because I know The Day is coming up. That was 15 years ago, and it is obvious that people are uncomfortable if I mention it outwardly or my thoughts are obvious. Sometimes, I tell myself I should be “over it” but then… fuck that. He will always be gone and I will always feel his absence. Others must confront their own discomfort with that.

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