Wednesday 19 May 2021

Unraveling the emotions behind grief and why do we grieve the loss of people we've never met: BRiC's Collective Voice

In a recent Sunday discussion we talked about grief, particularly about how we grieve for the loss of people we have never met, celebrities and public figures who we don’t know, but whose deaths cause many of us to feel profound grief.

Grief is a complex emotion and affects us all differently, but it is something which we all experience in some way. People often talk of grieving as a process, but it is not a linear path, there are twists, turns, surprises and bumps in the road. As a group of women who have all had a breast cancer diagnosis, we were aware that deaths caused by cancer often touched us the most, perhaps reminding us of our own mortality or causing us to think “that could be me”. One of our members said that once we have had a cancer diagnosis our ability to live a carefree life has been taken away forever; thoughts of death may become an everyday part of our lives. We all know that none of us will live forever, but cancer steals away our peace of mind and may leave us in a constant state of worry for whatever life we have left.

Some of us have been raised to keep their emotions in check, finding expressions of grief unnatural and making the process of grieving more difficult. Cancer deaths often touch us very personally, even if it is the death of a total stranger, it can be hard to explain to others how the death of someone we don’t know affects us so deeply and stops us in our tracks. There were others who felt unaffected by the death of strangers or celebrities; members talked of needing their energy and focus to be on themselves and their loved ones; having a cancer diagnosis is exhausting and sometimes there is just not enough strength in us to think about people we don’t know.

For some the public outpouring of grief often seen when a celebrity dies, is uncomfortable and sits uneasily with them. Occasionally it is the similarity between the deceased and ourselves which causes grief – “he was the same age as me”, “her children are the same age as mine”, “they were married as long as my mum and dad”, “her diagnosis was the same as mine” – all these things can hit home and remind us of our own tenuous grasp on life.

We questioned whether what we feel when a stranger dies is actually grief, or is it empathy; fear; compassion; sadness; anger? Perhaps all of these emotions are part of grief, but we wondered if it is really the same as losing a loved one. Anger was an emotion many of us shared, particularly when we hear the words “died of cancer”, we are acutely aware that cancer is indiscriminate and such a cruel disease. It was interesting that the age of the deceased was pivotal for some members, feeling less sadness for those dying at an old age, but grieving deeply for those who die young; however this wasn’t the case for everyone, some members felt all deaths were equally distressing no matter the age of the person who dies.

Sadness for those left behind was an overarching theme, we acknowledged that part of grief is facing the future without someone. The sight of someone left alone after a lifetime with a partner can be heart-breaking to see. Sometimes when hearing of a death it reminds us of those we have lost and old memories can resurface, not all of them good. The death of parents was something many of us could relate to, for most bringing mixed emotions, sadness and loss, but happy memories and feelings of warmth; sadly, for others childhood memories were not so good and reminders of deceased parents brought painful memories. One of our members paraphrased Jamie Anderson saying: “Grief is just love with nowhere to go” and we all felt that grief for those we love and care about is usually much more powerful than for the celebrities and public figures. However, there were several mentions of times when the death of a celebrity has affected us deeply, sometimes taking us by surprise, leaving us distraught and feeling completely lost.

Grief is not one emotion, it is not simple and it is not the same for everyone, but one emotion which underlies grief is empathy, empathy for the person who has died, for their loved ones, for others around them. Empathy is a powerful emotion and enables us to make connections, even with people we don’t know personally. Grief and death are frequently taboo subjects but having a cancer diagnosis means we have all had to face the possibility of our own death, even more so for those of us with a secondary diagnosis; knowing we can express our fears in our private group enables us to share that burden. We can say “I’m sad about her dying because it could be me” without fear of being judged. It is important to understand that grief is a natural process, not linear and not time-constrained. People grieve in different ways and for different reasons, but each is valid.

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