My wife and I recently led a discussion on the ethics of grief with a group of psychotherapists. Wishing to challenge the claim that there is no wrong way to grieve, I asked the group to consider boundaries they would place on proper and improper grieving. For the most part, they were a cooperative group, but they were certainly reluctant to declare any way of grieving to be unethical or wrong. Sometimes our conditioning is strong. When the workshop was over, one of the participants asked me what sorts of grieving I think are unethical or inappropriate.
My answer is really simple. I think you are clearly grieving unethically if you let your personal pain compel you to hurt others. I also think you are grieving unethically if you let your personal pain compel you to hurt yourself, but I don’t think that claim is so obvious as the first one.
- Homicidal rage—I’m not saying this happens often, but someone overcome with grief who goes on a killing spree is acting unethically for sure. After Ivan López opened fire at Ft. Hood military base, killing three and wounding 16 others before killing himself, friends speculated that it was a reaction to grief over his mother’s death.
- Lying and cheating—In her book, Wild, Cheryl Strayed described the emotional turmoil she experienced in the wake of her mother’s death. In her agony, she turned to casual sexual relationships and substance abuse for comfort, tearing apart her marriage and leading her to lie to her husband and other family members. She eventually found better means of coping, of course, but she still regrets the pain and harm she caused those who loved her.
- Alcohol and other drugs— The philosopher, Bertrand Russell, took a fairly standard Stoic response to grief, saying it is acceptable to grieve so long as it is not to excess. He says we should distract ourselves from our grief with other pursuits, so long as they are not harmful to us. In his words: “I do not of course deny that a man may be broken by sorrow, but I do say that every man should do his utmost to escape this fate, and should seek any distraction, however trivial, provided it is not in itself harmful or degrading. Among those that I regard as harmful and degrading I include such things as drunkenness and drugs, of which the purpose is to destroy thought, at least for the time being.” Self-harm is harm, and we do have ethical obligations to care for ourselves.
- Demanding but not offering emotional support—Many people repeat an unsubstantiated claim that most parents who lose a child will divorce within a year of the child’s death. This claim is not substantiated by any sort of study and seems to be more intuition than anything else. Nonetheless, it is true that some people who are overcome by grief are unable to provide emotional support to others even though they are receiving and expecting emotional support from those same family members or friends. It is a special kind of cruelty to ask someone in the vice-grip of unimaginable grief to provide emotional comfort and support while being left to drown in sorrow alone and adrift. If you find yourself overwhelmed by grief and unable to provide support to the rest of your family, please help them or at least permit them to find other sources of support. If you can’t provide what they need, at least do not become an obstacle to their mental health and comfort.
Anyone who has grieved has probably felt judged for his or her style of grief. As a result, we rush to say that there is no wrong way to grieve, but this bold (and wrong) assertion prevents us from having discussions about the correct ways to grieve. When our grieving causes harm to others or ourselves, it is not merely unhealthy—it is unethical.
A conversation about ethical grieving is worth having, and we can have it without shaming those who are suffering from grief. We can improve our own grieving and our reactions to grief if we can establish an ethics of grief that seeks a path to greater collaboration, greater care, and greater health. Grief will never be easy, and it will always come with risks, but an open conversation can help us avoid its worst effects.