Eliza Alvarez McBride: Culture and Grieving "Well"

When I was 12 years old, my family and I flew from America to Southeast Asia to visit my ailing grandfather. To my relief, my grandfather made a recovery, and surprisingly, it was my great-grand uncle who passed away suddenly. After learning of his death, relatives immediately began reciting prayers and weeping openly. I recall how my parents, siblings and I sat there awkwardly, feeling out of place. The only other funeral I had attended at that point was at an American church; the service was subdued, and the following day everyone went back to work. On the other hand, when my great-grand uncle passed away, relatives took time off, made several tables worth of food, and spent days eating and sharing stories. I would remember that time again nearly ten years later, after getting a message that my grandfather had passed away. I read that message alone in my college dorm room, aware that I had work and class early the next day. I had to schedule time to cry. I told a classmate about my grandfather’s passing, and her reply was, “You seem to be grieving well.” What did that mean?

Now, as a student intern at a domestic violence center, many of the survivors I provide counseling for are processing forms of complicated grief and mention wanting to “grieve well.” Some survivors are mourning the loss of a decades-long relationship, feeling conflicted that they could miss an abusive partner who is now incarcerated or cut off. Most survivors are mourning the loss of the future they envisioned and hoped for, and some are mourning past abusive partners who took their own lives shortly after the survivor fled the relationship – in these cases, grief is layered with feelings of guilt and confusion. In all cases, clients understandably feel like they don’t have time to grieve or mourn.

As I continue studying and incorporating feminist therapy into my counseling identity, I’m beginning to identify “grieving well” as a reflection of American patriarchal and capitalist culture. This includes deeply ingrained beliefs that we should not outwardly express emotions that may imply weakness (e.g. sadness), out of fear that it may be an affront to masculine qualities that patriarchal society values (e.g. being “tough”). There seems to be a general fear that openly grieving may negatively affect the capitalist mindset of productivity.There is also a sense of competition, i.e. if we’re going to grieve, we should grieve better than everyone else (and within a certain time-frame). This is something that I hope to study further. For now, I validate mourning rituals that may include taking time for camping trips, or simple practices like lighting and blowing out a candle every day to acknowledge that grief is now part of one’s everyday life. I share that tears aren’t a sign of weakness, and weakness isn’t an absence of strength. I ask clients what “grieving well” would look like for them, specifically, if they didn’t feel bound by cultural expectations, societal pressures and time-tables.

Eliza Alvarez McBride is a graduate student at Portland State University studying Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Her goal is to provide trauma-informed services to historically underprivileged communities.

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