Grief in Western Society: Why we Feel so Alone

Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross said, “It is difficult to accept death in this society because it is unfamiliar. In spite of the fact that it happens all the time, we never see it.”

As an ICU nurse, I worked around death a good part of my adult life. I mistakenly thought I understood death, until it happened to me. When I was personally thrust into the unwanted, tragic world of grief, I was completely unprepared for the anguish and debilitating pain I experienced. But, what was even more surprising to me was the overwhelming number of friends and family who were uncomfortable with my pain and the changes it caused in my life. I realized that not only was I unprepared for death and the fallout that occurred in my life, my family and friends were also unprepared for how to support me.

Our Western culture has inadvertently conditioned us to avoid death and grief. Our society tends to isolate those who are struggling with illness, pain, death and grief — hoping that if we don’t see their pain and struggles, the pain doesn’t exist, and won’t alter our tidy and predictable lives.  We tend to behave as if death and pain are contagious diseases, ones that if we stay away from, we can avoid contracting ourselves.

I don’t believe this insensitivity is intentional. Society has not prepared us for how to deal with pain and loss. We are brought up to believe that life will remain predictable and under our control. Then when the unexpected, death or illness, does happen in our lives, we are ill-equipped to deal with the emotional pain, and upheaval, that it brings. Society subliminally sends us the message that we are expected to quietly bear our pain, while still maintaining our daily lives, ‘getting over’ our grief in a timely manner, while not unnecessarily disrupting anyone else’s life.

Unfortunately, for those grievers who are experiencing these life altering challenges, this unintentional alienation by those we were looking to for support, only further increases our suffering. The griever’s life is in pieces and we have no idea how to start to put the pieces together again.

Society’s expectations of the griever are unrealistic. For a griever who has lost a loved one, who was an integral part of their life, nothing will ever be the same, and the pain will always be there. Life is turned upside down. Learning to live with pain and grief is a process and one that cannot be forced.

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Why is our society so avoidant of pain? Do we really believe that ignoring those who are suffering will protect us from experiencing pain ourselves? What drives our avoidance of death?

Most members of Western society live as if they believe they have all the time in the world. Death is something that happens to other people, not to them. Despite this cultural denial of death, not one person will escape this human existence without experiencing physical death.

Death and grief are Universal.

They touch all genders.

All races.

All religions.

They don’t discriminate based on socioeconomic status, or age.

Death and grief, do not care if you are a mother, father, spouse, child, sibling or friend. We will all be touched by them.

There is no life without death. They are two sides of the same coin.

Many people believe that the fear of death is actually a fear of life. Acknowledging and accepting that death is inevitable requires us to face the fact that we have a limited time here in a human body. We are then forced to ask ourselves how we are spending the time we have been given.

As much as we want to believe the fantasy that we have control over our lives and that death will never impact us, there are really only two certainties we can rely on in life – birth and death. The ultimate life lesson for us is to learn to take a closer look at what we are choosing to do with the time between these two events. If we pay attention, death has much to teach us about life.

“Those who learned to know death, rather than to fear and fight it, become our teachers about life.” – Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.

On behalf of griever’s living in a society that denies pain…..we don’t want to have to act like we are ok, when we aren’t. We don’t want to pretend we don’t miss our lost loved one, because we do, and we always will. We don’t want to have to walk on eggshells when someone doesn’t know what to say to us. We are doing our best to put our lives back together and all we really need is understanding and patience.

The time is now for a shift in how our culture views death and pain. The shift can start with those of us who have experienced grief and loss. We should not have to hide our pain. By sharing our experiences, we can begin to pave a new path where empathy, community and acceptance are a reality in our society.

Pain and Loss are a part of this human existence.

As a griever you may feel that you are all alone.

You are not alone.

We are all in this together.

I believe this is one of the biggest lessons that death and loss can teach us all.

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– Rhonda

14 thoughts on “Grief in Western Society: Why we Feel so Alone

  1. Eileen

    Having to manage grief while also trying to avoid creating discomfort for others only increases the stress and isolation that loss brings. Thank you for trying to open more conversation about grief. Life never looks the same after terrible loss, and those on the outside may not realize that you are preoccupied with learning to live a different life than you imagined; in my case, that is especially true with the loss of younger family members. The task is consuming, yet private. I believe that causes many of us to feel very disoriented in addition to managing the overwhelming sadness.

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  2. deeincollingo

    Rhonda, may I reblog this post on my blog? Your words will help many who read my blog. I am still in such a painful stage of my grief and feel so misunderstood by others. It seems as though so many people want to talk me out of my grief which I interpret as their failure to realize the importance of my daughter, Amy, in my life. The last 32 plus months are a blurr and I am unable to just skip through life without her. Who knew a pain of this magnitude existed in this world? I am so sorry you are familiar with this unimaginable pain and for your tragic losses.

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    1. Rhonda O'Neill

      Dee, please feel free to repost any of my blogs onto your website. I’m sorry that you are dealing with the insensitivity from people who should be supporting you. People need to talk us out of our grief because they are uncomfortable with our pain. I am just finishing a book about my journey through grief and one of the largest chapters deals with our American death-denying society and how dysfunctional it has become. I firmly believe that this is one of the reasons why some of us are struggling so much with grief….we aren’t allowed to adequately and openly grieve our unfathomable loss in our society. Everyone just expects us to move on. Our mother’s hearts will always yearn for our children. Hugs. Rhonda

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  3. deeincollingo

    Rhonda, I will look forward to your book. I am sorry for the pain and frustration which prompted you to write it but I am certain it will be relatable to many grievers and hopefully enlighten many others as well.

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  4. Armand's son

    For these 32 months without Amy, I’ve thought that expecting understanding and patience from others is not too much to ask. I hadn’t considered that the way modern society has evolved is counter intuitive to that expectation. Thanks for providing the insight.

    The last sentence in the third paragraph perfectly summarizes things since Amy’s death.

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    1. Rhonda O'Neill

      Hi John, It also took me a while to realize that this was more than a problem with just my circle of friends and family. Several historians, psychologists and anthropologists have looked into the shift that has occurred in our Western culture in the last century, because it has been significant. We went from a death-aware society, to a death-denying society. It is sad, because we will all go through grief at some point in our lives, and we will all need support.

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  5. lensgirl53

    Thank you, Rhonda. This speaks to and for so many people like you and me. I would like to post this on my blog in hopes that my readers will be encouraged in the midst of their own grief. Perhaps it will also be of help to those who do not know how to be around us. It is so true that our lives are forever altered. God bless you for all that you do to help others even while you are also suffering.

    Dale Heath….Brandon’s mom

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  6. Lisa

    Wow…..I have felt so alone and secluded by my family until now. So much of what you have said is exactly what I have been embarrassed to express. I now feel a sense of hope. My life will never be the same without my beautiful mother. I struggle each and every day. It has been almost three years since my mother passed. And I was standing by my dad’s side when he took his last breath almost 5 yrs ago. I was my mother’s caregiver the last year of her life while she battled cancer and now my sisters have backed away from me and they know how this has affected me. My husband doesn’t understand because he still has his parents. Thank you for your comfort and hope.

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    1. Rhonda O'Neill

      Hi Lisa. I’m glad that what I’ve written resonated with you and gave you hope. We hear the rare stories of the death of a loved one bringing a family closer, but I think what tends to happen is that the loss, and the different ways we all deal with that loss, creates division and alienation within the family. Friends don’t understand either. The only ones who can truly understand are those who have walked a similar path. Keep moving forward. You can get to a place where love and loss can walk side by side. Hugs. Rhonda

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