How We Can Learn to Grieve in Public



I was in my dorm lobby when I returned my mom’s call. While the news I received wasn’t incredibly unexpected, I felt tears well up in my eyes before she had even finished her sentence.

“Gramp is dying, honey. They don’t expect him to make it through the night. I’m so sorry, baby.”

It was nearly 8 p.m. on a Tuesday, and home was an hour away. To make my mom leave her father-in-law’s bedside to pick me up didn’t seem like the right thing, even though she was more than willing. I asked if I could say something to Gramp. When my dad got him onto the phone, though he was barely conscious, he managed to utter the words “I love you, Kelsey,” clear as a bell.

When I hung up the phone, puffy-eyed and alone with my sadness, I caught the elevator to get to my room. To my dismay, two other girls entered the lobby and walked toward the elevator. Instinctively, I began to compose myself, wiping running makeup, blotting away tears, and avoiding their gazes once they got onto the elevator. Though I thought little of my actions at the time, my mind having been elsewhere, I now see how the need to hide grief is such a constant and conditioned phenomenon of the culture I live in.

Cheryl Strayed writes, “We are allowed to be deeply into basketball, or Buddhism, or Star Trek, or jazz, but we are not allowed to be deeply sad. Grief is a thing that we are encouraged to ‘let go of,’ to ‘move on from,’ and we are told specifically how this should be done.”

We have learned to welcome other sights that would once have been considered socially unusual on a college campus, or anywhere for that matter: belly shirts and low necklines, cursing, clear physical signs of alcohol and drug use, yelling and loud laughter—the list goes on and on. For some reason, though, when it comes to sadness, this must be a private affair, or done only with those with whom we are most comfortable.

Even more interesting is the realization that I had not hidden my tears on that elevator for myself—I wasn’t keeping my emotion hidden for me, but rather I composed myself and held back tears to avoid making these strangers feel uncomfortable.

Whether our reasons for concealing sadness and grief are selflessness or self-preservation, it is odd that this kind of emotion makes us so uncomfortable in public settings. My tears were fine, even expected when my family said a prayer together at the funeral home. It is as if we are expected to allow ourselves to mourn for those two days of rituals, but to leave our tears in the church and emerge back into the world of the living seamlessly.

When kind friends, acquaintances, and even professors did check up on me and acknowledge my loss in person, it always amounted to a “How are you doing?” with a look that lingered a little longer than usual. But actually addressing the loss in public is almost never done. This, we feel, could make a sad person upset in public. Unthinkably, my cover would be blown and lots of people would be made uncomfortable because of me.

All around us, every day, people are grieving something. It is often something much bigger and more heart-wrenching than what I’ve experienced, like the loss of a parent, sibling, or even a child. It may have happened last week or it may have happened five years ago, but pain has no time constraint. There are moments when a loss of years ago can feel as fresh as if it had occurred yesterday. When we avoid emotional expressions of grief, struggling people are left in solitude when what they may actually want is support.

We need to stop being made so uncomfortable by public displays of emotion. Often, even in the presence of close friends, we hide pain and try to appear OK, putting on a composed face to protect our own vulnerability and others’ comfort. But we cannot always be OK, and we need to stop convincing others and ourselves that this is the case. It is OK to not be OK. We need to allow each other sadness, wherever and whenever we need to express it.

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