Christmas Makes Me Cry

I've been listening to a lot of Christmas music this holiday season. Album after album of current and classic songs, almost to the point where they all blend together. One of my favorite Christmas albums to be released this year is Kacey Musgraves's A Very Kacey Christmas. It stands out. It's whimsical and quirky and sweet, just like Musgraves herself. She's one of the best country artists making music right now. There's an original song on the album called "Christmas Makes Me Cry." Here is Musgraves performing it:

It's all red and gold and Nat King Cole and tinsel on the tree
It's all twinkle lights and snowy nights and kids still believe
And I know that they say, "Have a Happy Holiday"
And every year, I sincerely try
Oh, but Christmas, it always makes me cry 
It's the ones we miss, no one to kiss under the mistletoe
Another year gone by, just one more that I, I couldn't make it home
And I know that they say, "Have a Happy Holiday"
And every year, I swear I sincerely try
Oh, but Christmas, it always makes me cry 
Always seems like everybody else is having fun
I wonder if I'm the only one 
There's broken hearts so there's broken parts just wrapped in pretty paper
And it's always sad seeing mom and dad getting a little grayer
And they always say, "Have a Happy Holiday"
And every year, I sincerely try
Oh, but Christmas, it always makes me cry

I admire Musgraves's willingness to acknowledge the sadness of Christmas. While the holiday season can definitely hold light and beauty, it also contains memories of the people we've lost and who are not here to share this time with us.

A few days ago, the weight of the holiday hit me. I was seized by a sudden and deep melancholy that persists. I thought about my father and felt his absence. I've spent a lot of time lately trying to avoid the pain of Christmas. I've listened to holiday albums and watched comforting films, but the sadness is always there right at the surface.

I don't have any advice or tips for coping with the holidays. I think we each find our own coping mechanisms and do the best we can. I try to focus on what I do have--my mother, a place to live, a sweet dog, presents under the tree. You have to figure out a way to hold the hurt and the love all at once.

I do remember the last Christmas with my father. Of course, at the time I didn't know it would be the last. You never do know. I have some photographs that I can't look at. I have memories that I can't dwell on because to think too much about them will make me unravel. I miss him. I want to buy him presents. I want to hug him. I want to tell him that I love him so much. I want another Christmas with him. Instead, I'll spend Christmas with my mother and I'll smile for her and laugh with her and maybe even cry with her and we will hold each other up and survive together.

Three Poems by Anna Kamienska

I've chosen these three poems from Anna Kamienska's Astonishments: Selected Poems because they have the feel of a trilogy. In the first poem, the narrator's mother is dying. In the second, the mother has died and left her body. In the third, the dead mother appears in a dream and encourages the narrator to continue living without her. These three poems take us on a journey from the time before a loved one is lost to the time after and, for that reason, I've grouped them together to tell that story of loss and grief. Death was a common theme in all of Kamienska's work; from her poetry to her notebook fragments, she wrote openly about grief, mourning, and the absence created by loss.

All three poems are translated by Grazyna Drabik and David Curzon.


The mouths of streets are silent, windows go blind,
Cold veins of tracks tremble noiselessly.
In the mirror of wet pavement the sky hangs
With lead clouds full of hail.

My mother is dying in a hospital.
From bed-sheets burning white
She raises her palm—and the arm drops down.
The wedding ring, that hurt when she was washing me,
Slips off her thinned finger.

The trees drink in the winter damp.
The horse, his cart filled up with coal, hangs down his head.
On a record, Bach and Mozart circle
Just like the Earth circles the Sun.

There, in a hospital, my mother is dying.
My mama.


She gets up, moves away from her closed mouth,
She, immobile for so long,
Walks! Steps carefully, like someone
Getting up after a long, long illness.
She walks through his forehead, through my heart,
Through another’s tangled hair. She walks — on her own.
For a moment she looks, puzzled,
At the abandoned body and, without regrets,
At us, bent in pain in a morning fog
Like roadside branches. She pushes them
Aside and departs. She fades into radiance.

If I could only believe it! But I didn’t see anything
Besides the eyes congealed with tears
And the cold indifferent hands. Mama!


“Look,” mother says in my dream,
“Look, a bird soars up to the clouds.
Why don’t you write about it,
How heavy it is, how swift?

“And here on the table—the smell
Of bread, a tinkling of plates.
You don’t need to speak of me again.
There is no me where I rest.

“I’ve passed, I’ve ceased,
It’s enough for me: goodnight!”
So I write this poem about birds,
About bread . . . Mama. Mama.

So the Dead May Finish Dying

While watching Patricio Guzmán's superb documentary The Pearl Button, I came across this scene in which Chilean poet Raúl Zurita talks about the people who were tortured and disappeared under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. In 1973, the democratically elected Salvador Allende was overthrown by a U.S.-backed coup that placed Pinochet in power. Over the next seventeen years, anyone who spoke against the regime was tortured, imprisoned, and often murdered. Zurita himself endured such violence.

In The Pearl Button, Zurita reflects on the cruelty of not giving the bodies of the disappeared back to their families and how this, in effect, prevents grieving from taking place. I was reminded of the work that Pauline Boss does on ambiguous loss, which is a type of loss without resolution, like not having the body of your missing loved one. So many families in Chile, under the Pinochet regime, were robbed of the right to bury their spouses, children, friends, and relatives. They will never know any kind of resolution to their pain and grief.

Guzmán mined similar territory in his extraordinary documentary Nostalgia for the Light. In that film he focused on women who were still searching for the bodies of people who disappeared during Pinochet's violent reign.  Both films are essential and vital works of art about violence, loss, and how the past haunts the present.

Wisława Szymborska - Everyone Sometime

Everyone sometime has somebody close die,
between to be or not to be
he’s forced to choose the latter.

We can’t admit that it’s a mundane fact,
subsumed in the course of events,
in accordance with procedure:

sooner or later on the daily docket,
the evening, late night, or first dawn docket;

and explicit as an entry in an index,
as a statute in a codex,
as any chance date
on a calendar.

But such is the right and left of nature.
Such, willy-nilly, is her omen and her amen.
Such are her instruments and omnipotence.

And only on occasion
a small favor on her part—
she tosses our dead loved ones
into dreams.

(Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak)

from Map: Collected and Last Poems by Wisława Szymborska

Grieving as an Atheist

Religion is never so present or invasive as after a death in the family. People want to invoke god. They form prayer circles. They insist that a preacher speak at the funeral. I wanted nothing of it. After my father died, I heard about nothing but god. People came up to me and said "God only gives us as much as we can bear" as I struggled to stand. They said "He's in a better place" when all I could think was what place could be better than with me and my mother? There was a gathering of hands and communal praying, but I did not lower my head or close my eyes to participate.

I've been an atheist since childhood, well before my father died, and I have remained an atheist after his death. In high school, as we studied Greek mythology, I had the epiphany that the Bible and Christianity and other religions were just like those Greek myths. They were stories people told in order to make sense of the world. I decided those stories were not for me. I derive no comfort from religion. Tragedy did not push me to believe in god. In fact, when I saw my father's dead body in his casket, all I could think in my head was There is no god, this is godless. It was so traumatic to lose my father that I could not comprehend the thought of it being preordained, sanctioned, or intentional. How could my father have been taken away from me? His death only cemented my atheism.

What does it mean to be godless in the midst of grief? It means you have no belief that the dead are in heaven, waiting. It means facing the truth: that they are ash or they are bones in the earth. They are gone for good, and you will never see them or know them again. It means that death is not a continuation of life; death is the end. Death is nothingness. You will cease to be what you were, there is no longer a "you." You go back to the darkness and emptiness that birthed you. Death is unfathomable, it's horrifying. It can't be described or survived or avoided.

This is not an easy viewpoint. It's difficult and it's scary; it offers no comfort. It's also outside the mainstream in a world with billions of monotheists. But it's what I believe and it's important to write about it because it explains the reason why I struggle so much with my father's death and why my grief is so deep. He is truly gone. It's final and irrevocable.

Some might wonder, in the absence of god how do you live? What do you believe? I believe in humanity. I believe in love. I believe in art and literature and poetry and music and cinema. I believe in nature. I believe in memory and writing and protest and activism. I believe in this world right in front of us, this world of horror and sublimity. I have no time for hypothetical, unproven worlds beyond this one. I believe in sensation, in knowledge, in connection, in friendship. I believe this one life is all we are given and I believe that it's filled with too much pain, sadness, and injustice. I believe too many people focus on what might be beyond this life and we are destroying the world we inhabit. I believe in collective responsibility and community. I believe we must take care of one another because we all want to be cared for. I believe you should do good out of a true desire to help rather than to get into heaven or please a god.

If you live in an area that is heavily religious and you are an atheist, you can feel even more isolated in your grief because you can't honestly and openly talk about loss outside of the frame of religion. This was what happened to me after my father died. I don't believe everything happens for a reason. I didn't believe his death served any purpose or had any meaning. I was so lost and so alone and I couldn't speak about loss in the way that it was most truthful for me. It was so painful and it only intensified my grief.

I hope that we see a day when loss is approached in our society in a more complex and sensitive way, that we stop selling people harmful narratives about closure and healing and five stages, that we realize that not everyone is religious and deals with loss through theology. I hope my blog can contribute in some small way to the shift in our cultural consciousness. That's probably a ridiculous thing to think, that my little blog could make a difference, but that's why I share my story--so that others will be liberated from their own silence and shame and will see some of themselves reflected and will know that they are not alone and that their experience of grief is valid.

There is nothing wrong with being an atheist, with seeing the world and life through this particular viewpoint. Is it difficult? Absolutely. Do I struggle with it? Yes. But if I tried to believe in a religion I would not be true to myself and to what I believe. I have held on to my atheism. I have constructed my moral, ethical, and artistic self around it. It is a central part of my life and of my worldview. It's made me grateful for this one life that I have and the time I had with my father. It's helped me focus on the present and on trying to make a difference in the world while I am here. My grief is deep because of my atheism but so too is my love.

Mourning Abbas Kiarostami

At Senses of Cinema, Wheeler Winston Dixon pays tribute to the master and giant of Iranian cinema, Abbas Kiarostami, who died on July 4, 2016. People around the world mourned his passing, including myself. I've been profoundly affected and transformed by Kiarostami's movies, by their warmth and humanity, by their blurring of fiction and reality, by their focus on ordinary people navigating the world as best they can. His voice and vision were singular. His death was a monumental loss to cinema. Dixon writes about being affected by Kiarostami's death and also discusses how we grieve in the modern age:
There is a contemporary mode of expressing grief, which I have been struck by for some time. It consists, when a death is announced, of immediately posting, from the vaults of the poorly-named “memory” of the web, phrases, clips and key moments, thereby summarising, in a more or less lightning-like montage (as Pasolini put it) the story of a life. But it seems to me that the novelty of the procedure consists less in establishing an iconographic hagiography of an individual’s life-story (news outlets have long adopted this practice), than in allowing us to relive the impact of the life and work on our own life, and to share a singular, striking fragment from it. It seems to me that this is what this gesture of sharing an archive, an image, a poem, a clip found on the web signifies: “I was touched by the unique grace of the being who just died, and I want you to know the place he occupies in my life,” or “I am among those touched by this being who just died, because his work is part of my memory, and it has shaped my sensibility.” This gesture is also a way of forging a community, of creating links, and it is possibly the technique that our societies have discovered to accelerate the work of mourning, by inscribing it in a circumscribed social ritual which condenses its presence into actuality (in the same way that funerals or days of mourning function as a means for framing pain, but also for fixing limits to this pain). In other words, it is a ritual conceived to allow us to forget and pass rapidly on to something else.
We know that death affects the archive by inscribing it in another temporality or, better, by revealing its own profound temporality: every archive speaks to us from death, and every new death that touches us is a reminder of this. The same goes for memory. Suddenly, with death, the fragile edifice that was unwittingly constructed within us rises up. On every level, in every room, in every brick, are the decisive moments of our relationship with this curious thing that we call an œuvre. The image of Sabzian, perched on Makhmalbaf’s scooter, holding a bouquet of gerbera daisies, is a metonym sufficient to incarnate the poetic grace of Kiarostami’s cinema. This scene, this particular moment in our cinephilia, is also our point of contact with the film, and awakens the sensory sediment that has accumulated in our memory. As I re-watch these red spots, sprinkled above Sabzian’s beard and his blue jacket, this bouquet suddenly becomes funereal, as if the two emotional men were making their way to Kiarostami’s grave, and it dawns on me that the filmmaker’s work has accompanied my life for twenty years. 

At Medium, writer Durga Chew-Bose also memorializes Kiarostami and beautifully describes why his films are so vital and moving:
He was sensitive to light. A condition that required Abbas Kiarostami to wear his signature tinted glasses, which gave the impression he was always at the movies — in the dark, both storyteller and audience, watching life as if it were being projected inside his lenses.
He was sensitive to light, too, in his work. Those searching, pared down, coaxed-by-the-car conversations, and those patient reveals — if you can even call them that — are at the heart of Kiarostami’s most moving works. He was sensitive to light not as it improves on or clarifies truth, but how without it, there are no shadows: the unseen, what’s off-screen, what’s usually overlooked or what barely happens. Those revelations that can only occur when we’re no longer seeking what’s distinct but instead feel extra prone to life as it’s wonderfully, uneventfully, happening.
That was Kiarostami’s — not gift — but eloquence. How the prosaic, when given time to breathe instead of rushed into action — like chatter between two characters, for instance — can disclose life’s most electric pursuit: connection. 

The Ache That Never Goes Away

My mother and I are going through old photo albums. There are albums of me that hold pictures of the day I was born, my birthday parties, portraits of me in Halloween costumes and Easter dresses. There are albums of her grandparents, her parents, and her time with my father before I was born.

There are the memories of her life before me and her life with me. Most of the people are dead--my father, her mother, her grandparents, her brother. These are books of the dead, of the lost. These are photos that capture a life that is gone forever.

We cry. What else can we do? We see the faces of the people we loved--that we still love--and all we can do is weep.

Life is loss. It is the gradual accumulation of loss. I tell my mother that I don't know how other people cope so well with it, how they are so resilient when I can barely survive each day. Time doesn't make it easier, it makes it worse. There's more distance between you and those you have lost. The longer you live without them, the harder it is to live at all.

My mother says, "It's like an ache that never goes away." She also says, "The more time that goes by, the more you realize how much you miss them."

It doesn't matter how much time has passed, I still have to live without my father every day. That never changes.

Pauline Boss on Ambiguous Loss and the Myth of Closure

Recently, I came across the On Being with Krista Tippett podcast. So far, one of the best episodes that I've listened to is Tippett's interview with Dr. Pauline Boss who pioneered the theory of ambiguous loss, which is a loss that lacks resolution, such as a person who disappears or someone who dies under traumatic circumstances like the 2011 tsunami in Japan, Hurricane Katrina, or 9/11. Ambiguous loss also refers to the gradual loss of a loved one to dementia or can even be applied to the experiences of divorce and immigration.

In her wide-ranging discussion with Tippett, Boss talks about Western society's unwillingness to talk about loss, the myth of closure, and how those living with ambiguous loss can find meaning:
We come from culture in this country of, I think, mastery orientation. We like to solve problems. We're not comfortable with unanswered questions. And this is full of unanswered questions. These are losses that are minus facts. Somebody's gone, you don't know where they are, you don't know if they're alive or dead, you don't know if they're coming back. And so, that kind of mystery, I think, gives us a feeling of helplessness that we're very uncomfortable with as a society.
There was one woman after 9/11 who had a newborn, and she was blaming herself because she didn't wake her husband up early enough that morning. He had an alarm clock, and it didn't go off. He was in the Trade Tower usually by 8:00 and out by 9:00. And on this day, he was late, and so he was in the Trade Tower when it went down.
She blamed herself as she was crying. She was at her wit's end. And about a year later — we would meet, by the way, every month or so. About a year later, I complimented her on how lovely her little boy was. He was standing up at that time, leaning on her leg. And she said to me, “Do you remember that story I told you about my husband oversleeping? And that it was my fault?” I said, “Yes, I remember.” And she said, “Well, he always set the alarm clock. And I realized that, finally. And it wasn't my fault. He just wanted another hour to be with us.
Now that's the transformation we're after with ambiguous loss, where she is no longer blaming herself and she has a meaning that she can live with the rest of her life without too much stress.
We like finite answers. You're either dead or you're alive. You're either here or you're gone. And let's say you have somebody with dementia, or a child with autism, and they're there, but they're not always there. And so once you put that frame on it, people are more at ease and recognize that that may be the closest to the truth that they're going to get. To say either or, to think in a more binary way — he's dead or he's alive, you're either here or you're gone — that would involve some denial and lack of truth, so the only truth is that middle way of “he may be coming back and maybe not.”
And what we do need to know is that our society as a whole — not just families, but our society as a whole — I think, is afraid of talking about death, and is afraid of talking about suffering, and having people gone lost and grieving for a long time primarily because of this transmission of trauma ancestrally. That we are a nation founded on unresolved grief — as a result, we don't like to talk about death and we don't, for sure, like to talk about ambiguous loss.
But “closure” is a terrible word in human relationships. Once you've become attached to somebody, love them, care about them, when they're lost, you still care about them. It's different. It's a different dimension. But you can't just turn it off. And we look around down the street from me — there's a Thai restaurant where there's a plate of fresh food in the window every day for their ancestors. Are they pathological? No. That's a cultural way to remember your ancestors. And somehow in our society, we've decided, once someone is dead, you have to close the door. But we now know that people live with grief. They don't have to get over it. It's perfectly fine. I'm not talking about obsession, but just remembering.
There is no such thing as closure. We have to live with loss, clear or ambiguous. And it's OK. It's OK. And it's OK to see people who are hurting and just to say something simple. “I'm so sorry.” You really don't have to say more than that.

Listen to the full interview with Pauline Boss

Frank Stanford - Dreamt by a Man in a Field

I am thinking of the dead
Who are still with us.
They are not like us, they are
Young and beautiful,
On their way in the rain
To meet their lovers.
On their way with their dark umbrellas,
Always laughing, so quick,
Like limbs flying back
In a boat before night,
So constant,
Like the glass floats
The fishermen use in Japan.
But for them there is no moon,
For us the same news
We do not receive.

Source: Copper Canyon Press

Donna Carnes - Walk On

You walk on
still beside me,
eyes shadowed in dusk;
you’re the
lingering question
at each day’s end.
I have to laugh
at how
open-ended you remain,
still with me
after all these years
of being lost.

I carry you like
my own personal
Time Machine,
as I put on
my lipstick, smile,
and head out to
the party.

Source: On Being with Krista Tippett

Undone By Grief: Deviance, Medicalization, and the Political Power of Loss

Note: In 2014, in my last year of college, I had to take what was called a Senior Capstone course to complete my degree in Women's and Gender Studies. The course required us to write a final paper on a subject of our choosing. I decided to write a paper that argued against the medicalization of grief and, instead, argued for the radical potential of grief. While my paper is not perfect, I want to share it here in the hopes that it can be a resource for other people. 

My central mission with this blog is to advocate for the reconceptualization of grief. I want to normalize grief. I want our society to stop seeing grief as an emotion that needs to be tamed, medicalized, and denied. I want us to see what grief can give us, what it can show us, how it can be harnessed to create social change and generate empathy for other people. I want us to start thinking about grief not as a destructive emotion but as one that is generative, fertile, and an essential part of being human.

Introduction: The Value of Grief

What does it mean to lose another person? More importantly, what does the process of losing  do to the self? In Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, a text dedicated to the political possibilities of loss, Judith Butler asserts, “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something” (Butler 5). This experience of being undone is frightening to most people. But I argue for the value of being undone, of losing it, of plunging into the chaos and disorder of the uncontrollable emotion caused by grief.

In “Composing Queerness and Disability: The Corporate University and Alternative Corporealities,” Robert McRuer argues that the modern ways in which we teach writing composition are connected to larger narratives about heternormativity and able bodies. For the purposes of this paper, I want to linger on McRuer's embracing of a messy, decomposed subject. McRuer writes that “the bourgeois culture of the past few centuries has only become more obsessed with the composed, self-possessed, 'normal' subject, properly located in a hierarchical social order” (McRuer 153). McRuer argues for “resisting closure or containment and accessing other possibilities” (159). In addition, he calls for “the desirability of a loss of composure” (149).

What could  cause more disorder and “loss of composure” than grief? Chaos reigns, we are out of control, adrift, lost to ourselves.  A prolonged grieving that is messy,  disruptive, and excessive-- one in which the griever loses all composure—is  increasingly medicalized in Western society. These grievers are constructed as deviant, pathological, and in need of medical intervention. For how can we tolerate the break down of the self in a world intolerant of disorder and disintegration?

We fear being undone, we fear the chaos of the uncontrollable; therefore, grief is a danger, a threat to our norms and defenses against personal and cultural anarchy. It is no accident that we associate healing with motion.  Society tells us to move on, let go, find closure, get over it. Get over what? Move on from what?  As though loss were separate from ourselves, as though we could extricate our bodies from the bodies of our dead beloveds. The truth is we share a skin; and the death of one of us is the death of both of us. It is the death of the “we,” the unit, the connection between two human beings. We fear this death and what it will do to us but what if fear could be transmuted into power? In Regeneration, Pat Barker writes of the disintegration involved in metamorphosis: “Cut a chrysalis open, and you will find a rotting caterpillar. What you will never find is that mythical creature, half caterpillar, half butterfly[...] No, the process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay” (Barker). It is the process of decay, the break down of the self, that leads to new potentialities.

We need not fear the disintegration, the loss of composure, that often accompanies grief.  We can reconceptualize it rather than medicalize it. What can grief give us? What value can it bring? What can the grief-stricken teach, share, and accomplish? What kind of society can we build when we engage in an ethics of loss and grief? An ethics that acknowledges the devastating magnitude of every single death? That does not see loss as something to move on from or forget but to remember, to harness, to embrace as that which makes us vulnerable, sensitive, and profoundly human?

A Personal Perspective 

I am writing this paper out of a personal obsession with the subject of grief. When I was sixteen years old, my father unexpectedly died.  For eight years now, I have struggled with an overwhelming grief that perpetually consumes me. I am undone. I am shattered. And yet I live in a society that refuses to acknowledge such messiness. One week after my father's funeral, I was forced to complete high school exams. Institutions make no exceptions for the grief-stricken. One of my teachers advised me to “keep busy” as a way to deal with my devastating loss. Other well-meaning people said time would heal, that everything would be okay, that he was, after all, in a better place. I attended a group therapy session at my high school in which other teenagers who had also lost parents spoke about their grief. In one activity, the counselor asked us if we agreed with the statement that everything happens for a reason. Everyone agreed except me. I realized that my grief was different from the others, that I was not coping in a socially-acceptable way because I was furious and broken and emotionally overwhelmed,  but I had no way to express any of these feelings. I refused to put my loss in a positive light. I refused to make peace with it or move on from it. Over time, I have found the value in my grief. I see it as the one thing that connects me with every other human being because loss is one of the few universal experiences. All of us, at some point, will lose someone we love and we will know the feeling of grief. This paper explores how certain forms of grief are medicalized and seen as deviant. I examine the harm such medicalization does to people. Finally, I argue for different ways of seeing grief that show its complexity and possibility.

The Construction of Normalcy

Where did the grief norms I encountered actually come from? First, it's important to examine the emergence of normalcy as a concept in Western society. In “Constructing Normalcy: The Bell Curve, the Novel, and the Invention of the Disabled Body in the Nineteenth Century,” Lennard Davis examines the origins of normalcy, which is actually a recent idea that only just emerged in the 19th century.  Norms are not a natural occurrence. Davis writes that "the idea of a norm is less a condition of human nature than it is a feature of a certain kind of society" (Davis 3). Normalcy, then, is socially constructed. Before the norm, there was the ideal, which dated back to the 17th century. With the ideal, it is understood that people cannot possibly embody or attain it. The ideal was found in art and sculpture from classical antiquity.  Davis explains the differentiation between the norm and the ideal this way: “the concept of a norm, unlike that of an ideal, implies that the majority of the population must or should somehow be part of the norm” (Davis 6). The ideal was a vision of perfection that could not exist in real life; the norm became a measuring stick by which all people were measured. Most importantly, the construction of normalcy means that those who do not conform to certain standards are defined as deviant. As Davis notes, “with the concept of the norm comes the concept of deviations or extremes” (Davis 6). Normalcy becomes an instrument of deciding who is acceptable in society and who is not.

The Emergence of Deviance and Medicalization

Norms lead to deviance, and deviance leads to medicalization. In The Medicalization of Society: On the Transformation of Human Conditions into Treatable Disorders, Peter Conrad writes that “medicalization occurs primarily with deviance[...]the medicalization of deviance includes alcoholism, mental disorders, opiate addictions, eating disorders, sexual and gender difference, sexual dysfunction, learning disabilities, and child and sexual abuse” (Conrad 6). In this paper, I argue that grief is an example of the medicalization of deviance. According to Conrad, medicalization “describes a process by which nonmedical problems become defined and treated as medical problems, usually in terms of illness and disorders” (Conrad 4). Grief is not a medical condition; it is a natural reaction to the loss of another person.  But once certain reactions become seen as normal, other reactions are considered deviant and come under the surveillance of the medical establishment.  Medicalization has serious social consequences. Most importantly, “Numerous studies have emphasized how medicalization has transformed the normal into the pathological and how medical ideologies, interventions, and therapies have reset and controlled the borders of acceptable behavior, bodies, and states of being” (Conrad 13). Medicalization pathologizes difference.  Indeed, Conrad argues that the danger of medicalization is that “transforming all difference into pathology diminishes our tolerance for and appreciation of the diversity of human life” (Conrad 148).  The medicalization of grief has enshrined a narrow spectrum of acceptable reactions to loss. In the process, we deny the diverse forms of grief that people express.

Debunking The Five Stages of Grief 

Difference and diversity are unavoidable aspects of grief. Not every person will react the same way to a loss. Responses run the gamut and vary through space, time, and culture. And yet certain norms for grieving have arisen in Western society, and any deviations from those norms are automatic grounds for medicalization. A strict process of grieving did not exist until four decades ago, with the publication, in 1969, of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's highly influential On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have To Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, and Their Own Families. Clearly, from the subtitle alone, the purpose of the book was to explore the ways in which dying people confronted death. To that end, Kubler-Ross identified five stages that many moribund patients experience: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Soon, though, people applied these five stages to the grief experienced by those left behind despite the fact that this was not Kubler-Ross's intention. As Ruth Davis Konigsberg writes in The Truth About Grief: The Myth of Its Five Stages and The New Science of Loss, “It was other practitioners, having found the stages so irresistibly prescriptive, who began applying them to grief in the 1970s, a repurposing that Kubler-Ross did not object to” (Konigsberg 8). This led to the idea of grief as “a 'process,' or a 'journey' to be completed, as well as an opportunity for growth” (Konigsberg 5).  Furthermore, the five stages of grief have become so entrenched in popular culture that most people believe that grief follows such a narrow trajectory and that the five stages are scientifically proven when, in fact, they are not. Because of Kubler-Ross's book, the five stages were transformed into a norm that determined which grievers were acceptable and which ones were deviant. The five stages became a way to create order out of the chaos of grief. In the process, they set the parameters for how grief should be experienced and treated. More than anything, the stages imply that grief lasts only a finite period of time when, for many people, grief often lasts for the rest of their lives.

The Medicalization of Grief: Normal Grief and Complicated Grief

With the publication and acceptance of Kubler-Ross's text, the medicalization soon followed, as “a new belief system rooted in the principles of psychotherapy rose up to help organize the experience [of grief]. As this system grew more firmly established, it also became more orthodox, allowing for less variation in how to approach the pain and sorrow of loss” (Konigsberg 5). Grief counselors and psychoanalysts effectively ushered in the medicalization of grief, perpetuating the idea that, in order to deal with grief and move on with life, one needed to seek out professional medical help. Grief came under the provenance of the medical establishment, which enforced particular norms and criteria that distinguished between acceptable and deviant forms of grief.

In the psychiatric field, grief is divided into two categories: normal grief and complicated grief. According to the “Diagnostic Criteria for Complicated Grief Disorder” published by The American Journal of Psychiatry in 1997, the seven symptoms of complicated grief are: intrusive thoughts about the dead, intense emotions, yearnings for the deceased, feelings of loneliness and emptiness, staying away from things that remind one of the dead, difficulty sleeping, and loss of interest in life, work, and relationships. By defining a particular way of grieving as complicated, and thus pathological, certain responses are medicalized. While many grieving people experience most, if not all, of the symptoms listed, only people who have them for an extended period of time are viewed as deviant.

Objections To Complicated Grief 

Some scholars have serious issues with the creation of complicated grief disorder and question the reasons for, and consequences of, such a diagnosis. In “What Is Complicated Grief? A Social Constructionist Perspective,” Tony Walter argues that complicated grief, as a psychiatric condition, serves various functions, from taming chaotic emotions to controlling deviance. Walter writes that “the notion of 'complicated grief' is a way of re-inserting cognitive order into the disorder, making sense of what experientially is chaotic” (Walter 72). Walter continues, “complicated grief is dis-ordered grief, and modernity has difficulty with dis-order. The notion of “complicated grief” attempts to find reason in the dis-order, and thus to begin re-ordering” (Walter 77).  Complicated grief is also another way in which deviance is identified and treated, “Every society has its norms, and identifies and labels deviance from those norms. Grief is no exception. Every society has norms about the proper and acceptable way to grieve” (Walter 74). Walter goes on to argue that those who harness their grief for political action and resist grief norms are seen as dangerous to the state, “the anger of grief has on numerous occasions throughout history been used to transform society. A fairly recent example is the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the mothers of Argentina’s disappeared, who refused to be bought off with (probably fake) bones being returned to them and with talk of the need for 'closure'” (Walter 76). The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo underscore the radical potential of grief, which I will discuss in more detail later on. Walter notes that “Almost certainly the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo fitted the criteria for complicated grief” and asks “Should we be worried about them? Should professionals intervene and get them more balanced?” (Walter 76).  When grief is medicalized and turned into a problem in need of a diagnosis and treatment, what is lost? How does complicated grief simply reinforce already existing power structures by delegitimizing and problematizing people's responses to loss?

In Closure: The Rush To End Grief and What It Costs Us, Nancy Berns also objects to the medicalization of grief, arguing that it prevents the creation of community and isolates the person who is grieving. Berns writes that “It is true that grief is often complicated. It is also the case that complicated grief is most often normal. Medicalizing grief and labeling people as having a disorder further privatizes the grieving process” (Berns 52). Both Walter and Burns raise important questions about the ways in which grief is pathologized and what is lost through the process of medicalization, such as community and social change.

 A Sociological Approach To Grief

If viewing grief through a medical lens is damaging, how else should we view it? What are other possibilities? In “Grief as a Social Emotion: Theoretical Perspectives,” Nina R. Jakoby theorizes grief as an emotion embedded in, and shaped by, social relations. Jakoby applies a sociological frame that emphasizes a social model of grief as opposed to a medical model. Jakoby writes that “The sociological model of grief focuses on grief as an emotion in its non-pathological form. Grief is seen as a normal emotional response to the loss of a significant other” (Jakoby 680).  Jakoby shows how grief can be re-evaluated by filtering it through three “sociological theories of emotion” (Jakoby 685). The three theories are: symbolic interactionism,  structural theory, and behavioral theory. My paper will discuss symbolic interactionism and structural theory because they are most relevant when it comes to situating grief within a sociological framework. Each one brings new perspectives to the study of grief and challenges the medical model of grief.

Of the three theories, symbolic interactionism most directly addresses grief. This theory emphasizes the social bonds and how the death of another person is not just a physical loss but an emotional and social loss. As Jakoby claims, “When the 'other' dies, the social nature of the self becomes painfully obvious and makes grief a social phenomenon. It is not only the loss of the loved one but also the loss of self that was constructed through interactions with the deceased” (Jakoby 686). Jakoby goes on to point out that “From this perspective, grief is defined as a painful reconstruction or rebuilding of the self and everyday life” (Jakoby 686). Symbolic interactionism recognizes the seismic effect of loss and acknowledges that rather than “complicated” grief originating within the individual, intense expressions of grief are the product of our social connections with other people and the devastation that death leaves behind. This counters medical models of grief that pathologize grievers.

Symbolic interactionism is also attentive to the ways in which grief is regulated by society and family. Jakoby writes that, within symbolic interactionism, grief is defined as an “emotional role” and is thus subject to “feeling rules”. Feeling rules “are scripts for emotions in a given society and culture. They are social norms and specify the emotions that individuals should feel or express in a given situation” (Jakoby 691).  Within psychiatry and the medical model, feeling rules are used to determine what is normal grief and what is pathological grief. People who deviate from these established feeling rules are pathologized: “The concept of normal grief is an ideal that tells us how to grieve. It is a specific Western cultural model of grief that does not correspond to reality and everyday experiences of loss. It is a social and cultural construction maintained by science, especially psychiatrics and health professionals” (Jakoby 692).

However, not only the medical establishment enforces feeling rules on individuals. Often, grief is regulated by the family. According to Jakoby, “It is important to pay attention to family norms about the right way of grieving and pressure by family members about how to feel and behave” (Jakoby 693).  Symbolic interactionsim is a useful sociological theory for examining the ways in which grief is regulated and pathologized, revealing the feeling rules that operate within our lives, and how certain norms are reinforced both by the medical establishment and the family unit.

Structural theory is also useful in examining grief. Like symbolic interactionism, it resists medicalization, focusing, instead, on systemic inequalities that can exacerbate grief, affect how one expresses grief, and who has access to coping strategies. Structural theorists “cannot separate the experience of grief from the structural conditions surrounding the life of the survivors” (Jakoby 695). While the medical model identifies grief as a mental illness that needs treatment and originates within the individual who is grieving, structural theory illuminates how the unequal distribution of resources and entrenched class differences lead to differing ways of grieving. Jakoby writes that “there is empirical support for a link between personal and social coping resources, coping styles and social class. Personal resources determine individual resilience or vulnerability in the face of bereavement” (Jakoby 698). Furthermore, “Studies provide evidence that low socioeconomic status leads to experiencing negative emotions, such as anger, sadness, anxiety, or feelings of powerlessness” (Jakoby 698). Class often determines how people express grief and who can access bereavement resources: “unequal distribution of bereavement technologies, such as counseling […] provide middle classes with a set of feeling rules to negotiate their way through the experience of grief whereas working class people do not tend to use these technologies” (Jakoby 699). Working class individuals tend to deal with grief in a more stoical manner and this can mean a greater regulation of the expression of grief within families and communities.

As a member of the working class, I can look back and see the ways in which my own grief was regulated through social interactions. For the poor, attending counseling or seeking out medical help with grief is not an option; therefore, grief must be dealt with internally. Grief must follow a certain time line and then come to an end.  When you are struggling to pay bills and survive, you cannot stop to grieve too long. You have to return to work, take care of your family, and function in the world.

Because they are subject to different feeling rules, the upper class and the working class cope with grief in different ways. I want to suggest that this regulation of grief leads to something very interesting. While the upper classes seek out medical treatments for their grief, in the form of psychiatrists, group therapy, and counseling, the working class channels its grief in other ways, often into political action. This underscores two things: how the medicalization of grief can foreclose the radical potentialities of loss and how grief can create community and lead to mass movements.

 The Politicization of Grief 

In Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, Judith Butler theorizes grief and mourning as the building blocks for constructing a new kind of political consciousness based on a shared sense of vulnerability to death, loss, and suffering. For Butler, grief is a kind of awakening to oneself as mortal, socially connected, and ethically obligated to the people around us. Butler writes that "Many people think that grief is privatizing, that it returns us to a solitary situation and is, in that sense, depoliticizing. But I think it furnishes a sense of political community of a complex order” (Butler 22). When we move grief outside the walls of the psychiatrist's office and allow it to live as it is, in all its pain, messiness, and chaos, we discover that we are, in fact, not alone. Other people are burying their loved ones. Our grief is not something to be ashamed of, nor is it the product of a deviant mind, it is an expression of our common humanity. Butler goes on to observe that  “passion and grief and rage, all of which tear us from ourselves, bind us to others, transport us, undo us, implicate us in lives that are not our own, irreversibly, if not fatally" (Butler 25). Through a devastating loss, perhaps we find a part of ourselves that is missing until that violent rupture. What was missing was a true understanding of the depths of love. We are undone, we are shattered, precisely because we loved another person so much. What can we do with that love? How can we carry it on when we cannot give it to the person it was once bestowed on? Perhaps we harness it. Perhaps grief is what love becomes in the aftermath of death.

 The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo

I can think of no story that better exemplifies Butler's theories on grief and mourning than the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, mentioned earlier by Tony Walter. The Mothers found one another through the shared experience of unimaginable loss. When the military junta took control of Argentina in 1976, a reign of violence began that lasted until the early 1980s. During the years that the junta controlled the country, thousands of protestors, intellectuals, and ordinary citizens vanished. They are known as  desaparecido, the disappeared. The Mothers of the disappeared went to police stations to inquire about their children but were denied any answers. Over time, the women started gathering together in the Plaza de Mayo to protest the military regime and demand knowledge of what happened to their sons and daughters. In “Grief Transformed: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo,” Sally Webb Thornton writes that “By keeping the memory of their pain in the forefront, and by not coming to closure, these Mothers seem to have resolved their grief in an unusual way through their mission to seek justice, and not to allow their children’s lives and work to perish” (Thornton 286). Grief connected the women to one another and grief spurred them to social action. Furthermore, because these women were marginalized, working class, and possessed very little individual power within Argentine society, they were forced to cope with their grief outside the medical establishment. A counseling session would have done very little for the Mothers. They needed to know what happened to their children and the mixture of grief, outrage, and fury they felt propelled them on a quest for justice.

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo show the value of grief and its radical potentialities. The Mothers continue to stage protests in Argentina. Their movement has not ended. Their commitment to justice is unwavering because they allowed their grief and loss to politicize them. Was their grief complicated? Absolutely. They thought of their dead children. They refused to let them go. They were obsessed with knowing what happened to them. It is true that every instance of loss is not as unresolved as the example of the Mothers. Most people know how and when their loved ones died. They do not have to fight a government to learn that information. Still, there are many ways in which grief is political, from the deaths that happen because of war to those that are the products of social inequality.

Amadou Diallo

The photographs by Paul Fusco are haunting: hundreds of women on the streets of New York City, their heads shrouded by black veils to honor the life of Amadou Diallo, an innocent, unarmed man who was killed in 1999 by police officers after they discharged 41 bullets, 19 of which hit his body. The officers were later acquitted of all charges. The trial and the verdict sent people into the streets where the women wore black veils as a sign of mourning and held pictures of Diallo. These mass protests are yet another example of the power of grief to ignite social action and create community. The women could have foregone the mourning veils, but it was essential for them to convey not only their anger and political outrage but their profound grief. Diallo's death was not the first, nor would it be the last time, a person of color would be murdered by police officers. Like The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the Diallo mourners used their grief to create alliances and stand up against the systemic violence perpetrated against people of color in New York City and throughout the United States. Diallo was a Muslim immigrant from Guinea and his death further underscores the ways in which the working class take grief to the streets and use it to spur mass protests. They refuse to let their grief remain private and individualized.  Instead, they engage in public mourning that calls attention to the systemic injustices suffered by the poor and marginalized.

Conclusion: Undone by Grief

For some people, grief is a finite process with a beginning, middle, and end. These people are able to accept death as a difficult but natural part of life. They do not get mired in it and, though they feel the pain of loss, they go on to lead happy and productive lives. For some of us, grief is forever.  It follows no process, it has no terminus. It is messy and consuming and we struggle to contain it.  This might seem like a terrible thing—to never let go of grief, to always be haunted by the dead—and while it is difficult, the revelation that my grief is ongoing actually liberates me. Instead of denying my grief or suppressing it or internalizing shame because I cannot conform to the five stages of grief or find closure and healing, I embrace grief as a part of myself. Now, I write about grief on a blog and receive messages from people who say that I have helped them, that they appreciate what I share. This is but one small example of how grief can connect us.

I want to be clear about what I am and am not saying in this paper. I am not against grief counseling. I do not seek to shame anyone who goes to a psychiatrist and desires help in coping with grief.  I am questioning the overall medicalization and social regulation of grief. I am critiquing the norms we enforce on grievers and the narratives we tell to them, namely that they should get over their loss, move on, find closure, let go, and heal. I am also arguing for the rights and value of people whose grief is messy, disordered, and chaotic; people who, according to psychiatry, have “complicated” or pathological grief. I am arguing that instead of judging those of us whose grief is messy and prescribing us medication and trying to make us “normal” and composed, that we allow them to exist and that we acknowledge the diversity of grief.

This paper has traced the emergence of normalcy, deviance, and medicalization as it connects to grief. I have shown the ways in which grief is pathologized in American society, the damage this does to the grief-stricken, and the problems of medicalizing grief. I have argued for a reconceptualization of grief as that which connects, sensitizes, and politically motivates us. From the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo to the Diallo protestors, grief continues to be a catalyst for mass movements dedicated to the abolition of oppression and violence. Embracing the disorder and messiness of grief can lead to new possibilities for individuals and society. Grief can be empowering even as it destabilizes our lives. Through grief, we can come undone, lose ourselves, but, in the process, we find other things. We find community, compassion, and the understanding that all of us will one day lose what we love most.

Works Cited

Barker, Pat. Regeneration. New York: Plume, 1991. Print.

Berns, Nancy. Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2011. Print.

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso, 2004. Print.

Conrad, Peter. The Medicalization of Society: On the Transformation of Human Conditions into Treatable Disorders. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2007. Print.

Davis, Lennard J. "Constructing Normalcy: The Bell Curve, the Novel, and the Invention of the Disabled Body in the Nineteenth Century." The Disability Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2006. 3-16. Print.

Horowitz, Mardi, Bryna Siegel, Are Holen, George Bonnano, Constance Milbrath, and Charles Stinson. "Diagnostic Criteria for Complicated Grief Disorder." The American Journal of Psychiatry 154.7 (1997): 904-10. Web.

Jakoby, Nina R. "Grief as a Social Emotion: Theoretical Perspectives." Death Studies 36.8 (2012): 679- 711. Print.

Konigsberg, Ruth Davis. The Truth about Grief: The Myth of Its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. Print.

Kubler-Ross, Elizabeth. On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families. N.p.: Routledge, 2008. Print.

McRuer, Robert. "Composing Queerness and Disability: The Corporate University and Alternative Corporealities." Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York: New York UP, 2006. 146-70. Print.

"Portfolio - NEW YORK, USA. 1999 - 2000. Diallo Protest/ Women in Mourning.Paul Fusco." Magnum Photos. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2014.

Thornton, Sally Webb. "Grief Transformed: The Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo." OMEGA: The Journal of Death and Dying 41.4 (2000): 279-89. Print.

Walter, Tony. "What Is Complicated Grief? A Social Constructionist Perspective." OMEGA: The Journal of Death and Dying 52.1 (2006): 71-79. Print.

Exhibition - Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America

PR Vallée - Harriet Mackie (The Dead Bride)

 Charles Willson Peale - Rachel Weeping

Hiram Powers - James Gibson Powers

Artist unknown - Innocence
George Gassner - Arvillaanah Colby

Attributed to Samuel S. Miller - Picking Flowers

William Matthew Prior - Baby in Blue

J.B. Gregory - Theodoric Myers

Joseph Whiting Stock - Mary and Francis Wilcox

William Matthew Prior - Heavenly Children

Michele Felice Cornè - Death of William

Ambrose Andrews - The Children of Nathan Starr

Deacon Robert Peckham - The Farwell Children

Artist Unknown - Young Woman with Rose

American Folk Art Museum in New York City has a new exhibition called Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America. It focuses on depictions of the dead in art and postmortem photography:
Securing the Shadow is a contemplation of American self-taught portraiture through the lens of memory and loss. Humanity demands that no life should pass without some recognition, whether it is in the form of a marked grave, a portrait painted after death, or a postmortem photograph. Such tokens were once proof of life—one last opportunity to secure a shadow that would survive beyond the limit of individual memories.
American gravestones offer standing testimony to the changing social structure of dying from the colonial period through the nineteenth century as portraits of the deceased slowly replaced stark memento mori of winged death heads, hourglasses, and the like. In painted portraiture, the transition from frank mortuary depictions to living images coincided with a cultural shift as the individual came to be privileged over the community and a redemptive view of death replaced a more intractable belief in original sin. Posthumous portraits and the postmortem daguerreotypes that ultimately replaced them are memories fixed in colored pigments on canvas and vapors on silver. We cannot help but hear them whisper through the years, “remember me,” because, as photographer Mathew Brady warned in 1856, “you cannot tell how soon it may be too late.”
The exhibition will be on display from October 6, 2016 to February 26, 2017. You can find out more information at the museum's website.

All images via the American Folk Art Museum website and The Guardian.


Vera Brittain - Roundel

(“Died of Wounds”)

Because you died, I shall not rest again,
    But wander ever through the lone world wide,
Seeking the shadow of a dream grown vain
            Because you died.

I shall spend brief and idle hours beside
    The many lesser loves that still remain,
But find in none my triumph and my pride;

And Disillusion's slow corroding stain
    Will creep upon each quest but newly tried,
For every striving now shall nothing gain
            Because you died.

Source: Poetry Foundation

Joan Aleshire - The Dead

In poems I read, "the dead" always appear
as collective noun: gray mass without feature,
to be feared or made fun of, and so to be
erased, as if we hadn't once loved or fought
with them, as if we won't end the same.

What was left of you sprawled--shapeless
mass of ash, such a dark gray--in the plastic bag
we came to bury, Pete cutting a neat square
in the turf old graveyard grass becomes--moss,
ferns, even violets blanketing the mounds--
next to your father's headstone, closer to him
in death than you'd wanted all your life to be.

Mother, brother, brothers-in-law, sisters,
nephews, nieces, and I who had known you
best in faltering and urgencies, the slow
steady heat of your engine heart, the rank innocence
of your workman's sweat: we came with mason jars
and each took a last remnant of you, even in this
never "the dead," not the gray feathers
of wood-ash, more like sand we might collect
from a rare beach we visited once,
always yourself: this dense powder
you have come to.


Celine Marchbank - Tulip

 In 2009, Celine Marchbank's mother was diagnosed with cancer. Marchbank used her camera to capture her mother's final months. As she told The Guardian, "I felt as if everything would soon be gone. She would be gone, the house would be gone – and all our memories." The profoundly moving photographs have been collected in a book called Tulip. On the publisher's website, Marchbank goes deeper into why she took the photographs:
While I was trying to come to terms with the fact she was dying, I decided I wanted, or maybe needed, to document the time she had left. I didn’t want to create a graphic portrayal of her death, it would have been impossible and wrong to focus only on the dying part, but rather I wanted to photograph our last months together. I looked at the things that made her uniquely her, the details in her house I thought I knew so well, the things that would also be gone when she was. 
Her love of flowers was a beautiful part of her personality; the house was always full of them, and as I photographed them I realised they were symbolic of what was happening – they represented happiness, love, kindness and generosity, but also isolation, decay, and finally death.

All pictures are via The Guardian

Purchase Tulip by Celine Marchbank