By Chris Haring

A new book explores how societal norms have shifted grief from a public to a private experience and the need for a more empathetic approach to bereavement.

Author Cody Delistraty has been writing – and talking – about death quite a bit in recent weeks. In an episode of the podcast Armchair Expert, its host, actor Dax Shepard, interviewed him about his book, The Grief Cure.

In the book, Delistraty says his exploration of the experience was catalyzed by his mother’s death, leading him to contemplate the complexities of modern mourning and the societal shifts in how we process and express loss.

How – and why – public grieving became taboo in the 20th century

Grief has undergone a significant transformation over the past century. Historically, mourning has often been a communal activity, and as recently as the early 20th century, death was a visible part of life, with mourning clothes and public rituals marking one’s loss. 

Over time, however, societal norms shifted towards privatizing the notion, influenced by events like the World Wars and changing political agendas. In a recent article for The New Yorker, Delistraty wrote about how Philippe Ariès, a French historian, identified how people once witnessed death directly and without much fanfare, with family and neighbors often present at the bedside.

Beginning with the influence of World War I, Delistraty notes how President Woodrow Wilson, for instance, encouraged women to shift from traditional mourning clothes to patriotic symbols, thus privatizing loss to support the war effort. This transition from public to private mourning has sustained significantly since.

By the 1960s, discussions of grief had become seen as “a morbid self-indulgence,” as anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer said. This privatization has contributed to its stigmatization, making it harder for individuals to express their loss openly.

Modern American society fails those grieving by pushing a return to normalcy

The societal expectation to “move on” quickly from grief has contributed to its privatization. Another recent write-up from Delistraty, this time for Time Magazine, points out the narrow path society prescribes for grieving, emphasizing the need to maintain a “brave face” and avoid becoming a burden. 

This approach contrasts sharply with practices in other cultures that support ongoing communal mourning. For instance, in Mexico, the Day of the Dead provides a public space for remembering and honoring deceased loved ones. This practice contrasts with the Western notion of moving past the losses as quickly as possible.

However, in the United States, bereavement policies further reflect this push for quick recovery. Many companies offer only five days of bereavement leave for the loss of even the closest family members, a remarkably brief period to grapple with a significant loss. This lack of adequate support can leave individuals feeling pressured to return to normalcy before they are ready, exacerbating feelings of isolation and long-term, unresolved grief.

Rethinking our relationship with grief, from suppression to acceptance

In his book, Delistraty discusses various approaches to dealing with grief, from traditional rituals to futuristic AI interventions. Despite these innovations, he concludes that it cannot be “cured” but should be managed and accepted as a natural part of life. This perspective encourages a shift from viewing it as a disorder to recognizing it as a common – and profoundly human – experience.

In an interview with Mary Elizabeth Williams for Salon, Delistraty discusses how his exploration of various treatments revealed the importance of keeping grief part of the human experience. He notes that while some interventions may provide temporary relief, they often fail to address its root causes and ongoing nature.

Normalizing grief and its effects is an ethical mission

Delistraty says it’s imperative to normalize grief and make room for open conversations about loss, whether through formal support groups or informal social interactions. He notes that many people are willing to talk about their feelings if their conversation partner is open to listening.

Community connections are critical for understanding the value of shared grief. Unfortunately, according to a Pew Research Center poll Delistraty cites in the Time piece, only 54% of American adults report feeling connected to their local community. This lack of connection can make it even more challenging for individuals to find support in times of need. 

Ultimately, grief, in its many forms, is an inevitable part of the human experience. As society continues to evolve, so too must our approaches to mourning. Strengthening community connections and understanding the value of shared experiences can help move us towards a more compassionate and supportive environment for everyone, reducing the stigma of death and grief.

If you or someone you know is struggling with grief, it’s crucial to know that you are not alone. Understanding and processing it can be challenging, but resources are available to help. Visit our Resources for Processing and Considering Grief page for valuable tools and information to support you through your journey.