The Grief Police


The police are everywhere.

Music legend Prince passed away four days ago, as of this writing. As a longtime fan who found great inspiration in his life, the news wrecked me. I wrote about it here.

And I haven’t been alone. Millions and millions of people have offered their heartfelt reflections on his loss this week on social media. Cities and sports teams have honored him with memorials. Celebrities from all walks of life, including President Obama have offered effusive tributes. People from across the globe have corporately grieved his passing along with me.

But with these expressions of sadness have come other folks, who you’ve probably run into from time to time.

I call them the Grief Police.

The Grief Police are easy to spot. They’re the ones who will tell you:
1) Who and what you should grieve.
2) What form this grief should take.
3) How long that grief should last.

We encounter the Grief Police in all sorts of ways; whether we’re mourning a loved one’s passing or a natural disaster or the death of a celebrity or a mass shooting or the ending of a relationship.

Whenever we are in pain, we’re also never far from people who will critique the object and expression of that pain; those quick to notify us when their compassion on a subject has outlasted our own, when our mourning has become an annoyance or inconvenience for them. This is the strange spot when someone else’s sadness becomes about our comfort level. We turn another’s pain inside out and so easily replace empathy for them with impatience with them.

But the truth is this: Loss is loss.

Whenever someone finds something in this life important enough to grieve, it isn’t up for debate. Grief is not a group decision. It is the most personal act we will ever engage in. It is a singular response to the world as we live within it.

We each find profound meaning in this life in different ways; in relationships, as part of families, through music and art and writing that moves us. It’s not our job to determine for another’s heart where and how it should ache or how long it should bleed.

As a caregiver, one of the things you learn is that when you’re trying to support someone who is mourning, the best words are often simple, silent presence. There are no words that can bring adequate comfort in the face of another person’s pain, and so you just sit with them in quiet solidarity and yield to their hurt.

I wish we could do this when we tire of other people’s pain too; when we believe they are grieving the wrong things or for too long or in the wrong way. I wish we could just be silent and respect the manner in which they are experiencing loss.

Friends, there is no expiration date on our grief.
There is no explanation for our grief.
It simply is.
We do not choose the things that move us.
We are moved by them whether we want to be our not.
It’s how we know that we are really living.

This world is absolutely starved for compassion, and one of the ways we feed it is to realize that things can matter deeply to people even when they do not matter deeply to us.

We can resist the temptation to manage or direct another person’s grief, or to try and make it conform to our preferences or comfort or understanding.

If we grow exhausted by another person’s sadness, we can recognize that it isn’t about us; that their sadness is enough.

And if we cannot fully share in their burden, then we can give them the gift of our silence and the time and space to mourn as they need to for as long as they require. This is how we love one another well.

Let’s retire from the Grief Police.



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21 thoughts on “The Grief Police

  1. Tell the truth, John Pavlovitz!

    I have to admit, seeing the Prince tributes pulls me up each time, because they often read: “1958-2016”; Prince was a month older than I (June 1958); I was born in July, 1958….

    No, there is no time limit on grief, because there is no time limit on love…I know each and every day since 29 June 2009 that my beloved Montana Farmer Boy is dead, and I have grieved and will grieve, to my dying day…Yes, I laugh, I sing, I go on through life; but I will never, ever be the same; there is a hole in my heart that will never close, there is a piece of me that is missing.

    All it takes is a certain song, or a certain movie that he loved, or seeing a Corvette (more often than not, I’ll smile, remembering his Warp Six driving; he loved Corvettes, and he loved driving fast)…and the tears come, and I will not apologize or get over it or what have you…I miss him, and I always will.

    Thanks for giving those of us who grieve a space….it would be nice if the REST OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH didn’t treat us as if we were the carriers of some filovirus (e.g.: Ebola, Marburg), and actually INTEGRATED AND WELCOMED US INTO THE LIFE OF THE CHURCH (what a concept!)

    Quite frankly, I’m TIRED of being a PARIAH in the church simply because I’m a widow (well, being black, that makes me a black widow, so some might consider me a bit dangerous [okay, I made a very bad joke, there…..])

    • yattwood –No need to apologize or explain. I recognize your pain as I read your comment.

      “…..when you’re trying to support someone who is mourning, the best words are often simple, silent presence.”

      John, I read your previous tribute and the above response to those who would police, in this case, grief. While it is true that words seem so inadequate, I hope you know, in something more than just a virtual sense, that I (and I have no doubt many others) wish to honor your sense of loss and the grieving that accompanies it with our simple subdued silent presence.

      Thank you for putting it all into words.

    • Well spoken Mrs……..your journey without your soulmate is your own, different, unique from others . Carry him happily, sadly, joyously and yes, with grief but forever with love!

  2. Good article. I’ve seen a lot posts mocking people mourning Prince since they aren’t mourning fallen soldiers. You mourn who you are aware of and familiar with. Same groups mocked those mourning Paris and Brussels.

  3. Grief police are false authority figures. Belittling a person’s grief is one of the most heartless acts I can imagine.

  4. My favorite (sarcasm intended…..) is the well said Grief Police comment, “I know how you feel”. This is the absolute worst thing you could ever say to a person who is suffering.

    John, thank you again for writing these words.

  5. Grief is a personal experience. We all grieve in our own way and for people that we feel a connection to. I never paid any attention to Prince. Just not my style. But a few weeks ago when we lost Patty Duke I was a mess and then angered that TV guide didn’t give her the cover. I paid a lot of attention to what was said about her. She also survived and thrived after mental Illness which I also have. I felt I had to keep my grief to myself. I felt people would laugh if they knew how I felt. But she was a part of my life and as I could I loved her. I don’t like that she is gone. Those who mourn for Prince deserve their time any one that says different simply has a cold heart.

  6. I lost my grandson who was barely 13 after months of suffering. Sometimes I will see a young man on the street who looks so much like him looking so carefree and I question why, my tears flow as I speak of him. Some people grieve for the loss of the past , I grieve for the loss of his future. Because of family dynamics, I felt I had been withheld from seeing him like I would have liked which has been difficult but thankfully there are no grief police in my life, I grieve more privately so it would not be allowed.

  7. I admit, I do not understand the grieving for celebrities at all. It might make me a little sad that someone died when they still had so much talent to share, but grieve? No. I feel deep sympathy and sadness for the families left behind after a tragedy, no matter who it is, but that is not grief. I grieved when a coworker died of cancer. I am grieving deeply for the beloved pet we had to put to sleep last week. I cannot grieve for someone who has absolutely no affect on my day-to-day life.

    So I remain silent. I won’t be the grief police, but it still baffles me.

    • Grief is a personal experience. I was only 2 when President Kennedy was shot but from my understanding the whole nation grieved for him. He was a politician. That makes no sense to me. But people loved him and felt a deep sense of loss. Some cruel people have said to me ehen a pet died that it was “only an animal” as if grieving for my pet was wrong. You grieve for what your heart is attached to. Your heart isn’t attached to any or very few public figures. That is ok. You should have seen me when Charles Schulz and Lucille Ball died. I was a mess for weeks. Those two were a type of surragate parents to me. I miss them still.

    • I agree. Although, I don’t really understand grieving for pets, but that’s because I lost my daughter and dog in the same week and well, let’s just say it put my dog in perspective.

      I think people who know deep pain know when people are wasting their energy thinking they are in it. That’s why some of this is met with an eye roll. There is no way the death of a celebrity is causing serious grieving (the kind where you can’t eat, sleep, function, remember, think…the kind that affects your day to day, your life, your future, etc), and if it is, then maybe you need to get evaluated.

      There is acute sadness and then there is grieving, and words like “devastated” are used in both. When someone experiences great pain, it can feel like you’ve been cheated to have no words at all because they are all taken and used flippantly. Just my opinion.

      • Ellen, losing a child is the most horrendous thing that can happen to a family. I am so sorry about the loss of your beloved daughter. My parents had to survive the death’s of both of my younger brothers. I became an only child. I never saw that coming. Losing a child changes who you are.

        Not to be flippant, but, to me grief seems a bit like Tiramisu. It has a lot of layers, and no two layers are exactly alike. My mom and dad lost the same two children, but their grief was a very different journey for each of them.

        I don’t think John is suggesting we compare losses, but just to make room for letting people grieve what they feel needs grieving, be it a long or short journey.

        God bless you Ellen in your grief journey. I wish you never had to go through this type of devastation. Peace to you.

      • Hi Ellen!
        First off my sincere condolences on the loss of your daughter. I have children of my own and can’t begin to understand what you must have gone through so I won’t pretend and say I understand your pain. I am, however, truly sorry for your loss.
        What I wish to address though is the statement you made regarding not understanding how people can grieve the loss of a pet. You even stated maybe for you it’s because you lost your daughter and your dog in the same week so it somehow put things in “perspective” for you..
        Well I would like to share my personal perspective with you. My boxer dog, Dixie, wasn’t just a boxer, a dog, a pet, etc. She was a very integrated part of our family. I brought her home when she wasn’t even 5 lbs and 8weeks old. At 12 weeks she was sent and trained as my PTSD/Emotional Support Service Dog. Her and I had a bond and a connection like nothing I could ever explain if I tried. We were connected on a very deep emotional and spiritua/soulful level. She was with me for nearly 12.5 years. Long after my kids were married with families of their own. The day I had to make the decision to let my girl go and end her suffering was by far the hardest day of my life. But only because I was being selfish. I wanted her to stay with me. But it wasn’t fair to her so I had to let her go. So I did. I gave her the peace she so desperately deserved after years of loyaly protecting and loving me and I in turn went into a downward spiral of the most intense grief, loss and despair that I have ever felt in my life. I could not get out of bed for 3 days, the loss was that overwhelming. And when I picked up her urn and cremains it just intensified. It was not only me that was devastated by the loss of our beloved Dixie. Our entire family was. Granted it hit me the hardest because her and I literally were together ever moment for almost 13 years but Dixie was truly a special soul. I began grief counseling about 2 months after losing her and still go weekly like clock work. July 30, 2016 will be one year since she has been gone. Doesn’t seem possible.
        I’m sorry this turned out so lengthy and I in no way meant ANY disrespect or lack of empathy regarding the loss of your daughter. That was never my intention. I merely wanted to point out how people can and ARE at times DEEPLY traumatized by the loss of their beloved pets because to them they aren’t just pets they truly are family just like any other family member. Hope this message finds you well. Have a blessed day! 🙂

  8. Thank you for this. I ran into a grief police moment with a relative last night comparing Prince’s death and the deaths of soldiers with some meme from a FB group called “Prepare to Take America Back.” Rather than “get into it” with family, I just clicked on the top right corner and selected not to see any posts from that page. I’ve noticed these types of things aren’t shared by folks acting as grief police when they are the one who has a connection to the famous person who died. Sadly, I felt like my feelings were belittled. That my feelings of loss were wrong in this person’s eyes. I personally was in shock with how deeply I felt this loss but it is truly about the connections and memories that are tied to Prince’s music.

    I have been dealing with the loss of my mom for 18 months now and just last month suffered the loss of a very dear pet. Yes, the loss of my mom is exponentially greater but the loss of my 10 year old dog was still true loss. The tears and sobs were still there because we grieve what we have loved and that dog was like a best friend, like a furry child. That dog helped me through the pain of my divorce and also comforted me as I dealt with anticipatory grief during my mom’s journey with Alzheimer’s. Again, it is about the connection one has built in relationship to whatever has been lost. That dog was there for me in very tough times and now he is not. The loss of his presence and love is very real.

    If only there were no grief police making a difficult journey even more difficult. We should champion having compassion for one another when hurting whether we understand it or not. Compassion not control.

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