Societal stigma. Here is a topic associated with loss that few of us think about and even fewer of us talk about. By definition, stigma is an idea, condition or issue that the community (or even the nation-at-large) has targeted as disgraceful or reproachable. Because stigma exists around us in every aspect of life, the impact of it can follow us into our personal loss.
Stigma can occur to survivors when our loved one’s existence has crossed the lines of what society thinks is permissible and acceptable. Our loved ones likely felt it when they were living, and we are faced with it after they pass. It feels sad, petty and outrageous, but stigma happens just the same. In the real world of loss, stigma can rear its very ugly head and blindside your progress to healing. An apt example would be suicide, something I unfortunately know too much about. There are many others, but because suicide has touched my life personally, we could begin there.
When my son Drew ended his own life just over 5 years ago, the reality of suicide, as you can imagine, brought me to my knees. But it also brought something else – the extremely uncomfortable opinions and judgments of others surrounding the taking of one’s own life. It was often subtle, unstated, implied and ultimately the enormous elephant in the room. It dogged us through the wake, the burial and all the weeks and months that followed. Mentioning the reason behind Drew’s death could clear any space. Talk about avoidance!
For more than a year after losing Drew, I was not able to say the word suicide. Just yesterday, I ran into an acquaintance I had not seen in some years. She was a teacher in the system when Drew was going to school, and like many childless couples who are so loving and dedicated, she saw all of her students as her own. She asked me how Emma and Drew were doing in their lives. Having to tell her about Drew was terribly painful for me. She was stunned, incredibly emotional and whispered. To say it out loud was too much for her. How I understood. I just held her and told her it was okay to say the words to me.
We are not knowingly attaching judgment to illness of the body that takes our loved one away, are we? But mental illness, suicide, drug/opiate addiction and overdose, irreversible self-harm, alcohol toxicity, obesity, homelessness, incarceration are all examples of stigma in our society today. The loss of a loved one fitting into one or more of these conditions occurs and the stigma attached to their death can remain a very long time.
Is our healing challenged in such a situation? I believe so. Is there a stigma that is overshadowing you in your loss? You can easily recognize it, experience it, but what can you do about it?
I will share with you just some of the steps I have taken to become healthy in the face of my loss, even with a potent stigma of suicide attached to it. If you are in the same or similar position in the journey of your loss and recovery, maybe these well-meant guidelines will help you.
- First, Remove The Blame. Look at the irrelevance of the stigma as it applies to your acute grief. Remove blame from the equation – any blame. The person you are grieving for must shine through as they were. It is your time to grieve for as long as you need. It is the right of every person to do that grieving without the complication of another’s judgment. Stigma is often painted with a broad brush and may have little to do with your individual and very personal situation. Stigma is baggage you do not want or deserve, and it doesn’t belong to you. This requires that you allow others to believe what they will. It is not your job to alter their thinking anyway; so give over all of your heart and energy to grief, your way and your time frame.
- Examine Your Own Feelings. An important step that comes to further you along in your loss journey is to examine where YOU are philosophically. Make it important to know what part stigma may be playing in your healing process. Be honest with yourself – are you harboring stigma of your own? In the case of suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction and such, you may be judging aspects of this loss similar to how many others do. That is not something to feel guilty about, but rather an opportunity to see targets of stigma differently. Examples of judgmental stigma may be: “people who complete suicide are weak and cowardly”; “alcoholics are not willing to get clean because drinking is just easier”; “the homeless are just lazy”. When you hear these statements, you are no doubt having a reaction and it is important to understand where your own belief fits into that reaction. Changing and challenging stigma begins one person at a time. It begins with each one of us understanding that what the judgmental person sees is not the whole story, the whole person or the whole truth. Focus on that for your loved one and when you do, the person that they were will shine through.
- Grieve In Your Own Way. Submitting to stigma in the healing process can extend your recovery. You may begin to believe in the implied aspects of the stigma that others declare. Be patient with yourself. You need to experience your grief your way, not how others say or imply that you should. Avoid the taint of the judgement that society can bring with it. If you can look past the stigma that the community carries about certain human conditions, you might see that every person has choices that they make even though they might not be the same choices you and I uphold. If you can embrace that concept, your loved one will be in the very place they should be – in your heart, in your memories and their part of your journey going forward.
There is hope that each one of us will bear witness to the human spirit doing the best we can. We have an opportunity that is not only good for our healing, but also for the future to come.