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Apr 29 2013
Learning to lament in the 21st century.

As a culture, we tend to think of grief as healthiest when abbreviated and restrained, as seemingly quick and efficient as other aspects of our fast-forward, high-tech lives.

Even mental health experts disagree over what "normal" grief looks like. Although the depressive symptoms of bereavement have long been considered standard to the grieving process, doctors proposed a revision to the newest edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to eliminate the bereavement exclusion from the definition of depression, allowing doctors greater freedom to diagnose and treat grief as a pathological condition.

Move on. This is the cultural imperative imposed on bereavement. We picture the season of mourning as a hurdle to clear and sadness as something to be eventually left behind. We're distinctly uncomfortable with tears. Grief, as a category of human experience, has grown closer to becoming something clinical in America, a condition worthy of a prescription.

This push to rush through or pathologize grief hasn't always been there. In her poignant piece, Let's Bring Back Mourning Clothes, Jana Riess recounts the loss of her mother and wishes for the days when one could, for a season of months, even years, don a black dress to signal sadness. "The purpose of the all-black fashion was to give the bereaved survivors some much-needed cultural latitude. The clothes they wore practically screamed, 'The following person requires a wide berth.'" Mourning clothes had the benefit of conveying, without a word, the need for a sympathetic space. They normalized grief by bringing it into public view, but they also safeguarded the healing process by signaling the bereaved must be handled with care. In this way, mourning clothes achieved a welcome symmetry between private and public grief—a symmetry we've since lost.

Following the respective deaths of my father and brother 15 and 20 years ago, I didn't grieve in the Victorian era of mourning clothes, nor in the age of digital disclosure. Grieving still maintained a private dimension. It was a time before cell phones and personal computers, so I had no virtual life or identity to manage, no dreaded obligation to articulate grief in 140 characters or a sum things up in Facebook status update. The only face I had to compose was my real one, and grieving was an act shared only with a close circle of friends and family. This was a real luxury: a public audience isn't always welcome to grief's ugly events of denial, anger, and depression.

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