Silent grief

Most of us carry within us some kind of ‘silent grief’ – a disenfranchised grief for something we’ve lost which isn’t publicly recognised, but which may still burden us. Sometimes this grief is quite minor – a slight yearning, a small sense of loss. Perhaps your childhood home, which hasn’t been in your family for years, is being demolished. You feel a little sad about this, knowing you will never be able to see the house you grew up in again, but you’d hardly travel to the address to stage a public funeral on the footpath.

Other forms of silent grief, however, cut us far more deeply, and can over the years lead to feelings of bitterness and isolation. Having a parent with dementia is one form of disenfranchised grief – the person you knew is no longer there, they are no longer acting as your parent, but on the other hand there’s usually been no ritual to mark this transition. Each society has its own forms of disenfranchised grief – losses which aren’t validated by the community. One example, which is slowly changing in some places, is the disenfranchised grief of a same-sex partner who has no say in end-of-life decisions or funeral arrangements. The silent grief can also be the loss of our hopes and dreams, being incapacitated in some way, a past injustice, or historical wrongs which haven’t been acknowledged.

Immigration is another form of loss which isn’t generally validated by the new host country. Immigrants are supposed to be delighted and happy they’ve been accepted into their new home, and there is usually an expectation of rapid assimilation. Yes, by all means bring some of your wonderful cuisine along and open a restaurant where your whole family can work long hours to feed us. But apart from this, do make sure you quickly learn how things work here. And please don’t go hankering after the ways of your old country…

A regular mindfulness practice will, sooner or later, open us up to the silent grief within us. At first this might be vague, a generic form of Weltschmerz, feeling the pain of the world. Over time, however, we become more attuned to the losses inside us, and what might trigger feelings of grief. Do you feel very moved by the online footage of the teenage Syrian refugee who has brought his puppy with him to Europe? ‘I love my dog’, he says, ‘everyone told me I couldn’t bring him along. But I have water, and food for him. I love my dog.’ Maybe you had to leave a beloved family pet behind when you moved countries? Maybe you are unable to keep a dog where you live? The Internet, the news, daily life, they are full of triggers for our silent griefs. Grief is just a natural part of life – there is nothing wrong with grief. But it helps to understand where it comes from, how it affects us, what might trigger it. It helps to hold the silent grief with mindful compassion, to honour and respect it, so it’s no longer a disenfranchised grief but simply becomes part of our common humanity.

Weekly practice idea:

What is one of your silent griefs? Perhaps you can invent a small ritual to mark it? It doesn’t need to be elaborate – a simple gesture to acknowledge the grief, such as lighting a candle, or placing a flower in a stream and watching it float away, can be very powerful.

Anja Tanhane

Boys don’t cry

‘Now I would do most anything to get you back by my side.

But I just keep on laughing, hiding the tears in my eyes,

‘cause boys don’t cry.’

The Cure


Can you think back to a time where you sabotaged your chance at something which was important to you, such as a relationship or an opportunity, because you were hiding your ‘tears’ behind a fake smile? There are times for putting on a brave face, for not letting everyone around you know the exact minutiae of all your feelings. It’s part of being an adult, yet we can get into the habit of putting on a false smile to ourselves and to those close to us. There is something very vulnerable about tears, whether we’re actually crying or expressing our hurt and pain in some other way.

We can put ourselves under a lot of pressure to be positive – after all, positive people tend to be more popular, successful, healthy. And it’s true that a positive outlook on life does come with many benefits. However, there is a world of difference between a positive outlook which is based on reality, and the false good cheer we can feel compelled to resort to. To paraphrase the Ecclesiastes, there is a time to laugh, and there is also a time to cry. Participants in the eight week MBSR course often report becoming more comfortable with the full range of their emotions, rather than the narrow ‘approved’ range of emotions they might have allowed themselves before. At the same time, they talk about being increasingly able to take a step back in challenging situations, get a bigger-picture view, and to calm themselves down in the midst of challenging situations. Regular mindfulness practice will take some of the extreme edges off our emotions, but that doesn’t mean emotions aren’t still intense. In fact they may be experienced more intensely, and yet, at the same time, we feel less overwhelmed by them.

Grief which is not expressed can fester in our lives, like the worm in William Blake’s poem ‘The sick rose’:

O Rose thou art sick!

The invisible worm

That flies in the night,

In the howling storm,


Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy,

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.

Men in particular have often been brought up not to cry, and may not feel comfortable shedding tears. There are other ways to express grief, or at least to be present with it whenever it arises. Music can be especially powerful, and the best music is often tinged with sadness. It is helpful to know what our feelings are; how we can best live with them. Mindfulness helps us become more familiar with, and less anxious about, the full range of our emotional life.

Weekly practice idea:

What is your attitude to grief, to expressing when you feel hurt? Where do you sit on the scale between complete repression, and letting it all hang out (perhaps inappropriately at times)? Where would you like to be?

Anja Tanhane