Grief is Contagious: Try to Catch Some (Part 2 of 2)

January 12, 2011

By Jeanne Denney

Several months ago I wrote that death is generally not contagious, though we often behave as if it is. This month I want to ruminate on grief phobia and the value of being with grievers. What if we looked at grief as a kind of medicine, the true expression of which is scarce, valuable and needs to be shared? And yes, fortunately, it IS contagious.

If you are bereaved, or grieving any loss, you probably feel funny wearing your sadness in public, or talking about it to friends for more than a month or two. You may have noticed that many people don’t know what to do with your grief. Increasingly it isn’t seen as a welcome or even healthy process. Indeed, grief and sadness are now both routinely medicated just after a death as if they are aberrant responses. In this New York Times OpEd (“Good Grief” 8/15/10) Allan Frances notes that grief is being considered for the new diagnostic manual for mental disorders (DSMV). The pharmaceuticals must be delighted. Recently, at the end of a 5 week course on death education, I was asked by participants whether it was appropriate to cry at a funeral. Several people talked about times they had gone to one and wanted to cry but didn’t know if they should. I had to check twice to see if they were serious….these were people who were enlightened enough to take a death education course. “ Wait…A FUNERAL?!?!?” I asked “Has grief phobia really gotten that bad?”. If not there and then, where and when?

Helping people stay “Up” (even at funerals) and “Not bringing others down” are apparently social mandates. We are never more aware of it than when we are in grief. Grieving people often isolate as if they are carrying the ebola virus, yellow fever and bird flu all at once. When they do go into public places or socially engage, it is common for them to rehearse inauthentic behaviors to meet perceived requirements for cheerfulness, resilience, and optimism something like putting on a face mask. Grievers I know seem to feel a responsibility to keep others from the mess of their experience as if they are meeting children too young to comprehend a truth. Surely this is burdensome.

The phenomenon of greifphobia is not new and is clearly unfortunate for grievers. But I am writing about the other side of the problem: the loss for others who have no contact with grief because of this avoidance and confusion. I am suggesting that the bereaved are a rare medicine rather than an infectious disease. We time and again refuse this medicine, preferring to have our illness.

Grieving, it isn’t just for the Bereaved
One way I know that shared grief is a medicine because I facilitate therapy groups with ordinary people. Practicing body psychotherapy, it is clear that unacknowledged sadness, sometimes from infancy or before, works its way into the body and psyche. What have not openly acknowledged or shared becomes “somaticized” (held in the tissues of the body). Healing processes most often require that we acknowledge, feel and release emotions we have held in the body but have not fully accepted and experienced. Feeling genuine sadness is not the same as depression, and usually does not require medication, though it may require time, space, physical release and a supportive environment. I regularly observe the strong relationship between resisting feeling personal sadness and freezing to feelings of other people in our midst.

In The Other Side of Sadness grief researcher and psychologist Dr. George Bonanno of Columbia University, writes that sadness is one of the important emotions evolved to help us through grief and loss. His studies show that people in states of sadness have an inward focus which actually allows them to be more aware, alert and in possession of greater wisdom than people who avoid it. Surely grief and sadness are part of our human truth and I would argue the capacity to hold them is important to maturity, wisdom and joy. Allowing ourselves sadness does not preclude laugher and joy states, nor is it a constant experience. Unlike depression, in which all feelings are largely suppressed, Dr. Bonanno notes that sadness can be an enlivening experience, often interrupted by periods of laugher, connection and many other emotions. It is alive. Likely it is a door we walk through to gain our real life and genuine joy.

Are Grievers Good Medicine?
If tears and active sadness are good for us, how do we find and release them? Watching people struggle sometimes years to feel buried sadness, I know it isn’t so simple. That is why grievers are especially good medicine. Groups dynamics routinely demonstrate the power of one person’s heartfelt sharing of grief on others. There are only a few responses we can have in the presence of another’s expressed pain: we can freeze or feel our own human sorrow. In a healthy group, one person’s tears beget others because truly felt grief really is contagious. Grief, it turns out, is a community phenomenon. When we are around people openly in their grief our immunity is mysteriously lowered and we stand a chance of experiencing our personal and our common existential sorrow. Through this experience we have a hope of making the deep connections to others that we long for.

Don’t attempt this Alone: Learning from the Dagara

I was fascinated to read the accounts of Malidoma Some, an African Studies Scholar and Shaman, who writes about the way that grief is handled in a traditional African tribe. In Of Water and the Spirit, Malidoma describes an African funeral in depth. It starts with the wailing of women. Then a stage is set for the entire community to participate in a cathartic release of both their new and long-held sorrow. Drumming, dancing, music and grieving goes on for days during which time everyone is allowed space to explore their losses as well as their relationship with the world of spirit. Men in particular make use of this space because he notes that while women cry easily, men actually need each other and funerals to cry. These tribal Africans would not think of leaving a bereaved person alone with their grief. I have to wonder how many things would change if we had similar rites in our own culture?

It is hard for grievers to deal with our culture’s denial of loss and death. But in truth, we are all impoverished by this isolation and denial. The benefits of grieving in a collective are not just to the griever, they are to the community. Through them we find a portal through which we can enter the reality of our own primal losses, finding wisdom, truth, healing, and precious inwardness. And while it can be great to experience excitement or the thrill of victory in a collective, these are relatively brief experiences. Grieving in collective is strangely more memorable, and bonds community more deeply. We are united and humbled by loss. It is a doorway that can lead to more true joy and connection. And, it seems, we need each other to pass through it.

Jeanne Denney
is a therapist and hospice worker in Rockland County, NY and the author of The Effects of Compassionate Presence on the Dying. She directs the Rockland Institute for Mind/Body Education and Kairos, an organization for helping professionals. (See


7 Responses to “Grief is Contagious: Try to Catch Some (Part 2 of 2)”

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful article. Being inauthentic and hiding grief is part of what so many believe is the “loving” thing to do. In Healing Conversations Now we suggest people be authentic, express their feelings, and ask appreciative questions of their elders dying loved ones. Same principles would apply to grieving one. So often workshop participants look at me and ask, “Can I really be that honest and talk like that to my family?” Guess this is similar to your death education seminar. It is time we take the risk of authenticity, feeling and sharing with each other. What healing will come from taking that risk. Hope people will take the leap of faith required to do so.

  2. Mark Brady said

    Well, Ms. Jeanne, one thing you make me realize is just how distorted my view is from working as a volunteer grief counselor for many years. In that circle everyone is sharing the medicine on a regular basis. Such insularity reminds me that there’s a lot of work yet left to do.

  3. Kate Holt said

    Jeanne, Great post! The ability to grieve well has been enculturated out of us. The Mourning Out Loud workshops are about creating a temporary subculture of support where full-bodied grieving is encouraged through group exercises and individual work. The work of the individual is a gift that generally opens the hearts of the whole group. There is tremendous expansion as a result and a greater possibility of connection, as you exressed.

  4. Jim Evers said

    Thanks for writing Part 2. I found this to be a very meaningful piece for me and a nice complement to Part 1 on death. My family and I openly grieve and openly talk with each other about our grieving. And your piece speaks so well to that. I will pass this along to others because you’re right: we need to be more aware of of grieving as a natural process.

    I am always moved by the depth, scope and deep understandings that you bring out in your writings. Thanks so much.

  5. Susan said


    Excellent post! Thank you for your willingness to take the time to share your wisdom and experience as it enlightens even as it deepens us.


    Grieving is natural, everyone is going to experience some form of grieving sooner or later in life, our mission of understanding as a society is to accept that we are there to support each other, as we have seen in recent news developments the killings in Tucson we are allowing ourselves as a nation to support each other. This is a positive step, love and loss are interconnected.

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