A feeling itself, and not simply the way it is displayed on face and body, can be experienced as misfitting a situation in a surprising number of ways. We can suggest a few of them by considering how one might feel at a funeral.
A funeral, like a wedding, symbolizes a passage in relationships and offers the individual a role that is limited in time. The role of mourner, like that of bride, exists before and lives on after the rite. But rules about how to feel during the rite are linked to an understanding of the rite itself and of the bond it commemorates.
A funeral is ideally suited to inducing spontaneous sadness and grief. This is because the ritual usually reminds the bereaved of the finality of death while at the same time offering a sense of safety and comfort in this realization.10 In response, the bereaved generally senses that this is the right time and right place to feel grief and not much else. Yet in a wondrous variety of ways it is possible for a griever to misgrieve.
One way is not to feel sad, as at the funeral recalled by this woman, now thirty-one:
When I was around nine or ten, my fourteen-month-old sister died. I had one other sibling—a sister who was three years older. I remember feeling important telling people my baby sister had died; I enjoyed the attention. At the funeral our immediate family was sitting in a special side room separated from the other guests by a transparent curtain. At the point when the rabbi drew the curtain open, the whole family simultaneously blew their noses. I thought that was quite funny and started laughing, which I masked into crying. When my piano teacher [who came to our house to give me lessons] asked why the mirror was covered (a Jewish custom), I nonchalantly told her that my little sister had died, at which point she became hysterical and ran to express her grief to my mother. Of course I was aware that I was supposed to be sad and grieving… but my parents were so aggrieved and preoccupied that I was just brought along [to the funeral] and not dealt with individually. My status of youngest child was back, along with more attention from my parents, and my little sister hadn’t developed a great personality yet, so there wasn’t much to miss. Though I understand the dynamics of the situation in retrospect, I still feel a little guilty, like there’s something wrong with me and I’m exposing myself for not having felt bad. Actually at this point I honestly feel it would be lovely to have a younger sister.
This child felt happy at being more important both because she was close to an event that affected many people and because she had one less rival for her parents’ attention. In this case, her shame about feeling happy at her baby sister’s death attached itself to these childhood feelings only when she later reinterpreted the event through adult eyes. In other cases, of course, time does not elapse between having the feeling and appreciating the unwritten convention that it does not fit.
We can offend against a feeling rule when we grieve too much or too little, when we overmanage or undermanage grief. As a nineteen-year-old woman recalled: “A few months ago when my grandfather died, I was very upset and sad. My sadness was mostly for mother and my grandmother, but it was also for myself. I kept feeling I shouldn’t be this upset because I wasn’t that close to my grandpa and I didn’t love him that much.” In assessing her feelings, this young woman seemed to choose between two rules, one that would apply if she had loved her grandfather very much and another that would fit if she hadn’t loved him “that much.”
Even if we very much love someone who has died or is about to die, how much of what kind of stoicism is appropriate for a given situation? This can be a problem, as two sociologists found in the case of parents anticipating the death of their children, who were hospitalized with leukemia and tumors:
The parents were frequently described by the medical staff as being strong, though occasionally this behavior was interpreted as reflecting “coldness” or lack of sincere concern. The parents were also often aware of this paucity of emotional feeling, frequently explaining it on the grounds that they “could not break down” in the presence of the children or their physicians. However, the parents would occasionally verbalize their confusion and even guilt over not feeling worse.11
Ordinarily we expect the bereaved to be shocked and surprised at death; we are not supposed to expect death, at least not too confidently. Yet many deaths —from cancer, stroke, or other terminal illness—occur gradually and come finally as no surprise. Not to feel shock and surprise may show that even before a person dies physically, he or she can die socially. In these cases, kin and friends often offer each other permission to feel relief, accepting the fact that they may have mourned a genuine loss “too early.”
Another way to feel unfittingly about death is to resent the labor and sacrifice the dead person has caused relatives. It is not fitting to hold a grudge beyond the grave. One forty – eight-year-old woman recalled:
The death of my father brought a mixture of grief and relief. Taking care of him and my mother required that I move them out of their own home, rent an apartment, and start housekeeping for them while my own family, my husband and three teenagers, were home. This was my first long separation from my husband and children. My nerves were raw; my dad seemed never to sleep except in the daytime, while my only time for sleeping was at night. / didn’t give much thought about what I should feel, but Ifelt bad, and guilty to be relieved and sorry at the same time. I handled my feelings by simply asking my dead father for forgiveness and by accepting the fact that I was weak.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, it is women who give care to aged parents, and it is probably more their burden to feel resentment about the sacrifices they have made and therefore to feel ambivalent about the deaths of their parents.
Another way in which feelings can seem to misfit a situation is in their timing. Indeed, many moments of “misfeeling” express the difference between a personal and a cultural clock. Sometimes a problem in timing can lead others to draw undesirable inferences. As a middle-aged woman recalled:
When my husband died I thought I should feel a great sense of loss and grief. Instead I found a sense of freedom at being able to do as I pleased and to make decisions about my life without having to consult him or face anger or hurt feelings if I went against him. I felt really guilty about this and dealt with it by putting aside all emotions connected with my husband, acting as if he existed only in some dim memory. In fact, I could remember very little of the eleven years we spent together. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt, but I proceeded to make a new life for myself, with new friends, activities, and experiences. My old friends, of course, could not understand this and interpreted it as evidence that I had not loved him.
More than a year later, after moving to a new location and becoming involved in a serious relationship to which I was willing to commit myself, I was at last able to come to terms with my feelings and memories about my husband. Then I felt the grief I was unable to feel before and was able to share my children’s grief.
It sometimes takes the right context, one that reduces the press of inhibitions, for grief to emerge. If that context does not present itself quickly, family and friends may decide that grief has emerged too late. Sometimes the bereaved are taken by “anniversary reactions,” periods of grief and depression occasioned by the anniversary of a loved one’s death. To those who know nothing about anniversary reactions, a sudden spell of depression can seem inexplicable and frightening. Those acquainted with the syndrome,
however, can provisionally expect its results and can define the grief as being, in a way, “on time” after all. What is early and what is late is as profoundly a social affair as what is too much and what is too little.
There is a public aspect to the proprieties of timing, and sometimes social scientists can themselves establish the proprieties. For example, Dr. Robert Weiss, with colleagues at the Laboratory of Community Psychiatry, developed a “seminar for the bereaved.” He has written:
We were hesitant about scheduling a party for the bereaved because we thought that many of them defined themselves as still within that period of mourning when gaiety is prohibited. But we… discovered to our surprise that participants brought to [the party] an excitement; there was a good deal of eager planning for it; some of the women came to it in formal dresses. On looking back, one might guess that they had interpreted the party as establishing their right to reenter the social world, but we could never have guessed that this is what the party would mean.12
In addition to problems of timing, there are problems of placing. Being in the right place to grieve involves being in the presence of an audience ready to receive your expressions. It can make a big difference whether one is surrounded by grieving aunts and uncles or by curious sixth graders:
I was in the sixth grade at the time my grandfather died. I remember being called to the office of the school where my mother was on the phone from New York (I was in California). She told me what had happened and all I said was, “Oh.” I went back to class and a friend asked me what happened and I said, “Nothing.” I remember wanting very much just to cry and tell everyone what had happened. But a boy doesn’t cry in the sixth grade for fear of being called a sissy. So I just went along as if nothing had happened while deep down inside I was very sad and full of tears.
Males especially may have to wait for ceremonial permission to feel and express. Even within the ceremonial setting, even when men do cry, they may feel more constrained not to sob openly.13 In that sense men may need ceremonies more than women, who in any case, may cry without losing respect according to the standards imposed on men.
In each instance above, from the mourner’s viewpoint, the same event, a funeral, is misexperienced. In each case, the event seems to prescribe a “proper” range of inner feelings and corresponding outer display. Ideals in grieving vary depending on the type of funeral ceremony and the cultural understanding of grief on which it draws. Thus in many ways normal ambivalences can be privately reshaped to fit social rules we are scarcely aware of.14 The ways in which people think they have grieved poorly suggest what a remarkable achievement it is to grieve well—without violating the astonishingly exact standards we draw from culture to impose on feeling.