Judging others’ grief is a way we try to protect ourselves from it, explained Dr. Elena Lister, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and co-author of the forthcoming book “Giving Hope: Conversations With Children About Illness, Death, and Loss.” “Grief makes us horribly uncomfortable; to see other people grieving reminds us we are mortal, we could die ourselves or lose people we love,” said Dr. Lister. “We need to distance ourselves, and one of the ways we distance ourselves from pain is by putting it down, judging — ‘you’re grieving too much,’ ‘you’re grieving too little.’ Either way you’re saying, ‘that’s not me.’”
Today, people often look to psychotherapists or books for advice on how to grieve. In the 19th century, when childhood death was much more common, there was a proliferation of “comfort books” for grieving parents and siblings, which sometimes relied heavily on assuring parents that the deceased child was in heaven and had escaped the vicissitudes and temptations of life on earth.
In her 1838 book, “Letters to Mothers,” the Connecticut writer Lydia Sigourney included a chapter on “Loss of Children,” which instructed the grieving mothers: “You will not then, become a prey to despondence, though loneliness broods over your dwelling, when you realize that its once cherished inmates have but gone a little in advance, to those mansions which the Saviour hath prepared for all who love him.”