Dealing With Grief that Isn’t Socially Acceptable

Calling out of work to mourn a recent breakup isn’t socially accepted… but shouldn’t it be?

By Molly Flynn, University of North Carolina at Charlotte


College is supposed to be the best four years of your life.

You get to move out and try adulthood for the first time. And while you learn that your mom doing your laundry was the most underappreciated event of your high school career, it’s also kind of cool to have the freedom to paint a random mural in your apartment and adopt your own puppy. Ah, sweet college. The special place where you figure out who you are, possibly fall in love and maybe even learn a thing here and there. But, regardless of this romantic ideal of what college is supposed to be, I have learned during my four (ok, fine, four and a half) years at my university that sometimes really bad things can happen, too.

The majority of my college career has been marked by some pretty great moments. My freshman year I moved into a house with my sister and two of our best friends. We kind of learned to cook and became even better friends because, truthfully, there’s nothing like burnt breakfast bonding. I got my first job at a company in uptown Charlotte, which made me feel super fancy because I worked in a big city and ate sushi on my lunch breaks. Never mind the fact that I actually ended up spending way too much of my paycheck on sushi. I also ended up hating this job because my supervisor was an absolute pervert. Regardless, I learned some important life lessons my first year.

Navigating through college, I met some great people through on-campus jobs, I joined a sorority and I was able to attend a few different conferences across the U.S. representing organizations I was a part of.  I was also one of those lucky people that fell in love. While some argue it was too young, I even got married my sophomore year. Yes, it’s true, a lot of amazing things do happen in college.

But, pretty bad things can happen, too.

My first semester at college, I got extremely sick. I was diagnosed with mono the week of exams. Battling with extreme fatigue and a lack of appetite, I struggled with balancing studying and work and, honestly, staying awake. After losing 20 pounds, and barely remembering my Christmas, I finally recovered. That, sadly, was not my worst moment. Right after my husband and I got married, he received orders to be deployed to the Middle East. Six months later, he was on a plane and I was on my own.

To add some sprinkles on top of the shitty cake of deployment, we totaled our car the day before he left for mobilization. I was doomed to be not only husbandless but also carless. In the middle of the deployment, my grandfather had a tragic accident. I spent a week in ICU with my very big family huddled around our dying patriarch. It was tough to lose my grandfather especially while not having my husband with me. These were the moments I did not foresee in my college career.

But while these big crises in my life were terrible, the people around me understood them and accommodated for them. My professors understood when I was sick and gave me extra time to prepare for finals. My advisor understood when I took a semester off to send my husband halfway around the world. And my employers gave me time to grieve when my grandfather passed away. When huge life events happen, most of the world understands. But, what happens when tragedies occur in our lives that only we realize are truly tragic? How do we deal with grief that’s not “socially acceptable?”

How Social Expectations Dictate Grieving

Image via Huffington Post

Last week, my precious 3-month old puppy became extremely ill. After taking her to the emergency room, we learned that she was suffering from heart failure as a result of a congenital disease. After two days and about two thousand dollars, my husband and I had to put her down. I felt like such a baby for bawling my eyes out in front of the cardiologist. My husband was equally heartbroken over the loss of her.

Not only did we just lose our gorgeous dog Onyx, but we were also forced to go into debt to pay for her medical bills. Sadly, I couldn’t tell my boss that I wasn’t going to close the store the next day because my puppy died. I couldn’t tell my professor that I wouldn’t be in attendance for our exam the next day because “I’m grieving the death of…my dog.” This experience got me thinking about the tragic events in our college years that we don’t catch a break for. Case in point: The break up.

Unless you are extremely lucky or maybe extremely wise, you have gone through, like most people in college, a bad breakup. But, just because Janet told you she wanted to see other people doesn’t mean you can tell your internship supervisor that you won’t be doing your portion of the presentation tomorrow. Just because John told you he thinks you two should “just be friends” doesn’t mean that work is going to let you call out without a doctor’s note on Black Friday. And just because Michael cheated on you with your “best friend” doesn’t mean your professor is willing to let you cheat on your final exam.

There are moments in our lives that warrant time off but that are also stigmatized. A few people in my family suffer with anxiety disorder. While many workplaces and colleges have great programs to help students and employees cope with mental illnesses, it’s still extremely awkward to ring your boss and let them know you won’t be at your shift tonight because of a “panic attack.” You can’t just shout from the mountaintop that you are battling mental illness. Maybe some people would accommodate for you, but most people will also judge you. It’s hard to understand mental illness if you’ve never been impacted by it. So, while you may be able to get some time off, you’ll have to awkwardly explain yourself as well.

Sometimes, life won’t stop for us. We have to learn to prioritize and segment our grief. We have to fight against the part of us that wants to run away and hide.  The shift I had to show up for after losing my puppy was absolutely horrible. I had to fake a smile and pretend like I actually cared about selling overpriced bras and panties. But I had to do it, because I couldn’t lose my job over my grief. And I don’t think this is fair. I think there should be more options for time off to accommodate for moments like these; more “mental health” days that don’t require a sick note to verify our grief.

But, at my job and in my university, this is not the case. My socially unacceptable grief won’t be excused unless I specifically define it and verify it. Even then, there’s a risk of it being declared as an insufficient excuse for time off.

Our overworked culture needs to learn that sometimes, bad things happen. In college, bad things happen. They may not be life threatening but they still warrant time to grieve regardless of whether or not they are “socially acceptable.”

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