Shifting From Grief Literacy to Grief Humility

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Litsa

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For those wanting to support grieving people, the concepts of "grief competence" and "grief literacy" have often been touted as essential frameworks and the ideal goal for everyone, from therapists to friends to workplaces.

These terms suggest a level of expertise that, if mastered, allows people to speak a universal language of grief. On the surface, it sounds like an admirable mission and ideal. However, as we delve into the intricacies of grieving, a more nuanced perspective emerges—one that has always made me bristle at the terms "literacy" and "competence" regarding grief.

It parallels the shift from cultural competence to cultural humility, highlighting that, while literacy and competence may seem ideal, they disregard a vital dynamism, humanism, and intersectionality fundamental to grief and grieving.

Grief Literacy: A Finite Approach to an Infinite Experience

Grief competence or grief literacy, much like its cultural counterpart, implies a mastery of a set of skills and knowledge to effectively support those grieving. The allure of a finite checklist of appropriate actions and responses is undeniable. It provides a sense of security and control, a structured approach to a seemingly chaotic and unpredictable process.

In the pursuit of grief competence, individuals may inadvertently reduce the profound, individual nature of grief to a standardized set of guidelines. This reduction oversimplifies the complex interplay of factors influencing grief, such as personality, culture, coping styles, and unique relationships with the person who died or the loss itself.

The Illusion of Universality in Grief

Complicating matters further, grievers themselves may fall prey to the illusion of universality. Though many grievers do, in theory, agree with the idea that grief and grief needs are unique. But in an attempt to articulate their needs and guide others, they might unwittingly project their personal experiences onto the broader whole. This assumption that their journey is representative of all grieving individuals fosters the misconception that a universal set of dos and don'ts exists.

This is similar to the pitfalls seen in cultural competency, where individuals assume their cultural perspective is universally applicable (or what they’ve learned about a culture is universal). But in this instance it may be grievers who – with the best of intentions - inadvertently contribute to the perpetuation of a one-size-fits-all approach to grief support.

We touched on this in a recent article titled, The Case for Unscripted Grief Support: Why we no longer advise people what not to say.

"If someone tells you there is a black-and-white rule, I encourage you to test the statement before accepting it as truth because many of these pieces of advice are well-intentioned but biased. They are the things that work for that person or their friend, or perhaps they even have a consensus from a group of people...[But] the longer we work in this field, the more grieving people we talk to. And the more grieving people we speak to, the more we know about what we can never know. A true "grief expert" may understand concepts and theories and can bust grief myths, normalize, and validate -- but they also know that when it comes down to understanding anyone's individual grief, they know very little.

shift from grief literacy to grief humility

The Call for Grief Humility: A new take on grief literacy

Just as cultural humility emerged as a more adaptive approach, we’re suggesting shifting our ideal from "grief literacy" to “grief humility.” Grief humility invites us to transcend the limitations of literacy and competence. It asks us to be okay with not knowing.

Grief is not a static, universally applicable knowledge set; rather, it is a dynamic, multifaceted experience influenced by myriad individual factors. It asks us not to retain a list of static facts about grief, but rather to change our way of being with grief and grievers. It moves us out of the comfort of imagined mastery into the reality that one can never fully "master" all aspects of an individual's grief.

Definition of Grief Humility

Though there is no singular definition of cultural humility, there are some common components to the accepted definitions that have shaped the way we suggest conceptualizing grief humility.

Grief humility is an approach that recognizes the intrinsic uniqueness of each grieving individual. It involves self-reflection, an acknowledgment of the vast unknowns in the grieving process, and a commitment to ongoing learning from diverse grief experiences.

Our Approach to Grief Humility

In contrast to the structured approach of grief competence, grief humility embraces the complexity of grief by encouraging open-ended conversations, active listening, and an ongoing commitment to learning. It acknowledges that grief cannot be "mastered" in the traditional sense but requires a continuous process of understanding and adapting to the diverse needs and experiences of each individual griever, needs and experiences that will continue to evolve across time.

Grief Humility Stretches Grief Literacy and Competence

Grief humility is best thought of as an ongoing practice, one that forces us to recognize the limitations of literacy through acknowledgment of personal bias, the dynamic evolution of grief, and the impact of power and systems on grief education, training, and support. Further, it reminds us that anything one knows about grief may or may not prove relevant, appropriate, or supportive in the context of each unique and individual griever.

Grief humility does not discourage learning about grief or consider

grief literacy to grief humility

The Role of Personal Perspectives in Grief Humility

Grief humility challenges the assumption that what worked for one person will work for all. It urges grievers to move beyond prescribing universal "dos and don'ts" based on personal preferences, recognizing that the vast range of reactions and needs in grief demands a more individualized and flexible approach.

It reminds us that the golden rule might be “treat others as you want to be treated” but the platinum rule is to treat others as they want to be treated”. That is a far more challenging rule because it forces us outside of ourselves. It forces us outside of books and exams that text fixed knowledge.

Overcoming the Grief Echo Chamber

Much like the echo chambers that can form in cultural circles, grievers often find solace in connecting with others who share similar experiences. However, this very comfort can inadvertently limit exposure to the diverse spectrum of grief reactions and needs.

Grievers, ironically, might find themselves with some of the lowest levels of grief humility because of our egocentrism as humans. When we have an experience, we often believe it has taught us more about others with a shared experience than it has. Worse, it can close down our ability to truly listen and hear that our experiences, needs, and preferences are not the universal experiences, needs, and preferences.

As we navigate the delicate terrain of grief support, it is imperative to recognize that grief is not a puzzle to solve but a landscape to explore. Embracing grief humility opens the door to a richer understanding of the diverse experiences within the grieving community.

Grief humility challenges us to set aside the illusion of universality and mastery, inviting us into a space where continuous learning, listening, adaptability, and genuine empathy become the cornerstones of effective grief support. Just as cultural humility enriched our approach to diverse cultures, grief humility can revolutionize the way we engage with the unique and evolving narratives of grief.

Prefer to listen to your grief support? We recently recorded a podcast on this very same topic.

We wrote a book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
real-life book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.

You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books:

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2 Comments on "Shifting From Grief Literacy to Grief Humility"

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  1. Revathy  March 13, 2024 at 2:34 am Reply

    I very much appreciate this discussion on ‘grief humility’. It is a thoughtful and very considered analysis of how one can support the grieving individual. In a way it does give me some relief to realise that perhaps my own isolation and reluctance to reach out or seek help is because those who proffer help or counsel seem to think they can patch me up with their own set of ideas and knowledge rather than ‘exploring the landscape’ and deeply understanding my distress and struggles. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Chris  March 8, 2024 at 7:23 pm Reply

    I wonder if grief is the same when the loss of a spouse comes after 10 years together compared to 56 years together. After 10 years there must be pain in knowing many adventures together will never take place. After 56 years together, you know many wonderful things have been experienced, but thinking about doing anything alone has diminished appeal. Any time together with someone you love with all of your heart should be cherished and enjoyed knowing that the clock can stop as quickly as it started. I had my 56 years, but it wasn’t enough. Time with the love of my life ended February 2 and now there seems to be no end to my tears. It is said that time heals. Now time moves very slowly.


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