“Handling It Well” and Other Lies We Tell

“Handling It Well”

I don’t know if it is a universal saying or one particular to the American South, but it is one I hear a lot. When two people have a common acquaintance and that friend has lost a loved one, they often will employ this phrase: “handling it well.” The conversation goes something like this:

“I saw Martha the other day.”

“Oh, you did? I’m glad to hear that. I’ve been meaning to get by to see her but have just been too busy lately.”

“Me too. I finally made it a point to go over there. I called her Monday and went by yesterday. It’s hard to believe it’s been a month since Bill died.”

“How is she doing?”

“Oh, you know…she’s handling it well.”

Most people know that “Handling it well” means the person who is grieving is displaying behavior that the culture has deemed appropriate. It means they are sad but not morose. It means they smile but not too big and might laugh but not too loudly. It means they’re dressed in a way that says they can manage themselves with only perhaps a slight level of dishevelment. They are ok, but not great. They are sad, but not depressed. They are grieving but not overcome by it. They are “appropriate” in every way.

There is a continuum of behavior between happiness and relief on one end and sadness and depression on the other. Our culture defines a specific window in the middle for what it sees as allowable for the grieving, an amount that society says is within the “norm,” and everything outside of that window is cause for concern. “Handling it well” means the person is holding themselves within the allowable norm and there is no need for concern.

Ostensibly, this phrase is meant to bring comfort or relief to the person asking. It’s like saying, “She’s okay,” in a certain tone: not good, not bad, just in the middle so everything is suitable. On the surface what is meant is, “there’s no need for concern. This person is managing and will recover.”

Underneath, however, we convey much, much more.

First, we’re saying to the other person, “it’s ok if you haven’t been by to see them. They aren’t falling apart, so you don’t need to feel guilty about not checking in on our mutual acquaintance. They’re handling things without you.” It’s a fast way to assuage any guilt someone might have for failing to have reached out to someone who is grieving. 

Second, it confirms the grieving’s rightful place in a certain social circle. The assumption is that there is common understanding of what appropriate grief looks like and the person who is grieving is doing so in a way that is acceptable. In other words, “we” (the shared social or cultural group) handle ourselves in a particular way and the person who has experienced loss is managing it in a way that is acceptable. She or he continues to be “one of us,” even in the processing of great loss.

This also reinforces these confines of acceptable grief for everyone around. It telegraphs to others that however this person is managing their loss is the way it “should” be done. Others should observe how this grieving person is handling themself and do likewise when the time comes. Anything too different will be deemed unacceptable and to be “not handling it well.”

This, of course, sets up the space for judgment and shame. If someone exhibits behavior outside the acceptable range, they are to be avoided and shunned. If a grieving person appears to be too happy or enjoying themselves too much, people assume they didn’t actually love the person who has died and/or are in denial about the death. Why this might be true, it also might not be. Grief looks different for everyone because each of us processes emotions differently. Similarly, if the person who is grieving cries too much for too long, they are exhibiting an unreasonable amount of sadness and something must be “wrong” with them. They shouldn’t be that upset about the loss and are failing to recognize they’re being irrational. Judgment is passed on those who are grieving “too much” as also being in denial about the reality of the person’s death and it’s keeping them from “moving on.”

Shame then sets in on those who fear they are either too sad or not sad enough. What if their feelings about the loss are not sufficient or are overly strong? Then they run the risk of getting grief wrong and being judged as “not handling it well.” They might be shunned from their social group. As a result, people who are grieving sometimes will hide the extent of their sadness and sense of loss or will pretend to be more aggrieved than they actually are. They feel ashamed that they are not experiencing whatever they have understood as “appropriate” grief and this shame merely exacerbates the difficulties already inherent in the grieving process.

Finally, and this is a big one, when we say someone is “handling it well,” often what we mean is “I’m so glad they aren’t making me see their grief.” The emotions of loss are huge and varied and uncomfortable for many reasons, including some I stated above. They can be overwhelming and uncontrollable. What if we get caught up in someone else’s lack of control? What if we get sucked into their messiness? What if being with them somehow rubs their sadness and sense of loss off on us and we’re forced to feel things we don’t want to feel?

Saying a grieving person is “handling it well” means they have managed to contain their emotions and actions within the rules we have set out for them by our culture. They are showing us that a person doesn’t lose control when they lose someone very dear to them and we need to know that control remains because we crave control. We fear losing control of ourselves and being judged. We fear losing control over our senses because nothing could be worse than a lack of control, even in the face of losing the person who meant most to us in the world. We might lose a husband, a wife, a parent, or even a child, but heaven forbid we lose control.

Before we employ this phrase, “handling it well,” maybe we should step back and think about what we’re really trying to say. Perhaps we then could use different words or add them to what we say to others. Do we mean that the care the person is receiving is adequate? Do we mean that they do, in fact, seem to be grieving in the way that they need rather than in a way we define as acceptable? Or do we mean something else? If we mean the former, good. Then help convey that and maybe reflect on what healthy, adequate support looks like in a time of grief. If we mean something else, more along the lines of what I outlined above, maybe it’s time to let our guard down and go back to check on that friend again. Maybe we missed something, maybe we didn’t. Maybe our friend needs us, maybe they don’t, but let us try to avoid making assumptions about the wellbeing of our grieving friends for the sake of shielding ourselves from the uncomfortable.

February 23 One Day Retreat and Book Discussion Information

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