Welcome back to Restorative Grief with Mandy Capehart. You are listening to episode 25, titled “Gatekeepers of Grief Work.”
OK friends, this week it’s personal. OK, it’s personal every week but this time it really hit home. My work in the grief field his based on advocacy and creating deeper grief literacy for all parties: grievers, grief supporters, and people who don’t know where they fall. We all know social media is a double edged sword and this week, I was accused of gatekeeping grief itself. I want to unpack this statement with you, discuss how advocacy and gatekeeping often look similar, and clarify how we are all gatekeepers in a helpful way when we effectively advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves.
First let me give you some context. A beloved musician from my childhood suddenly passed away and his death leaves a big hole in the world. Thousands of people on social media were mourning his loss and I was one of them. A friend of mine in the psychology industry shared a screenshot on Twitter of an offered response of platitudes to someone’s grief. She did so with the intention of pointing out the harmful nature of grief platitudes – saying things like, “He wouldn’t want you to be sad,” and “We all die – it’s more intelligent to accept it as an inevitability instead of being upset by it.” my gut reaction was, “OK, Thanos. If death is inevitable should we just pretend it’s nothing?” But I digress.
As someone who also felt that same heaviness, I was curious if the original poster of the griefy feelings was offered a kind word in addition to such an ugly platitude. And the post went viral, so they were definitely honored and heard. But honestly, I got really curious and found the original comment as well. I noticed that no one had responded to the offer of platitudes. And I felt everything within me rise up. If you know me at all by now, you know I am on the side of grievers. I will defend their right to grieve and process and express themselves however that looks for them. Using social media to do so can get really squirrely and this was a perfect example of that. I was irritated and responded a little quicker than I should have. All I said was this is an absolutely awful response to grief. What I meant was, “This is an awful response to offer unsolicited to someone’s expression of grief.”
What followed were hundreds of people expressing thank you and appreciation for someone speaking up. But it also brought a comment about gatekeeping. Someone told me I was gatekeeping grief and I had won the award on the Internet or something like that for doing so. I was really confused. I don’t need an accolade or a trophy. If I wanted one I would be in a competitive field. It took me a moment to realize that the wording of my statement was unclear. Now, I give myself about 30 seconds to draft responses in this instance. If I can’t say kindly what I need to say in 30 seconds, I typically just don’t reply. It wasn’t an opportunity to correct or clarify. There were enough people jumping down this individuals throat, which was probably why they joined Twitter in the first place so I don’t need to be a part of that. However, I definitely recognized where my statement could have been perceived as gatekeeping. Especially when we frame gatekeeping as a negative.
And so, because it started on Twitter, I went back to Twitter and asked the question: what is the difference between gatekeeping and advocacy? I received some great responses and some not so great responses. I loved the acknowledgement of intersectionality because I think gatekeeping is nuanced and complex. I typically only hear it as an accusation – the phrase is perceived as a means of controlling others and preventing them from inclusion in a community, in a mindset, in a belief system. Whatever you are hoping to protect. Advocacy is the idea of embracing all people on behalf of what they need and including them so they can receive what serves.
And this is where we can start to talk about gatekeeping as a positive. Right now I see a lot of gatekeeping conversation around purity culture and religious communities, and that one is a really easy conversation to understand gatekeeping in the negative. There’s been severe harm caused, and the perpetrators of the harm are often self protecting inside their communities or relying upon others to do so. This is a toxic use of gatekeeping. This is the idea that protecting ourselves at all costs is the greatest good. That’s not what I’m talking about here.
In grief work, platitudes are easily accessible and far more harmful than we realize. While grief is a collective experience, we experience it individually in such a unique way. With that in mind, I often wonder if I have a right to say that platitudes are not helpful. I think when I speak to that, I’m speaking to grief supporters. I don’t want someone to walk up to me and tell me that there is purpose in my pain and think that I will be grateful to hear from them when really, I’m trying to control my face and mouth to keep from getting a little wild.
Yet I know people who truly believe there was purpose for their pain, and they feel great comfort from such a belief. Who am I to say that that platitude isn’t meaningful? So in this context, my role as an advocate means I must find a way to close the gate on platitudes in my own grief circle of influence. While that circle is open to whomever wants to come through it, there are guidelines and expectations about how we treat one another and how we speak. In a private community, absolutely I’m going to gatekeep. Absolutely I’m going to stick to my word to honor and educate and guide grievers in a way that is helpful. I will gently correct misinformation and abusive language. I will retrain those of us who are used to platitudes as the best means of comfort. And when someone in a social setting acts in a way that causes harm to someone who is grieving, I will advocate on their behalf. Like I said, I could have clarified my thoughts on that Twitter conversation a little bit better but I still wonder if they would have been accepted or had their mind changed anyway. Maybe it would have been a waste of my words. Maybe not.
But that’s just it. Social media makes it very hard to remember what your lane is. Where do you carry influence? Where do you actually have the opportunity to intentionally and lovingly stand at the gate and protect people you have said that you will protect? If your protection includes mitigating harm against them by causing harm toward others, then yes – your application of gatekeeping is harmful and unloving.
But by incorporating the concept of advocacy alongside your active gatekeeping over your community? Well, that’s just leadership. We owe it to the people who follow us or trust us in relationship to create safe atmospheres for them to become vulnerable and to practice authenticity. No matter the common ground, we are pursuing something together and letting a fox in the hen house just means that you’ll have more feathers to clean up. Is that worth opening the gate to anybody? It truly depends on their intentions. Maybe the fox has become a vegan and they just need a little support keeping that lifestyle on track! It’s entirely possible for people to have a change of heart and shift in their behavior and understanding. And that’s why our communities exist – to help retrain and educate those who are interested in learning.
And humble leaders understand that. Going back to the original situation that started this whole conversation, my understanding of gatekeeping and advocacy are intertwined. Sometimes people don’t need an advocate or don’t want one, and that’s OK. It’s actually quite hard for some leaders to understand and accept. That’s where gatekeeping becomes so toxic and aggressive. We don’t always want to be educated by somebody we don’t trust or feel we need support from.
But in the context of my work in grief, I’m not going to sit back and tell somebody their experiences are invalid. There are cultural differences at play that say how Americans grieve is bananas. And to be honest I often agree with that perspective but the point is, I’m not the ultimate authority on what grief looks like. So advocating looks like gatekeeping by being true to the people that have asked for my support and my help. That doesn’t mean I have all the answers nor do I have the best process to heal. It means I have a process to work through that brings healing to many. There will be people that never experience growth through my work and that’s OK. As long as I am in pursuit of wholeness, integration, and mitigating harm, then gatekeeping is protecting and honoring my own words. It is being authentic to who I said I am and what I said I would do. There will be times that I get it wrong or leave out an explanation, like I did in that Twitter conversation.
And those are moments I get to learn from. Luckily for you, I’m an external processor so you’ll get to witness all of my super exciting, humbling public experiences and conversations like this one. But how else will we learn? If all leaders kept there humiliating lessons behind closed doors, or waited until they were polished and ready to preach with three bullet points, I don’t think we would get as much out of it. As leaders, we have chosen to be seen. Sometimes that will cost us pride. Sometimes it will put us back on our heels, and make us re-evaluate if what we are doing is advocacy and healthy, helpful leadership or if it is simply creating an outgroup in order to stay comfortable.
Well, if there’s one thing I can promise you, I am OK being uncomfortable if it means finding resolution and wholeness restored for myself or others. So in a weird way I am super grateful for the random Twitter human who decided to offer me a trophy. #ThanksForThat. Do you think I should buy a trophy case for my office? Maybe I just need to slow down when responding to strangers on Twitter. Either way, I am grateful for the opportunity to think through the way I show up to advocate for people who have not yet stepped into my circle of influence. I think we could all use a little bit of insight and reflection before speaking up on Twitter. But that’s a completely different podcast episode.
Thanks for listening to episode 25 of Restorative Grief. This week was a great chance for me to refine my communication skills and my ability to navigate public loss. I want to dedicate this episode to Taylor Hawkins, his beautiful family, and his best friends. His sudden death is one of those celebrity losses that I will think of and carry with me for a very very long time. Not because they have an unhealthy attachment to a person I don’t know. Because when you have been influenced, inspired by, and carried through hard times by the work of another person, it is completely natural to be moved by their death as you were moved by their life. If you haven’t yet, I would love for you to subscribe to this podcast, leave a review wherever you listen, and maybe share this episode with someone else who carries great emotional connection too someone in the public sphere that they have lost. We have to normalize grieving, wherever it shows up, if we ever expect ourselves to find healing in this life.
One last thing: Please remember, the only solution for grief is to do the work of grieving.
Thanks for listening – I’ll see you next week.
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