How you cope is your own business.
Amanda Knox was only 20 years old when Italian authorities accused her of murdering her British roommate, Meredith Kercher. The two women had known each other for barely a month. Four days after the murder, police saw Amanda doing calisthenics in the police station while she waited for investigators to finish questioning her then-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito. Both the press and the police seized on the opportunity to use it against her: Her reaction, they said, was inappropriate for someone who should have been mourning.
An Italian court convicted Amanda of murder 2 years later. That verdict was later overturned, then reinstated, and then, finally, in 2015, overturned for the final time. Amanda?—?according to Italy’s Supreme Court?—?is innocent.
Still, there are those who remain convinced of her guilt. It’s not evidence motivating them?—?it’s a gut feeling. It’s the belief that Amanda did not react appropriately while grieving.
Ripped from the headlines
Salacious stories are always en vogue, but recent years show that we’re in the midst of a true-crime documentary renaissance. Podcasts like “Serial” and Netflix shows like “Amanda Knox” and “Making a Murderer,” for example, draw huge amounts of viewers. These narratives?—?often told years after the crimes occurred?—?give audiences the chance to play judge, jury and executioner, all from the comfort of their living rooms.
Such is the case with CBS’s “The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey.” JonBenét was 6 years old when she was found murdered in her family’s home in Boulder on Christmas morning, 1995. The case was never solved, but this past September, CBS aired a two-part special that re-examined the murder using updated technology. The series leads the audience to believe that there’s only one clear suspect in JonBenét’s death: her brother, Burke Ramsey, who was 9 years old when the crime occurred.
The forensic investigators CBS used to re-investigate the 21-year-old murder make a compelling argument for Burke’s involvement, but a great deal of their case is based on how, when a psychologist examined 9-year-old Burke, he didn’t display conventional signs of grief or trauma.
So I reached out to experts to find out?—?once and for all?—?if there is a right way to grieve.
Misery has no map
Tina B. Tessina, PhD, is a licensed psychotherapist with over 30 years experience and 13 books to her name. She says that when it comes to grieving a loss, there is no map: every sufferer takes a different route. “If there’s been a long illness, the grieving begins before the person dies and is shared by the survivors as well as the person who’s dying. If there’s a sudden death, usually family members are left in shock, which doesn’t wear off for a while,” Tina says.
This was certainly true for Gina Schampers, who became, as she calls it, an “adult orphan” at age 28. At age 23, she received a call from one of her sisters saying that her father died (he’d been battling bladder cancer for years). Gina says she was totally destroyed by the news: “I remember every detail of that call, I remember dropping to my knees and sobbing.”
But Gina had an entirely different reaction when her mother unexpectedly died from a brain hemorrhage a few years later. Gina says she cried less after her mother’s death than she did after her father’s. She was more mad than sad?—?her mother had been incredibly healthy, an organic eater who exercised every day, and her untimely death felt unfair.
Gina also believes she was able to move through the stages of grief faster after her mother’s death. She attributes this partly to writing?—?she used the death of her parents as inspiration for a book titled, “It’s OK Not to Cry: A Reflection on Grief.”
According to Tessina, the disparity between Gina’s two grieving processes is completely normal. As she puts it, “grief isn’t always expressed in tears. Some cultures and families do not cry. Some individuals may not cry until years later. There is no right or wrong way to express grief. It’s a personal thing.”
When over-sharing is king
When it comes to displaying emotion, there’s both a gender gap and a generational divide. For men, the emphasis is on stoicism?—?they’re conditioned to stay strong and to internalize their feelings. Women are subjected to more of a catch-22: Women who react emotionally are considered overwrought and incompetent, while women who don’t are thought of as calculating and strategic.
For younger generations, who’ve grown up in the throes of social media, it’s less about keeping it all locked up than it is about letting it all hang out. On social media, over-sharing is king: you get more cred for being vulnerable and “real” than you do for being quiet and contained.
Tina Tessina views expressing grief on social media as a positive trend. “I think we in America are not good at accepting, expressing or working through grief, and anything that gives us a chance to grieve and get support for it is good,” she says.
But Candice Christiansen, founder of the Namaste Center For Healing, disagrees with the idea that people who use social media as an outlet for their grief receive more respect than their more guarded counterparts. “I actually think over-sharers are respected less as they are seen as dramatizing their grief. Some grief seems tolerable on social media but too much appears to be a turn off.”
It’s been over 7 years since Amanda Knox was first convicted of Meredith Kercher’s murder; it’s been over 20 since Burke Ramsey lost his younger sister. We may never know for sure if either one of them played a role in the murders they were accused of. The only thing we know with 100% certainty is that condemning them based on the way they choose to cope with death is morally irresponsible.
We all experience loss in different ways. We may cry or we may compartmentalize. Some of us will wear our grief like a sandwich board, advertising our anguish to the world. Ultimately, when it’s our time to mourn, the best we can hope for is that other people will let us do it the way we want.