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Two First Ladies — No Feelings, Please! Reduced to Joy?

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Two First Ladies — No Feelings, Please! Reduced to Joy?

Preamble: On March 6, 2016, former First Lady Nancy Reagan died. In honor of her life, we thought we'd show how human emotions are often distorted in the glare of political and media spotlights. As you read about two of our most famous first ladies, Nancy Reagan and Jackie Kennedy, you will see that expressing the normal and natural feelings of grief is sometimes vilified; and how suppressing those emotions is sometimes glorified. Which—if either—is correct?​

"Reduced to joy?"

Wait a minute, don't you mean "reduced to tears?"

No, we mean exactly what we said. We are making a point. There are many expressions that swirl around the twin topics of grief and recovery. Unfortunately, most of them are not helpful when we find ourselves stuck in the middle of grieving situations.

We have been socialized to believe that sadness — the normal response to sad news or sad memories — somehow reduces us, that it's an inappropriate emotional response.

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In 1996, the Republican National Convention was held in San Diego, California. One of the keynote speakers was former First Lady Nancy Reagan. By that point in time, President Ronald Reagan was already under the impact of full-blown Alzheimer's disease. As Mrs. Reagan spoke, she cried, openly and honestly. What a perfect representation of emotional truth, for all the world to see. At least, that's what we thought.

But not so, thought the Los Angeles Times. On Aug. 12, 1996, the Times ran a headline stating: "Nancy Reagan loses composure in a tribute to her ailing husband."

On August 13, 1996, we responded with a letter to the editor of the Times. Here is a copy of that letter:

"We have been interviewed and quoted many times in the Los Angeles Times View and Life Style sections as experts on the topic of grief and recovery. Our constant refrain is that 'Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss.'

"Nancy Reagan, along with millions of others, has experienced a major loss in response to the impact of Alzheimer's disease on her husband, President Reagan. Even those with opposing political views share a sense of sadness when thinking about him.

"Since grief is normal and natural, so is crying. Crying is not losing composure. Crying is a natural and healthy response to loss or reminder of loss. In that sense, sadness and happiness are equal.

"We would no more wish to take away someone's sadness than we would take away their joy.

"Please do not fall into the trap of identifying sadness as negative or something to be avoided. Millions read your paper. Please give them accurate language about human emotions."

We signed the letter as the principals of The Grief Recovery Institute. Of course, you're wondering if the Times ever published the letter. Bet you won't be surprised to find out they didn't.

Some time later, we wrote about the ongoing travesty caused by the depiction of Jackie Kennedy standing with her children, without apparent emotion, as President John F. Kennedy's funeral procession passed by. We highlighted the fact that the television commentators kept repeating the phrase, "Isn't she strong," as if her nondisplay of emotion was virtuous. It set up the idea and the ideal that being "strong" and not showing emotions was a good thing.

(In fairness to Mrs. Kennedy, it is common knowledge that she had been given heavy doses of strong prescriptions to allow her to stand upright that day and that her true emotions were buried under the meds.)

That was in 1963. Thirty-three years later, in 1996, another first lady showed her emotions and was castigated for it.

In both instances, the media were wrong. They took the liberty of making dangerous and incorrect comments that have negatively affected millions of people.

As a society, we pride ourselves on progress, but when it comes to grief and the honest emotions connected to loss, we often seem to be going in the wrong direction.

It is time to set the emotional record straight and help people safely express their feelings of grief without judgment, criticism, or analysis.

Russell Friedman is Executive Director of The Grief Recovery Institute and co-author of "The Grief Recovery Handbook" and "When Children Grieve."