Is too much grief bad for us?


Caroline Overington’s ‘I Came to Say Goodbye’ a brilliant yet sad read

There seems to be a recurring theme in my life at the moment. I read sad stories. Lots of them. Not to make myself feel sad or depressed but simply because I’m drawn to other people’s struggles. It could be said that we are used to hearing the bad news before the good news, the nightly news pulls in its viewers with the ‘doom and gloom’ but it made me wonder how much grief is too much? Is it unhealthy to subject oneself to tragedy if you are an otherwise bright and happy person?

Like many people around the globe I have a fascination with the popular TV series, Mad Men. I think it’s safe to say that the majority of the characters all have some inner conflict. Don Draper has more skeletons in his closest than a graveyard. Betty finds it hard to shake her loneliness even in her second marriage while Peggy and Joan try to find their way in what is essentially a man’s world.

But I guess I watch as I feel there is hope because women have more rights now and African Americans aren’t referred to as “black coffee”, or at least not in my world. The marital problems of the characters really haven’t changed all that much in the last 50 years and perhaps that hits a raw nerve. Maybe people don’t like to watch dramas that are too realistic.

My mum has always said that she likes to read books and watch films to escape, not to be reminded of how much pain and suffering there is in the world and maybe she’s right. Why do I read these sad stories? Why did I read ‘Madeleine’ by Kate McCann when it just gave me nightmares and made me paranoid? Why did read Jaycee Dugard and Natascha Kampusch’s survival stories when it just made me feel disgust at the human race? The reason I’m drawn to these books is I feel they are too sad to be ignored. If I don’t read them, who will? They allow me to appreciate the freedom I have in my life but this also makes me incredibly sad.

Thousands of people this week have googled Gerard Baden-Clay. Why do we do this? Does it make us feel better about our own lives and our own families? I understand that most of it is just harmless curiosity but I wonder sometimes whether we really need to be subjected to so much pain. The Christmas Island boat incident is another example where Australians feel powerless so the only way we can really acknowledge what has happened is to read about it or watch it on TV because if we don’t, aren’t their lives lost in vain?

After reading my last survival memoir I still stuck to a similar genre. I’m reading crime fiction but hey, at least it’s fiction! It’s hard not to read Caroline Overington’s ‘I Came To Say Goodbye’, ‘Ghost Child’ or ‘Matilda Is Missing’ without thinking about a case that was recently in the news. And while I read these books with fascination to try and help solve the puzzle, I remember that there are thousands of parents (and children) out there who don’t have the answers to why their loved one was killed.

As I continue to click on stories about grief it has made me wonder whether the process is somewhat cathartic. We all have problems in our lives and by reading other people’s stories I guess it helps keep them in perspective. We’re not alone in our grief and while the world can sometimes be a lonely place there is always someone out there on the other end of the phone, or in cyberspace who is willing to listen to you and hear your story. And that makes me feel happy.

Do you think we focus too much on grief? Do you think this is good or bad for our health? Are you drawn to tragedies or do you read sad stories too much? Why do you think this is?

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  • John James

    I watch Mad Men because it makes me laugh so much…what does that say about me?

  • Monique Fischle

    I am drawn to sad stories. I have no idea why, but I just can’t stop. I continue to watch films, tv shows and read books that make me cry. I guess it’s because I feel more connected to characters who go through hardships, especially if they’re similar to ones I’ve gone through. But at a certain point, reading and taking in other people’s (fictional or not) grief is too much.

  • Tamsin Howse

    I don’t click on those stories, I don’t listen if they’re on the news and I certainly will never seek out sad movies or books.

    Life is Beautiful? No way. Schindler’s List? Get stuffed.

    My mother is the opposite. She only watches awful movies about kind people where everything terrible happens to them and their lives are nothing but awful thing after awful thing until eventually they die and for unknown reasons someone decides to make a movie or a book out of it.

    Are these stories supposed to be uplifting?! I would rather eat dog poo than absorb that kind of horrible story. I know these things happen, I don’t need to watch them for entertainment!

    I’m still scarred from the story my Principal told at assembly once about a kid who had his eyelids cut off and mouth turned into a smile Joker-style before being put in a circus. I’m sure there was a moral of the story, but I don’t remember it… I just remember the photo. Shudder.

  • Jess Profiterole

    I don’t like grief stories. I think at a time I was somehow drawn to them to empathise with the subject of the story (fiction or reality), maybe so I could experience such a depth of feeling and get some more appreciation for my own good fortune.
    But I got tired of it, so tired and now I won’t go near them. My mum is the opposite like yours T, but the stories just make me sad and depressed about the world. I would rather just donate to a relevant charity than drag myself through the person’s story, I don’t see what there is to gain from it any more. I find I can empathise from afar instead..

  • Jessica Chapman

    I generally walk out of happy films feeling a bit melancholy. But sad movies that make you think, I walk out intellectually stimulated or feeling okay about my life. Like you I am drawn to the sad. However it has to be a very well crafted book, film or story. I don’t really like news.

  • Kate

    I enjoy good books and films. Poorly acted, written etc. works depress me far more than a well told sad story, so often “happy” stories can make me feel bad.

  • Melissa Savage

    Lately I’m finding I can’t deal with sad stories. By lately I mean the last 2-3 years when I suddenly turned into a person who cries at sad TV and movies and books and ads… I used to read this kind of stuff but it’s just too much at the moment.

  • An Idle Dad

    There are two subjects here: Grief porn when your life is unaffected, and handling actual grief.

    Too much grief is bad, the problem we have is we don’t have a standard way of handling grief. I see other cultures on TV displaying grief in a public way that would never be seen here, and sometimes I’m jealous.

    It would be good to 1) have a plan to deal with grief and 2) have the space and understanding to work through that plan.

    As for grief porn, I can’t stand it. I’ll read sad stories close to my own, because I can relate and in this web 2.0 world, connect via comments (and provide some support, limited as it is). But news stories about deeply personal terrible things unrelated to me – and lack the capacity to do anything about, I don’t get it – I’d like to project negative traits onto them, but I couldn’t say for sure that that’s why they do it.