This variation in grief response is totally normal, says Ajita Robinson, Ph.D., author of The Gift of Grief: A Practical Guide on Grief and Loss. “The way that we each express [grief] is unique to us,” she says. “The loss itself might be shared, but the response is unique and individualized.”
That being said, there are some universal emotions that people feel when they lose someone important. Disbelief and shock are usually first, as people try to grapple with the finality of a loved one’s death, Robinson says. Anger, pervasive sadness, and bargaining with a higher power are also common, she adds. “It really is this space of just feeling unanchored.” And then there’s the aftermath, when we learn to adjust to life after loss. That might involve trying to create meaning—for example, if someone died from a specific illness, you might start a foundation in their honor, Robinson says. “But the way we express [these common emotions] can look vastly different,” Robinson adds.
Some people are more active in their grieving. Thanks in large part to how gendered socialization makes people feel like they are or aren’t allowed to grieve, Robinson has found men more likely to “go back to work and get busy.” It can almost look like they’re just returning to normal life and not impacted by the loss, but they’re mostly trying to establish stability after a very destabilizing event, Robinson explains. Keeping busy and getting all the affairs in order can also be a way of honoring and prioritizing the deceased, Robinson says. “And it might be the last time we can take care of them.”
Other people are more likely to seek support and express what they’re feeling, says Robinson. (It me.) Women tend to fall more into this camp, again, because we’re more often socialized to show our emotions, she adds. And then there are other factors that can influence the grieving process. For example, someone with economic and job stability may have the space to take time off work and address their emotions, while someone who lacks that may be forced into survival mode, returning to work because they have to. Other things, like faith and a support system, also impact the way we respond to a loss, Robinson says.
There’s probably only one “wrong” way to grieve, Robinson says. “Not [allowing yourself to grieve] can put you in the position to experience complicated grief,” she says. Complicated grief (also known as persistent complex bereavement disorder or prolonged grief disorder) is when you’re unable to adjust to the loss after six months to a year. The symptoms of grief persist longer than normal and are severe enough to get in the way of living your life. (You can learn more about complicated grief here.) Avoiding the grieving process can also lead you to deal with it in an unhealthy way, like self-medicating or engaging in risky behaviors, says Robinson.
Taking photos to honor a tragic loss—like Teigen and Legend did—is just another way that some people cope. For very visual people, taking photos may be the best way for them to capture that memory and honor the loss, Robinson says. “Some people fear they will forget the feeling and sensation. How do they incorporate this moment into their life? Whether a baby is born and survives or not, it changes the family. To not capture it and honor it denies that something in life has fundamentally changed.”
Of course, it’s 1 million percent OK if taking photos of a tragic moment doesn’t help you. What’s not OK is to judge other people for whom it does. “We don’t get to decide how people honor an experience,” Robinson says. Yet…there are clearly so many people who think they can.