Let people have their grief—even if it makes you uncomfortable.
Grief. It finds us early in life and it never really let’s go. Maybe that’s OK in a “it’s part of humanity” kind of way. I wish it on no one. And it’s not my place to try to take it away from anyone else, either. No one wants the pain, the confusion, the despair or disbelief that comes with grief. But the truth is grief affects us and we need to accept it and not try to run from it.
Each of us experiences loss differently because each loss is surrounded by a unique set of circumstances, personalities, beliefs and relationships. It is impossible for anyone to experience loss and grief in the same way. Yet, we assume things about others if they don’t grieve as we think we would. We assign guilt or innocence in criminal cases in the news by how people express their grief. We think we know how other people should express their grief.
In our twenties my best friend and I attended her father’s funeral. I didn’t cry. A couple of friends commented on how strong I was being. I wasn’t being strong; I cry at freaking commercials. It was sad that a man died early in his life. But that man wasn’t nice to my friend and I wasn’t close to him. My friend wasn’t crying, either. We assume things about others from our point of view. Sure, I could have cried because it was a funeral and other people were crying, but that would be crying because of the group mood, not the loss. My friends had made assumptions because I wasn’t crying. Don’t assume what people are feeling on the inside.
Do a quick Google search and there are countless hits on grief. There is “healthy” grief, understanding grieving, grief stages, grieving at all ages, and more. If I was in the despair of loss, I’d be overwhelmed by it all. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross put grief in some context for us through her book On Death and Dying (1969). She worked with dying people and realized there were similarities in the emotions around dying. What has commonly been accepted as the 5 stages, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance help us understand grief is a process, though it’s not linear.
My intention is not to disagree with a well established, well-loved and revered doctor (I studied her in school and have used the stages of grief working with clients), but I think it’s so much more complicated when the loss is severe. Take for example losing a child or a spouse after 50 years of marriage, or losing a limb, or being confounded by entangled and guilt-ridden relationships. There are walls of self-help books on how to overcome it and how to find happiness. These books say there is recovery from grief, and that might be the case for many types of loss, but for some there is no resolution. It just takes different forms.
Sometimes it becomes ever-present like a low-grade headache. It doesn’t knock you down, but it continues to nag away at you, making you tired and a little less clear. We can’t use a “one theory/treatment fits all” approach. We can manage grief and find ways to keep it from consuming us. We can get to the point where we’re functioning again. But to think we can find recovery from severe loss and ‘move on’ is a setup for depression and self-doubt. (Why can’t I get over this? What’s wrong with me?) http://www.ekrfoundation.org/five-stages-of-grief/
Learn to sit with the discomfort of emotional pain. It’s hard, I know! We all want to escape it. We drink, do drugs, shop, chatter incessantly, start arguments, sleep, and so much more to avoid our uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. We’re afraid of difficult emotions. Don’t be afraid, just be. When we talk to someone who’s experienced a tremendous loss, why do we seem to say stupid things?
“You’ll get over it.”
“Isn’t it time you should be getting over it?”
“It’s time to move on.”
“My friend lost his loved one and he is doing better.”
“Isn’t that what your loved one would want?”
“It’s God’s will.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
While we may think we’re saying these things because we care and want that other person to feel better, I suspect it’s really our attempt to make everything alright again. We do this so we don’t have to feel, even vicariously, the despair of great loss.
Grief lives with us and rightfully so. Grief itself can offer comfort in the pain, but it also tricks us and tries to bring us down. Like everything there is the good side and the bad side. And you who’ve been consumed by grief know how bad it get! We can’t run from it and people need to stop trying to fix it for others. Someone who is comfortable with himself, knows who he is (that would be strengths and liabilities), and has a lot of psycho-emotional autonomy, can sit with someone’s pain. He can sit with that person without wanting to flee, fix, or fight.
In most cases of loss and grief there “are no words”—so don’t say any. Just sit, just listen, just be silent. It is OK. I urge people to practice this when a friend or loved one is stricken with grief. Not only will it be the most genuine thing you can do, it will help you move closer to emotional autonomy.