“Grief does not change you. It reveals you.”
— JOHN GREEN
It’s been a hard week of dealing with the death of a friend. I’ve experienced a full range of emotions on any given day – sadness, disbelief, guilt, anger and even laughter. I’m given to bouts of ugly crying at the sight of yet another memorial post on my newsfeed. This was a truly special individual, facing the greatest of adversity with optimism and humour. The impact of his passing on the community is a testament to how gracefully he lived his all too short life.
This whole experience has me really thinking about death, and how we handle it in our society. There isn’t much public space allotted for this topic. When death happens, there’s a tendency to avoid, contain or ignore the feelings that are present. There is a value around composure. The emotions are kept behind doors, sharing raw feelings is limited to only our closest loved ones. We don’t talk about our pain with those we encounter ‘out there’ because it may be unpleasant, or uncomfortable for both parties to be confronted with the feelings of loss.
I’ve spent the past week alternatively swallowing the lump in my throat and letting the sobs come freely, depending on where I am and who I’m with. There are times where I’ve felt it hasn’t ‘been appropriate’ to be open about how I’m feeling. I choke back the tears and paste a smile on, faking my way through the interactions. This deeply negates my value of authenticity, and I hate having to hide how I’m feeling. How do we honour the emotions we’re having while still moving through the mechanisms of our lives?
When I’ve encountered someone dealing with the loss of a loved one whether it be a friend, client stranger or loved one. I don’t run away from the topic, I ask questions. I get them talking about it. More often than not people WANT to talk about it. They are craving the release. I’m not saying I pry if it’s obvious they aren’t willing to discuss the situation, but if they brought it up, chances are there’s something they need to get out. I am HONOURED when someone feels safe enough to show me their pain. I welcome the rich connection that is possible in these moments of sharing. So why do I resist doing this myself?
I’ve realized through writing this that it’s not simply ‘society’ that puts limitations on the grieving process in public. In all honesty, it’s me. I don’t want to transmit my sadness into the world. I don’t want to be a bummer to people. I am someone who considers myself to be an open book about my life and my feelings but ONLY when they are on the positive side. ONLY once they’ve been resolved, and can be presented to the world tied up with a neat bow.
I don’t like to let people see the messy side of me. To show the ugly crying and the pain is to be at my most vulnerable, and the exposure is terrifying. I convince myself that there is no benefit to bare my process like this but the benefit at its most simple is to experience the release. It is so important to let it out, and in doing so, create a moment of authentic connection. Maybe it will indirectly give someone else permission to show their authentic self, darkness and all. When we bring our shadow side into the light, it turns the monster into a mouse. It gives us the opportunity to process what we’re feeling, and recognize we are stronger than we know.
So if you or someone you know is experiencing grief, consider the following:
1) Talk about it. There is so much value in getting all the conflicting thoughts out of your head and out in the open. They do you no good just clattering around inside you. If there is no one to talk to than journal about what you are feeling. Putting your thoughts and emotions on the page in front of you is a powerfully effective way of releasing them.
2) If you encounter someone dealing with a loss, and they are getting emotional about it, hold space for their emotion. That means, don’t try to fix or comfort them with platitudes. It’s not about trying to distract them from their pain, or make the feelings go away, it’s about allowing them space to be expressed. People typically don’t want or need ‘cheering up’. Recognize that this is painful for them by saying ‘I can see that this is so hard for you’ and just be there. Ask questions about the loved one and allow them space to talk about whatever they need to. If you are close with this person, they may just need someone to hold them while they cry.
3) Allow yourself to cry. When the feelings arrive, let them out. If you feel it is TRULY inappropriate to do so, go the bathroom and take the time to cry it out. Despite what you believe, you won’t cry forever, and it’s so important to experience the release.
4) Continue living your life. It’s ok to laugh, it’s ok to feel moments of happiness. Take time off work if you need to, but don’t feel guilty about continuing to live your life. There is nothing to be gained by feeling guilt, and your loved one wouldn’t want that for you.
5) Consider the legacy of the loved one. How have they changed you? What have you learned from them? How will you continue to honour their memory? There is a deep richness in keeping a meaningful connection to the life of this person. Share favourite stories, keep a picture of them nearby, visit places that were meaningful to you both. Even if their body is gone, their legacy lives on in you.
If you’ve read this far, thank you for being a witness to my process. I hope there was something in here that can help. This is a conversation that we need to have more often, death is a part of life, and none of us will escape it, so we might as well get more comfortable with the topic!