To grieve is to be vulnerable.
But what if we are just not very good at being vulnerable?
What do we do if we have spent our lives trying to side-step vulnerability, only to be thrown headlong into grief?
I first came across the concept of ‘vulnerability’ after hearing Brene Brown’s TED talk ‘The Power of Vulnerability.’ I knew that I had heard something powerful, but it was difficult to incorporate her ideas into a language that I understood. As the very wise saying goes ‘you either get it or you don’t’ and this was not something that was sitting in my ‘I get it’ box just yet. I decided to learn more about vulnerability and its role in my clients’ lives and mine.
What is vulnerability?
Brene Brown describes vulnerability as those moments where you are:
(1) Emotionally exposed
(2) Taking risk
(3) Facing uncertainty
It is a feeling; a big ‘this-feels-horrible-how-can-I-avoid-it’ emotion and by virtue of this, what makes us feel vulnerable differs between people. Vulnerability for you might be telling someone you love them for the first time, uncertain if you will hear the same three words said back to you. Vulnerability for me might be asking somebody for help. It is that churning sensation in the pit of your stomach. It is pain.
Grief is vulnerability.
Grief is full of emotional exposure (it hurts so much. I can’t stope crying. I feel angry. I feel guilty. People can see my pain).
Grief launches you into a world of uncertainty (Why did this happen? Did I do enough? How do I cope?).
Grief is risky (How do I step out into this world without you? How can I be sure this won’t happen again? How will I ever love again?).
There will be people who judge. From their own fear of vulnerability, they will offer opinions as to how someone grieving should feel/behave/think.
You need to get out more
You are going out too much!
Don’t be afraid to cry
Are you still crying?
It is time to move forward
Are you moving on too quickly?
Maybe you have heard these comments before? Maybe you have even thought them about somebody else?
For the most part, they are well-intentioned comments; but they stem from a place of fear and shame, not vulnerability. The ‘should’ statements, the ones that offer judgement and opinion, prevent us from being present enough to connect with another person and provide them with what they need the most—empathy. As Brene Brown so aptly states: “Far from being an effective shield, the illusion of invulnerability undermines the very response that would have supplied genuine protection.”
Empathy is the ability to connect with another’s emotional experience. It involves listening, validating, and sharing common experiences. When we are in the depths of grief, to have someone open themselves up to the pain of our emotional experience, hold that space with us in a non-judgemental way, and capture the very essence of those feelings by sharing their own stories of grief and vulnerability, is essential.
Nothing can prevent us from experiencing loss in our life; nothing can protect us from experiencing the pain of another person’s loss. Yet there are steps we can take to experience these losses—yours and mine—from a place of courage.
Seek out the people in your life with whom you know will respond with empathy. This might be in the form of a support group (people who have experienced similar grief experiences to your own) or from those special few friends and family who have earned the trust required to hold ground during this intensely painful experience.
Language is everything. The voice of invulnerability (pretend that everything is okay, don’t let them see that I am hurting, why would anyone want to be around me?) can only be silenced by the voice of empathy and self-compassion. Offer to yourself the same words of comfort that you would share with your loved ones. Be patient. Be kind.
Claim your Story.
Grief is complicated. It is ever-present, though its shape may change form. As Kubler-Ross states “…you will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same.’ Honour yourself and your loved one by claiming and sharing this part of your story.
As a therapist, it is through the ‘lens of vulnerability’ that I begin to understand the importance of my relationship with clients experiencing loss of any kind. It has shown me that in order to be present with another’s pain, it is essential to be present with my own. It has taught me that to offer true, authentic empathy, I need to be conscious of reaching within and showing myself the same self-compassion. I have learnt that to inspire another to live their story, I need to claim my own. The invulnerable part of me wants to take your pain away.
The vulnerable part, the more courageous part, will sit with you in it.
The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern.
“Beautiful people do not just happen.” ~ Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Author: Kristy Ross
Editor: Renee Picard
Image: Corie Howell at Flickr