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What if I said it is safe to grieve? How would that feel?
What if I said it is safe to move into our grief and allow ourselves to feel all of it?
In 2014, I suffered two major losses in my life.
At the beginning of the year, I physically helped care for a loved one, Steven, during the last nine days of his life. I rarely left his side and barely slept.
Steven died early on a Wednesday morning. His family and I immediately planned his funeral, and by Monday of the next week, I was back at work. That’s just what we do in America, right? Many employers (typically, but not even all) give us three to five days off work when a family member dies, and then we are expected to get right back to our normal routine.
No real break. No breathing room.
By mid-2014, just a few months after Steven’s death, my marriage abruptly ended and my heart was shattered. This came from a struggle to accept Steven’s death and an inability to properly mourn. I was doing all I knew to do after Steven’s death, but it wasn’t enough.
So, not only did I experience the death of someone I loved, I also experienced the loss of my marriage.
The whole time, I continued working. I clearly communicated with my manager all that was transpiring in my life because, for me, it was the right thing to do. I wanted him to understand what I was facing in my personal life to ensure he was aware that I was going through some really hard experiences.
But within a month, I was told I wasn’t smiling enough at work. I wasn’t my usual “sunshine” self. And colleagues were starting to ask what was wrong with me. It became clear to me that these comments weren’t coming from a place of support, but from a place of, “You need to get it together.”
The fact was this: I wasn’t myself. I felt like my entire world had fallen apart. Was I still doing my job well? Yes. Was everything getting done as needed? Yes. But my grief for both Steven and my marriage made others uncomfortable, and they wanted me to change.
I wasn’t talking to colleagues about my grief. I wasn’t looking for someone to solve what was going on for me. I wasn’t walking around the office like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. I was just being me, trying to cope.
Some days I smiled and laughed heartily with my colleagues. Some days were quieter. I was allowing myself to move through my grief journey—even though I did not fully understand at the time what I was doing.
In the Western world, we often avoid or try to ignore death. We even try to protect our children from it—excluding them from conversations about the subject or keeping them at home during funerals or memorial services for loved ones.
We also try to spiritualize death away.
“Well, John is in heaven now. He’s not hurting anymore.”
“My mom died last night, but I already sense her presence. All is well.”
Doing this can offer some comfort, but in many ways this prevents us from really touching death and accepting that it is part of life, especially our life. It keeps us from talking about it.
In the Psychology Today article “Death, American Style,” Lawrence R. Samuel, Ph.D. writes:
“Over the past century, death and sex battled it out to be the number one unmentionable in America; these two topics were most reflective of our shame and embarrassment when it comes to all corporeal matters. But death has surged way ahead of sex on a ‘forbidden quotient,’ I think most would agree; the former is now firmly ensconced as this country’s leading source of uneasiness, discomfort, and apprehension. The notion of one day disappearing is contrary to many of our defining cultural values, with death and dying viewed as profoundly ‘un-American’ experiences.”
He goes on to say:
“Grief is naturally a big part of death; that it is not just a powerful emotion but can be expressed in an infinite number of ways is typically evident when someone we know dies.”
Yet, not only are many of us afraid to look at or talk about death, but we are also afraid to look at or talk about grief.
What if we do as Samuel suggests and humanize the grief process? We are humans, after all. What if we make it safe for ourselves and one another to fully experience grief?
I’ve learned, and continue to learn, so much from my grief journey.
First, it was important for me to allow myself to be human. I did not judge what I was experiencing or require myself to “just be okay.” I did not put a timeline on myself or my grief. I offered myself grace and let myself feel and experience all of it.
Second, I recognized that there isn’t a straight path, and that I may experience various phases of grief, again and again and again. They came like waves, and when I allowed myself to move with them, instead of resisting them, I stopped feeling like they were trying to take me out.
Third, by honoring my grief and letting it just be, I was able to avoid burying it inside me. This gave me a deeper understanding of what it takes to heal.
Lastly, I learned that it was truly safe for me to embrace my grief.
When we allow ourselves to just be, we move through our experiences with grace. When we allow others to just be, we subconsciously give them permission to move through their experiences with grace.
Running from what is messy or uncomfortable can feel like the best strategy at the time, but in the long-term it can prevent us from truly moving through the process in a more balanced way. Let us not diminish the experiences we face. Let us not try to force ourselves to be okay.
And let us not force others to be okay.
As much as we want to ignore it or spiritualize it away, grief (and death) will still be there. They are still a part of us. They make us human.
The truth is, we never fully move on from grief. We are never the same, and that is okay. Why would we be?
I still have moments of grief for Steven’s death, as well as my marriage. And whenever I face another death or loss of any kind, I often feel the residue of my previous grief encounters. But by honoring it all, I have become a better surfer of the waves.
So, I encourage every one of us to honor all of who we are.
Let us honor our humanness.
Let us recognize there is no straight path in the grief journey.
Let us not push down our grief. Let us allow ourselves to really heal.
Let us look at the experiences in our lives and recognize that it is safe and serving to be in our grief.
And may we walk with one another on our journeys.
“But if we totally experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship, one that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death.” ~ Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart