The Challenge of Grieving Openly
By Pat Schwiebert, R.N.
“Never apologize for showing feelings.
Remember that when you do, you apologize for the truth.”
- Benjamin Disraeli
How hard it is in our culture to be able to openly grieve. We are a people who desire (or expect) good times, quick fixes, and moderation in all of our behaviors. We are easily embarrassed, impatient and judgmental when other people exhibit excessive displays of emotion. And we don’t like things to be messy or unexplainable. We like to be in control of our emotions and in control of outcomes, and we expect the same of those around us. We assume that if we all follow these conventions, we will live happily ever after. Oh, and don’t forget--bad things only happen to bad people.
So, of course it makes perfect sense that even though grieving is a human condition that we all face, when grief does come upon us like an uninvited guest, most of us would rather be taken to another planet to do our grief work. There we would be free to cry, even wail, rant and rave at the unfairness of this tragedy. We could curse as many times as we needed to at those who didn’t stop this from happening and at those miserable comforters who haven’t a clue about how we really feel. Only when we are in full control of ourselves, so as not to make others feel uncomfortable, will we feel safe again.
“This is not a place for tears” were words spoken at a recent social gathering by a friend to a grieving mom whose son had died in combat.
“Why are you upset?” a father said to his grieving daughter less than a month after her eight month old baby had died suddenly.
Is it okay for people to know we’re having a bad day—maybe the third bad day this week and it’s only Thursday? I often hear grieving persons talk about wearing a mask of composure so that no one will know how bad they really feel. They don’t want others to know because they don’t want others to feel sorry for them. They don’t want others to know because they don’t want others to judge them as weak.
It’s hard to know how best to respond in such situations and there is no right answer for everyone. So the best you can do is to be as honest as you think you can be in the given moment. Take risks when you can; forgive yourself when you can’t. And forgive others for not really understanding.
This holiday season there will be lots of opportunities to make quick decisions about what to say if someone actually asks what that tear in your eye represents when you are caught off guard by hearing a favorite Christmas carol.
You get to decide if you are going to tell the clerk that the pie you are purchasing is your husband’s favorite, but that you plan to give it to a needy family, because your husband will not be around to eat it this year.
You will know whether to include others in a holiday ritual or remain alone as you silently light the special candle on the mantle in memory of the one who is absent. For you the presence of their absence is everywhere, but others may not care to be reminded of this.
Making peace with what is can be hard but eventually your grief will be less like a stab in the heart where it’s hard to breathe and more like a soft blanket that brings comfort in remembering.