Last week someone shared how pained she was when a friend said "So, when are you going to get over it?"
I wish I felt disbelief, but in truth, I knew the phrase all to well and could relate to feeling grief shamed. Having lost my daughter in a case termed a "catastrophe" with the shock of "what the f" just happened, layered on top of the loss of the greatest love I have known, while simultaneously staring at a planned future of daycare juggling and diaper changing that no longer invited me down its' path.... I can tell you firsthand, grief can destroy you. And grief shaming hurts. I have walked many phases of the grief journey- and am well aware there are more to come.
My approach to grief kind of hybrids a research project and a marathon; desperate to understand and determined to persevere to the finish line. But as I discovered, quickly, there is no finish line. As my friend searched my face for answers, wondering if she was crazy to not have reached her "finish line" yet, I knew the shame she was now feeling. It's painful. Added to the weight on top of the already heavy pain, it can be suffocating.
Questioning herself and whether or not she should be “over it” she waited to hear if I was going to share when I “got over it” (still haven’t) or would I raise my pitchfork and declare that her friend was being a royal B?
I did neither.
Instead, I offered a perspective that has been invaluable to me in not allowing grief to put wedges in my relationships. If you haven’t experienced grief yet, or if you are currently, beware, grief will work pretty damn hard at dividing your relationships. That’s the bad news. The good news- it doesn’t have to. In fact, it can truly serve as a source of strengthening them.
First, it’s important to understand what is happening before reacting. In this case, it’s easy to look only at the griever, but it’s critical to examine all perspectives.
Griever: Powerless, not sure how to move forward. Lost, overwhelmed, feeling intense pressure as if he/she is ready to explode at any moment. Confused, scared, empty, sad. Unsure of the future, nothing feels safe. Desperate to feel “good” again but can fight feelings of guilt when that happens. Feels no sense of control.
Supporter: Powerless, not sure how to support. Fearful of saying the “wrong” thing or setting the griever off. Can feel like he/she is walking on egg-shells. Potentially triggered into prior grief experience or other loss (job, relationship) Feels the loss of “normalcy” with griever. Wonders if it will ever be the “same.” Feels no sense of control.
Notice the similarities between these experiences? Both are suffering in their own ways and while certainly grieving is a much more intense loss, it’s important to remember in most cases, when a supporter comes across like a royal B, they are just lacking the skills and the tools needed to offer the best kind of support. And in truth, it’s not entirely their fault. As I learned in my grief experience there is a MAJOR lack of tools for grievers and supporters.
We need to become more comfortable having these uncomfortable conversations.
So what to do with the situation? Well, in many cases, grief will create a wedge of distance and both parties should assess if it is best to close the space or not. If the supporter grief shames once, the griever should not take it personally and should open conversation to talk about the impact of the words said and the ways it would be helpful to be supported. If the supporter receives this well, it could ignite the building of an even stronger relationship. If that doesn't happen, or if it becomes all about the needs and experiences of the supporter…. it still shouldn’t be taken personally…. but the griever should evaluate if that relationship serves him/her well. Know that when someone seems impatient with your grief or burdened by it, it's often their own struggles or stress they are carrying- it is not a reflection of you. It helps to consider all of those in your life and think about what areas they are great at supporting you, and call upon them for those needs.
On the other hand, the supporter may be in a position to make a similar decision. It’s human nature when grieving to seek help from the ones you love. But at times, due to all the pain and suffering, the griever may inadvertently place too much weight on one person, in seeking help carrying the load of grief. Or the emotional roller coaster may be projected on the supporter. Again, use this as an opportunity to start conversations around ways the supporter is able to support and draw boundaries around what cannot be done. Recognize ways that you are really aligned with supporting (listening, activities, tasks etc) and offer that but remember that you cannot be there for all the needs while also caring for yourself. You may want to help find resources such as a grief coach, counselor or grief group if applicable. The supporter should not carry the grief- not only is it not fair to the supporter, the griever, as horrible as it is, needs to navigate through on their own, in order to heal.
There are a few tools I find helpful for both the supporter and the griever when feeling a “wedge” between them:
Recognize in your own way, you are both hurting.
Establish boundaries as to what you can and cannot give. Stick to them.
Identify your “grieving” style. Do you like to be alone? With others? Do you have a space to physically or emotionally connect with your lost one? Does writing, exercising, chopping wood or driving help you? Make a list. Reference it when you are struggling.
Identify your “supporting” style. Are you a listener? A do-er? A distractor? Become clear on it so you know, clearly, how you can authentically and energetically help the person you are supporting.
Let go of expectations, both ways.
The griever cannot expect the supporter to always be available or to support in a way that they aren’t comfortable. Not one person can meet ALL the needs of grief. But, it can be really empowering to sprinkle grief needs. Do so intentionally, and in areas where individuals can offer a specific skill or comfort. This becomes a win-win.
The supporter cannot expect any timeline of healing. Finish lines… do not exist. A new normal DOES exist but it will take time and cannot be forced. Don’t expect the griever to be stable emotionally, rational or reliable with plans. Give them space when they back out last minute. They aren’t doing it to hurt you…. they are hurting.
And when all else fails, my number one tool, LEAD WITH LOVE.
“I care about you so much and don’t know what to say”
“I wish I felt more whole, please know how much I love you”
“Thinking of you”
“I love you for trying your best to support me, I know this sucks”
“I love you even when you are broken, you are doing your best”
"I believe in you, I care about you and I am here for you"
"I want to take your pain away because I love you. I know this is a process- take your time. I am in your corner"
With conversations, vulnerability and all the uncomfortable stuff, we can begin to take power back from grief. Acknowledge: the energy of grief is there. Choose: to shift that power in a direction of growth, led by love.
As much as we want to avoid the discomfort, there is no way around grief. It's painful, overwhelming, sad and scary. It’s an equalizer of humankind- no matter age, race, social status or gender, grief can take you hostage and rock your world.
The only way out is through.
It’s not easy, but we truly can transform the wedges grief creates into more meaningful, compassionate and fulfilling relationships. It was an unwelcome opportunity for me, but I am grateful for the ways in which my daughter Leyden led me to so do. The weight and discomfort can become clarity and depth. And just maybe, that becomes a little gift from your lost loved one. I certainly thank my Leyden for it each and every day.