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I know this one truth about the emotion called grief: it will find its way out of that inner closet you shoved it into, and it will happen on a day when you least expect it, and in a way you cannot control.
How many of us think we are being selfish if we take time during our day or night to feel grief, sadness, or pain over a loss?
Are we being selfish when we sit and stare into space while our tea or coffee gets cold in our mugs because we are lost in our thoughts and feelings of grief?
Are we obsessed by our loss and not “moving on” if we take the time to look at pictures and cry, or to hold that beautiful piece of jewelry and remember what was and long for the one we have lost?
What is it about our culture that says we’re supposed to buck up and be strong immediately after experiencing a loss, be it a death of another person, a lover leaving us, or the loss of our independence as we age?
The message we usually get from well-meaning friends is this: “don’t waste time grieving, accept the loss and move on, be strong, be resilient!” By logic, that message also says that the act of grieving is selfish.
That message is wrong. We get to take the time we need to grieve the death of a loved one, the end of our physical independence, getting a scary diagnosis, a long-time lover who left without a word of explanation, or any other loss that we feel deeply. Every one of those events, and more, qualifies for grief time.
We tell ourselves that we can’t feel bad about our own loss because others in the world have it so much worse in life, and therefore, by comparison to others who are less fortunate, we have no right to feel sorry for ourselves.
And then we tell ourselves to count our blessings in life. By acknowledging how much we have to be grateful for, we will avoid (supposedly) the selfish emotion of grieving a loss.
I know I’m not the only one who was raised this way in America!
Guess what? The message that others have it worse than we do, and, therefore, we don’t get to feel bad about a loss – well, that’s a trap, and an unhealthy one at that.
The Answer – You Get Permission to Grieve!
You get to feel grief and loss and sadness and pain for as long as you need to feel it, and to express it in any way you want, as long as you don’t hurt yourself or others.
Write yourself a permission slip and stick it on the front of the fridge or your laptop, or carry it with you in your purse or wallet if you need to, but please, allow yourself the time and space to feel the whole range of emotions that accompany loss of any kind. You are in charge of your grief, no one else is, and you set the time frame and the framework for dealing with your grief.
Unrequited grief is my term for the grief we carry around inside us that is unprocessed, unanalyzed, suppressed and hidden deep inside us, as if we have a subterranean storage compartment for all our sadness from loss.
You know the “stuff” in that buried compartment of grief! It’s the sadness you store along with the hurt and pain from all of the other losses you’ve experienced in your life and did not grieve because you were told/taught/believed that somewhere in the world, someone had it worse off than you, so you don’t get to feel sad. When something big happens – death of a loved one, a bad diagnosis – that’s when we each add a whole new trunk full of that yucky grief “stuff” to this compartment inside ourselves that we haul around with us each day but never acknowledge.
The problem is, unrequited grief leads to all sorts of hurtful behavior. When we are grieving, we can hurt ourselves and others, usually the people we love, by numbing this grief through the use or abuse of any or all of the following behaviors in wide varieties of combinations:
- Work (particularly dangerous because unhealthy excessive work habits are often rewarded in our society)
- Irresponsible behaviors – like not going to work or blowing off deadlines
- Fighting – in and out of the courtrooms of America
- Running away physically (sometimes you need to do that to get safe from abuse, but what I’m talking about here is getting on a plane and going far away for years at a time without explanation to avoid grief).
Unrequited grief will seep out or gush out, and it will rise up and sabotage you. Because, you see, grief will never tolerate being denied as an emotion.
I also believe that grief can make us ill, because we internalize it, we feed on it instead of sitting with it and then letting it go.
You may find yourself sitting in your car and suddenly pounding the steering wheel just because it’s there and you wonder where this tantrum is coming from! You might be standing outside the door to your house crying because you just realized you can’t walk inside your empty home one more time, long after the funeral is over or the lover has left you. Or you find yourself sitting in a chair, knowing you need to leave to go to the doctor’s appointment to hear more bad news, but you can’t seem to make yourself move. Yes, that’s grief acting its way out of your deepest recesses and demanding to be noticed.
Get the grief out of you, while it’s fresh and raw. Give yourself permission to grieve and let your mind and body process that emotion. Get therapy, talk to a friend, talk to your dog, take long walks, take a long vacation, get a new job, move to a new city, and/or have a ceremony or two or three to let go of the pain, but give yourself permission to feel grief, live in it, swim in it if you want to, but acknowledge it and then start the process of healing from it.
When you are ready, you will let go of the grief, little by little. It’s our nature as humans to heal ourselves, and we find a way to reconcile our losses, both great and small.
And yes, sometimes grief becomes a companion for life, but it doesn’t take over any more, it has lost its control or intensity because we acknowledge it and keep living. Maybe we don’t laugh as loud, act as carefree, or ever give our hearts away again, but we function, we live, we contribute. In the end, we can find a way towards a reconciled life.
I know from my own experience in this life, once you allow yourself to feel your grief and face it every day, for as long as it takes to understand it, there will come a time when it will stop defining how you live moment to moment and day to day. It doesn’t mean there aren’t anniversaries to remember, or that a memory won’t be triggered and you will take up some part of that grief anew, but that’s okay. It’s all part of your process of dealing with a loss: the loss never goes away, but our ability to understand and live with it improves over time, with practice.
The Price of the Permission Slip
Giving yourself the space and time to grieve does NOT mean you get to check out of life as a human being. You get the time and space to be sad. You should never, however, use your own grief as an excuse to:
- abandon your commitments to others because you still need to get out of bed and feed your kids, your pets, yourself, get the kids or yourself to school and/or your job on time, supervise bath time, take a shower, clean the house, do the laundry, dress yourself appropriately for the weather, and show up on time to commitments with others;
- to be cruel to others – strangers, co-workers or loved ones. You’re in pain, but you don’t get to spread that around to others. Remember, they are likely grieving themselves.
The Best Advice Ever on Grief
The best piece of advice I have ever heard to help heal grief was on Humans of New York, the blog created by photographer Brandon Stanton. On January 5, 2014, a picture of a beautiful woman was featured on the HONY blog, and the quote was this: when she asked her dying husband, Moe, how she could go on living without him, Moe told his wife “take all that love you have for me and spread it around.”
Maybe you can’t get over the loss you feel, but you could honor the person who died, or the love you lost, or honor your pre-illness life by spreading some of that love around. Mentor a young person in need of guidance, visit a sick friend, volunteer your time, or donate the clothes of the person who died because they cared about others.
Like hiding our grief, the act of hiding ourselves away from everyone is not the answer either. Take a walk every day you can, greet others with a smile and kind words, adopt a dog or a gardening project, or volunteer at a charity. The point is to get out there and be among others. If you do this, if you get out there and are part of the ebb and flow of life again, it will give you hope and a reason to get out of bed each morning.
Please, take that love you felt for the lover, friend or family member who has died or left you behind and just see what can happen when you begin spreading all that love and care around in your world.
UPDATE: I was recently contacted by Larissa Stillman, author of the blog www.yearofgivinggenerously.com, about her amazing Mom, Sumalee Sanguan Viravaidya, who died suddenly in 2014. Larissa shares an inspiring story of how she worked through her grief over her mother’s death. It starts with Sumalee’s letter to her daughter that she wrote in lieu of a will. In her letter, Sumalee asked that her belongings be sold and divided into 4 equal parts: one for each of her three children and one equal share for charity. She asked her daughter to give this share to charities of her choosing. Larissa then embarked on a year-long project of giving money to targeted projects that reflected her mother’s life-long values of respect and compassion for others in Thailand. Combining the search for worthy projects with writing a blog to tell the world how the projects related to her mother’s life, Larissa says that she experienced “a newfound sense of purpose [that] gave me a way to cope with the grief, to process it in a constructive and beneficial way.” Please take a moment to read Larissa’s blog, linked above, to see what leaving a legacy bequest (a share of your estate/belongings) can mean to those who will grieve your death and to those strangers who can benefit from thoughtful, targeted donations. Thank you, Larissa, for sharing this beautiful example of love with us all.