What Does It Mean To “Be Strong” During Grief?
I can’t tell you how many times I hear from grieving people how they want to “be strong,” “seem strong” or are afraid of “not being strong.” I don’t know where we came up with this crazy language in regards to grief. Why are people–in some of the most difficult times of their lives–so worried about being judged on how “strong” they are? Why do I hear from clients that–even at their loved ones funerals–other people will tell them to “stay strong?” Strong and weak are adjectives best used for weight lifting. They are really a disservice in matters of dying, death and grief.
Poor Jackie Kennedy had to endure one of the most horrific experiences a human being can go through, her husband having been shot and killed as she sat next to him. It’s heartbreaking to watch the footage of her trying to scramble to climb out of the back of that car on that terrible day. And whatever she had to do to get through that time of her life and that funeral I don’t judge. What I judge is how the commentators praised her for being so strong, so stoic–as if that’s the preferred way to behave at funerals. The idea that being noble is to quietly hide one’s emotions has done a lot of damage to people trying to cope with grief. We have very unrealistic expectations for grief so I would like to challenge the current thinking about what “being strong” looks like.
#1 Being Strong Doesn’t Mean Showing No Emotions
Research shows that tears actually have healing properties. They are your body’s way of releasing stress hormones and can stimulate the production of endorphins, which are known as the “feel-good” hormones. So don’t tell someone not to cry–just hand them a tissue. It’s possible to cry or express emotions and still do what we need to do–take care of someone dying or greet people and get through a funeral. We need not be so afraid that someone crying or sobbing will lose all control and go crazy. I’m a therapist and I have never seen it happen. People move through it. So just let them and offer compassion. If we love someone deeply then it should be expected that we may have strong emotions when they die. We should not be burdened by worrying what others will think if we express them.
#2 Being Strong Doesn’t Mean Hiding Emotions from Children
How are we helping children learn about emotions and how to manage them if we’re not showing them our emotions because we think we’re only supposed to grieve in the privacy of our bathroom or when we think they aren’t aware? Chances are they are more aware than we think and that by behaving this way we reinforce the idea that strong emotions are weird and fearful and should be hidden from even those to whom we are closest. If we want our children to turn to us when they’re struggling with overwhelming emotions then we must be bold and lead the way. There is a difference between sharing emotions and leaning on children for emotional support. Let your children know you’re very sad but that you will be all right and that the emotions or tears will pass. It’s not their job to fix you but let them see it’s a natural part of life to have strong emotions. Let them give you a hug or a tissue and let them see that this can be helpful, that they can have a positive impact just by being there. If you do this then they also learn that emotions–even grief—will ebb and flow and that it’s a crucial part of growing up.
#3 Being Strong Doesn’t Mean Never Talking About Our Loved One
One of the consequences of all this fear of crying and being emotional is that sometimes people become afraid to even talk about their loved one. This crazy dance begins when people sidestep talking about the person who’s died out of fear of touching off their own or other’s emotions. This can create some very awkward moments. If people could just acknowledge their grief and express their thoughts about their loved one it might seem more natural and could be seen as something to be moved through rather than around. And if it makes people cry? Then remember what we said about the healing properties of tears and just let it happen.
#4 Being Strong Doesn’t Mean Wrapping up Your Grief In the Shortest Time Possible
Another way people judge themselves or fear being judged is by the amount of time they grieve. I see many people beat themselves up over this and it creates additional and unnecessary problems to an already painful process. I had a client whose daughter was killed in an accident report to me that after a couple of months people in her life were telling her she should try to move forward, that it had been–a couple of months. A couple of months! Grief doesn’t wrap up in a couple of months and people don’t ever “get over a loss”. We must change our language in dealing with grief. People can learn to live with their loss and reinvest in life but how long this takes depends on a lot of factors including the type of loss and how the loss occurred. Typically it can take 1-2 years to work through a major loss but losing a child or experiencing a traumatic loss can take much longer. So stop expecting people to just move on and get over a loss. We should understand what’s normal before we start pathologizing grief. That said, people can get stuck and they may need professional help if they can’t function or are suicidal.
There are people who use negative emotions as an excuse and a way to not cope. But it’s possible—it’s normal–to feel strong emotions, express them and carry on and learn to be resilient. I would say that being strong really is allowing yourself to be all of who you are. To not be ashamed of your feelings, to express them, share them with others and work with them. Working through grief doesn’t need to be a one-or-the-other proposition so maybe it’s time to stop putting people in these boxes of being ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ based on their sharing of emotions.
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