I am often asked about the most important part of the grief process. Strangely enough, I think the most important part of grieving is exactly the same as the most important part of living.
Let me explain.
When you are grieving and when you experience extreme sadness from the death of someone close to you or when you find yourself lost, low and lonely, what you need most is understanding and compassion.
Unfortunately, what you will often receive isn’t compassion and understanding but rather a series of do’s and don’ts that are meant to ‘”make you better” or at least meant to “make you forget” or to “get on with it”.
I can remember as a child being told to “keep a stiff upper lip” or to “pull yourself together”.
I remember being told that “we don’t do that here” or to “stop sniveling and acting like a baby, do you want everyone to see ?”
What I needed in those moments was someone to recognize that I was hurt and lost. I needed to have my feeling acknowledged and responded to. I needed to know that my sadness or fear, my loneliness or pain was legitimate and seen as real and therefore important.
I needed to be given permission to feel, and then, by that, I would receive permission to heal.
Telling me that I didn’t hurt or that my feelings were not welcomed only stifled me and taught me that certain things were not allowed. That message I’m sure, did enormous harm to me, and even more harm to those who hardened their hearts to my need.
We are so good at directing others. At telling them what they can and cannot do. How they should and should not act. What and who they ought to be and how they must respond.
We do this because we think we know better and we do this because we are uncomfortable allowing others to do as they need to, and to come to their own conclusions and decisions.
Of course, in some cases, direction is needed, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m referring to taking a position where you decide for another by your words, your tone, your inference or your level of demand what’s right for them and how they need to live their lives.
This is the heavy club that many use as they go through life. What they are saying with their attitude towards you and your life is, “I think you need to see things differently and I will apply whatever pressure I can until you change your actions and point of view.”
This kind of posturing is very common with grief. There is little permission given to hurt, to cry, to feel lost and to express it all.
Instead we are often told to “suck it up”, or “keep it together”. “Look on the bright side, tomorrow will be a better day”.
These messages and others like them are counter productive and not what you need. They will stop you from grieving and from living. They need to be avoided.
The other reason, at least where grief is concerned, that people don’t offer one another permission to do what they need to, is because it can be very uncomfortable to watch others hurt.
Chances are your friends, family or those you associate with don’t feel comfortable letting you cry or moan in their company. How would they respond to your mess? What would they say? How would they help you then?
In I Can’t Stop Crying, I use the analogy of having a heart attack. Imagine asking your friends if they minded if you had a cardiac arrest in their presence? Of course the answer would be no, please don’t. We wouldn’t know what to do or how to help. Please stay well, at least until there is a physician present who might be able to help you.
Crying or naming your helpless, hopeless feelings in front of your friends or family isn’t much different.
Your hurt and misery will likely cause them to be uncomfortable and almost certainly they won’t know what to do in response.
Here is where the vicious cycle of disconnection begins. The person hurting needs one thing, and those who are close to them are uncomfortable offering them that very thing. PERMISSION.
Go ahead and cry, it’s what you need to do.
Please tell me how you hurt; it will help to relieve the pressure.
Express you hopelessness and yell or groan, sit in the corner and sob if you must. I understand and I’m not going anywhere.
Tell me about your emptiness and despair; express your rage, your fears, your sense of injustice and unfairness. I will stay close.
Let’s be honest. This is unlikely the response that most people will give but is exactly what the person who is in grief really needs.
Once you receive permission, be it for your sadness or for your life, you will never be the same.
There is such a profound sense of hope and healing that come with the words “please do as you need to, or, you’re not going crazy you just hurt terribly and you need to be able to express your pain”.
I can’t tell you how many times I have seen someone in distress from grief or another painful life event. To begin their healing all they needed from me was to be told that their pain was real and needed to be acknowledged and expressed.
I can’t tell you how many times a few words of permission began an acceptance that previously did not exist.
Madeline sat across from me last week with a familiar story.
“ I am going crazy. I don’t eat. I don’t sleep much. I walk around all night; I have no interest in anything. I don’t answer the phone, don’t care if I live or die. Even getting up and having a shower is difficult. I am useless and lost. I don’t know who I am, where to go, what to do and I don’t much care about that stuff or anything else.
I yell and scream, consider killing myself. I cry at times for no reason, roll myself up in a ball and gag at the thought of life. Surely I am a lost cause. My friends and family tell me I’m going crazy”
No Madeline, you’re not crazy you have simply been ravaged by hurt and sadness.
These things are all expected. You and your feelings are normal and very healthy.
From here the healing begins.