“Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers but to be fearless in facing them. Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain but for the heart to conquer it. Let me not look for allies in life’s battlefield but to my own strength. Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved but hope for the patience to win my freedom. Grant me that I may not be a coward, feeling your mercy in my success alone; but let me find the grasp of your hand in my failure.” – Rabindranath Tagore, Fruit-Gathering
Grief is the response to loss, particularly to the loss of someone or loss of something to which a deep bond or affection was formed. We also grieve in connection to job loss, ill health, infertility, end of a relationship, disappointment, failure etc. We all grief differently depending on our upbringing, culture, religion, societal norms, experiences, and relationship to the dead.
Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim. – Vicki Harrison
I have gone through some grief in the past 8 years, from losing my closest cousin (2013), diagnosis of mum’s cancer (2018), losing my mum at 55 to cancer (2019), getting laid off (2020). Grief is tough, deeply personal, and can be overwhelming. During grief, you might feel fear, shame, guilt, regret, varying emotions, the unsaid goodbyes, survivor’s guilt (a mental condition that occurs when a person perceives themselves to have done wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not), among other emotions.
When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways–either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits or by using the challenge to find our inner strength.- Dalai Lama
It can feel very lonely when you are bereaved as people act strange around you, say hurtful things unintentionally. I probably had said and acted strange around friends and family members when they were dealing with their grief too. Society and our culture does not prepare us well for handling grief and caring for people grieving; emotional intelligence is not a skillset taught in our schools; hence, we wing our interaction with people grieving.
When you lose someone, lose a job or deal with something hard & personal like infertility, you hear hurtful things from people like “It is GODs will,” “I thought you’d be over it by now,” “Men don’t cry,” “You have to be strong,” “At least she lived to be 90”, “Are you guys having enough sex?” Really! Most of the time, our family and friends mean well and are probably well-intentioned with their comments, but the challenge is that the loss has shattered the bereaved world. A barrage of emotions sweeps them, they feel judged, shamed, and those of us at the other end of the spectrum jump to conclude that we know what they are going through.
The insensitive comments become less hurtful with time as the bereaved heals, gains perspective, and continue to learn from the vicissitudes of life. Grief reshapes our address book, you begin to know who your real friends are, as people will show you their real character and color during trying times. The most painful part of grief in my experience is not the insensitive and not well-thought-out comments but the silence of our so-called friends and family.
As Martin Luther King Jr. Once said, ” In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Friends would not reach out when you lose someone; they hide on the often-used phrase “I did not know what to say,” your closest friends would not visit you in the hospital; when they hear you are sick, people will give you a silent treatment for a long time when you are grieving and would reach out later just because they feel you should have moved on.
People act funny when you are down and going through challenges in life, I guess it is tricky for them too, but that is what friends are for, be there for each other during trying times. Instead of saying “I did not know what to say,” try sending a text message and say, ” I am sorry for your loss. It would go a long way than not saying anything at all.
In their book, There Is No Good Card for This: What To Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love, Dr. Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell writes:
WHAT DOES GRIEF LOOK LIKE?
For starters, grief usually comes with some kind of tangible primary loss. It can be loss of mobility, energy, or appearance if dealing with health. It can be loss of a loved one, loss of a job, loss of a marriage. Even in depression, there is loss of the ability to feel just about anything. Caregivers of people who are ill lose companionship they counted on. People who experience miscarriage and infertility experience the loss of a dream of the future.
As anyone in the grief world knows, you don’t get over loss. You learn to live with it. But until that happens, the light at the end of the tunnel is not a thing—or if it is, it’s just barely visible on the best days.
These are the key primary losses a person may experience during grief:
LOSS OF IDENTITY
We often underestimate how much we rely on easy narratives about who we are in the world until we’re blindsided by a primary loss that strips us bare of them.
LOSS OF COMPANIONSHIP
Our most difficult times often, at their core, are about a significant loss of companionship. Losing someone really close to us to death or significant illness or divorce can radically shift the make-up of our interior, intimate lives and our days. When the person we talk to the most, confide in, get opinions from, and love the deepest is gone, the hole that is left behind is vast and aching beyond measure.
LOSS OF COMMUNITY
Loss and transition affect not only our most intimate relationships; they change our community as well, and that change usually feels really lonely. We may lose the friends and family of our loved one that is gone. We may lose people we thought we were close to because they don’t know what to do or say. We can also isolate ourselves because we fear what our community might do or say, or because we don’t have the emotional or physical energy to engage.
LOSS OF CONFIDENCE
People who’ve been fired, who are dealing with a new illness, who are getting divorced, you name it—loss can create some of the most demanding responsibilities in our lives about our well-being, medical and legal options, our finances, where we’ll live, or how we’ll raise our children, exactly at a time when we have the fewest emotional reserves to learn and cope.
LOSS OF ECONOMIC SECURITY
Loss can create economic stress—like increased health-care costs, the cost of divorce attorneys, loss of income, child-care costs, and a host of other expenses.
HOPELESS: THE THING ABOUT GRIEF IS THAT IT CAN SEEM LIKE IT WILL NEVER, EVER END.
And in a number of ways, it doesn’t. As anyone in the grief world knows, you don’t get over loss. You learn to live with it. But until that happens, the light at the end of the tunnel is not a thing—or if it is, it’s just barely visible on the best days.
Fear often accompanies loss, illness, divorce, or any kind of transition, because you have no idea what’s ahead of you. You end up worrying about the worst that could happen (and, thanks to the magic of the Internet, worrying is easier than ever before).
If your illness or treatment has caused you to look different, your appearance elicits concern (and questions, and strange looks), turning your rituals of everyday life, like grocery shopping, into a public spectacle. Even if you don’t look different on the outside, news of a change, like divorce or job loss or fertility struggles, invites speculation that can make your life feel like fodder for gossip.
Grief, fear, and our deepest feelings of failure can make us blame ourselves for causing what happened or, at least, failing to cope with it. Shame makes us feel unentitled to our own grief and fears.
In her book, It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand, Psychotherapist Megan Devine shared some dos and don’t when dealing with the grieving she called it “Do This, Not That: A Handy Checklist”:
Don’t compare griefs.
Every person has experienced loss in their life, but no one else has experienced this grief. It’s tempting to offer your own experience of grief to let the grieving person know you understand. But you don’t understand. You can’t. Even if your loss is empirically very similar, resist the urge to use your own experience as a point of connection.
Do: Ask questions about their experience.
You can connect with someone by showing curiosity about what this is like for them. If you have had a similar experience, it’s OK to let them know you’re familiar with how bizarre and overwhelming grief can be. Just stick to indications that you know the general territory, not that you know their specific road.
Don’t fact-check, and don’t correct.
Especially in early grief, a person’s timeline and internal data sources are rather confused and wonky. They may get dates wrong, or remember things differently than they actually happened. You may have a different opinion about their relationships, or what happened when and with whom. Resist the urge to challenge or correct them.
Do: Let them own their own experience. It’s not important who’s “more” correct.
You might think your friend’s grief is out of proportion to the situation. It’s tempting to correct their point of view to something you feel is more “realistic.”
Do: Remember that grief belongs to the griever.
Your opinions about their grief are irrelevant. They get to decide how bad things feel, just as you get to make such decisions in your own life.
Don’t give compliments.
When someone you love is in pain, they don’t need to be reminded that they’re smart, beautiful, resourceful, or a fantastically good person. Don’t tell them that they’re strong or brave. Grief isn’t typically a failure of confidence.
Do: Remember that all those things you love about the person, all those things you admire, will help them as they move through this experience.
Remind them that you’re there and that they can always lean on you when the load of grief gets too heavy to carry alone. Let them be a right awful mess, without feeling they need to show you a brave, courageous face
Don’t be a cheerleader.
When things are dark, it’s OK to be dark. Not every corner needs the bright light of encouragement. In a similar vein, don’t encourage someone to have gratitude for the good things that still exist. Good things and horrible things occupy the same space; they don’t cancel each other out.
Do: Mirror their reality back to them.
When they say, “This entirely sucks,” say, “Yes, it does.” It’s amazing how much that helps.
Don’t talk about “later.”
When someone you love is in pain, it’s tempting to talk about how great things are going to be for them in the future. Right now, in this present moment, that future is irrelevant.
Do: Stay in the present moment, or, if the person is talking about the past, join them there. Allow them to choose.
Don’t evangelize (part one).
“You should go out dancing; that’s what helped me.” “Have you tried essential oils to cheer you up?” “Melatonin always helps me sleep. You should try it.” When you’ve found something that works for you, it’s tempting to globalize that experience for everyone else. Unfortunately, unless the person specifically asked for a suggestion or information, your enthusiastic plugs are going to feel offensive and—honestly—patronizing.
Do: Trust that the person has intelligence and experience in their own self-care.
If they aren’t sleeping well, they’ve probably talked to a trusted provider, or done a simple Google search themselves. If you see them struggling, it’s OK to ask if they’d like to hear what’s helped you in the past.
Don’t charge ahead with solutions (evangelizing, part two).
In all things, not just in grief, it’s important to get consent before giving advice or offering strategies. In most cases, the person simply needs to be heard and validated inside their pain or their challenges.
Do: Get consent.
Before you offer solutions or strategies, you might borrow my friend and colleague Kate McCombs’s question: “Are you wanting empathy or a strategy right now?” Respect their answer.
Since suffering as well as joy comes with being human, I urge you to remember this: Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.
Sometimes we aim that violence at ourselves — as in overwork that leads to burnout and worse, or in the many forms of substance abuse. Sometimes we aim that violence at other people — racism, sexism, and homophobia often come from people trying to relieve their suffering by claiming superiority over others.
The good news is that suffering can be transformed into something that brings life, not death. It happens every day. I know many people who’ve suffered the loss of the dearest person in their lives. At first, they go into deep grief, certain that their lives will never again be worth living. But then they slowly awaken to the fact that — not in spite of their loss but because of it — they’ve become bigger, more compassionate people, with more capacity of heart to take in other people’s sorrows and joys.
These are broken-hearted people — but their hearts have been broken open rather than broken apart. So, every day, exercise your heart by taking in life’s little pains and joys — that kind of exercise will make your heart supple, the way a runner makes a muscle supple, so that when it breaks, (and it surely will,) it will break not into a fragment grenade, but into a greater capacity for love.
Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.
It can be tricky being there for our loved ones when they are hurting, down, and grieving, but with empathy, acknowledgment, presence, and listening, we can help them navigate the roller coaster ahead.
“If you think an awkward response to a friend’s crisis will make them feel bad, then you should know that if you say nothing, they will likely feel worse. ”
All the best in your quest to get better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.