I was reminded recently by a very elderly woman that the narrative about how one navigates grief, continues to play out very much the same in our day and age as it did way back in the 40’s! Even with all the new ways to communicate and more open dialect we try to have, I am sad to say that not much has changed.
It taught me we still have a long way to go to embrace people fully whilst they are grieving.
With days like Fathers day, Mothers day, anniversaries and other celebrations, there tends to be a magnifying effect of our losses and grief. For many, these events trigger an awareness of who is missing in their life and that all too familiar ache and longing returns. Whilst this is often a more temporary wave, it is there nonetheless and a very real and painful experience. that often disrupts life.
As I have talked to countless people about their various losses, I have seen that for most, grief is ever present. And, whilst human resilience and time allow them and each of us to carry it in a more controlled and less “always sad” kind of way than they did in the early days, you will discover that for many people it isn’t far beneath the surface for them.
I think this was really brought home to me when I started to work with the elderly – reminiscence activities at times have triggered wonderful memories and stories of celebratory and lovely moments of the past that I have relished in with them. But, they have also triggered their loss and grief too and with empathy and sensitivity I have sat with them in it. I learnt in those moments that the all too familiar missing and longing, along with the memory of the day they passed and the aching and wishing, is all very much still there.
So if this is true for our elders, how can we in our youth and midlife be expected to suddenly “get over it” or “move on” when someone close to us dies?
I was talking to said elderly lady recently about the passing of her husband early into their marriage. I dared to ask her how people responded to that obvious deep loss and grief “back in her day”. The answer was that of how I have heard people respond in our day; one relative told her “to get on with it” and a friend – “why are you still sad? you can always get remarried”!
I had to contain my fury!
I was so shocked, and evidently so she had been at that point in life.
It left me wondering why people are so quick to get others “over it”! And why others assume that that lover, parent, friend or child is somehow replaceable? Because if they can have another child or get re-married, then surely the child or spouse that died was replaceable?
We need to change the narrative in loss and grief.
We need to stop telling people how to behave when they are broken and we need to evolve into empathy.
So many things in our day are a pattern we have repeated through generations, but just as we are trying to reform those narratives of race, gender, mental health etc, there also needs to be adaptation to how we approach those in our families and society who grieve!
Grief isn’t shameful – it is natural when the loss of something or someone occurs. Yes, it is different for everyone and how you deal with a bereavement will not be the same for others. But it is not shameful or wrong. Likewise, if you haven’t lost a spouse, best friend, parent or child, how can you know how that individual who is going through it feels?
How can you possibly know how you would behave or how they should be behaving and navigating it, if you yourself have never had do that?
The easiest thing in loss is to spout off the same narrative we have heard for years; or to assume you know what that person needs, however when we dare to sit and listen to their pain and acknowledge it – allowing vulnerability – we can show compassion and we can mourn with them.
This level of love and empathy is not for the fainthearted, but it has more power to help strengthen them, to be able to learn to carry their loss, than shaming them into thinking they should be over such a huge loss and pain. And, it will help them feel less lost in the all encompassing darkness of grief.
You can show empathy by avoiding assumption and asking how it is for them.
You can show empathy by not judging how someone chooses to grieve – this may at times come out as anger, numbness, shock, depression, overeating etc. Withhold your opinion and try to sit with them in these hidden corners of life.
You can show empathy by listening to understand.
You can show empathy by not putting your narrative, time frame and agenda onto them.
You can show empathy by helping them carrying it instead of shaming them because they “still are”!
Grief is messy. It takes time to grasp and learn how to live with it and it is something that with anniversaries, pictures, music, Fathers day, Mothers day and birthdays can all be triggered and erupt again.
So lets accept that people who grieve are completely normal and don’t need fixing.
Lets accept that grief can last a life time though it may not look as raw as it initially did.
And, lets start to change the narrative with grief.
Let’s make time to not shame someone who is human and hurting, but allow them as much time as they need to feel and process what has happened and what has been lost.
There are so many ways you can show empathy and one of my most favourite quotes about it is this one from Morgan Harper Nichols:
“Let me hold the door for.
I may have never walked in your shoes, but I can see they are worn, your strength is torn under the weight of a story I have never lived before.
Let me hold the door for you.
After all you’ve walked through, it’s the least I can do”
Can we change the narrative please? Can we accept we do not know the weight of their loss? Can we accept we don’t know it all? Can we be silent with them and instead open the door and invite them to show us the weight of what they are carrying? Can we hold it with them without a time frame until they can carry it alone.