Much has been written about what not to say to the bereaved and for good reason. While we are gasping for space to absorb the shock that has overwhelmed our very being, others often feel helpless and strive to fix us or make us better. As if that were possible.
In times of grief, we are at our most vulnerable, we don't usually have the resources to recognize let alone understand why friends behave the way they do. Those we expect to help often stay away, some from whom we expect understanding offer platitudes and others from whom we expect nothing show up exactly how we need them.
As bereaved, we are often subjected to a barrage of well-meaning but insensitive advice from those who believe they have our best interests at heart: "time heals" or "you need to move on" or "you can have another," as if dismissing our loss and our lost could do anything but make things worse. This seems to be particularly true of young widows and widowers and parents who've lost children, people's whose experiences pervert the natural order of things.
Our "brokenness" can leave others wrestling with a sense of inadequacy and discomfort. We are not in a society that fosters active listening skills. Many are uncomfortable in the presence of intense emotions. Few can show up and just be in this space with us or honestly admit, "I've no idea what to say, but I'm here." As a result, most of us have heard comments from "there's a reason for everything" to "you can grow from this" as if our loved one were meant to die or this is punishment for us being stunted somehow.
When I miscarried shortly after my fiancé died, I was struggling financially. I was told that it could be worse: had the child lived, I'd have another mouth to feed. After her husband's fatal heart attack and her teenage daughter's drowning a month later, photographer and mother of three Tica Clarke feared for her other children's safety. She was told that fear is a choice.
When we are grieving, we are fragile and suffering, yet many of us end up bearing the additional burden of explaining ourselves or justifying our grief as we strive to be understood by people who cannot or will not see us where we are or people who need to steal our space and replace our grief with their advice.
We believe other people are trying to help us, and we accept their advice and platitudes because it seems rude not to. We excuse them by saying "they don't know" while they act as if they know everything. Ignorance isn't a defense. But we are too exhausted to see that their desire to fill the hole they perceive in us may stem from their need to avoid looking too closely at themselves.
It's hard to accept our powerlessness over death, so it's not surprising that people want the final say to regain some control by plotting the path to "getting over it" and "moving on." If they can fix us, they can restore the world to sanity. Instead of just letting us just be, we are being told how we should be, the implication being we are doing something wrong. Often, we internalize this perception that we are failing to grieve and live properly.
Elizabeth Kubler Ross's seminal work on the five stages of grieving for the dying and bereaved––denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance––was her attempt to provide comfort by offering a model of the process of grief, a sketch of the insanity most of us feel when grappling with lives that have been torn asunder. She wanted to show commonality in this chaos and give us some sense of "normal" in our new and incomprehensible world. Sadly, her work has been misconstrued as a linear grief process that advances in an orderly fashion, one stage commencing upon the completion of the other.
The truth is there is no timetable for grief. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, nor is the onus on us to explain ourselves. We don't need to explain why we are still feeling sad, guilty or angry, perhaps even years after our loss. We don't need to explain why we don't want to marry again, or why we don't want another child or why we want to do something different with our lives. We don't need pressure from within and without of grieving badly, loudly, slowly, not moving on, in denial, too depressed for too long, or making other people too uncomfortable with our anger.
Our responsibility is not to those who are unwilling or unable to meet us where we are and simply accept us for being there. It isn't to assuage their discomfort or their need to feel needed. It is to ourselves and to our loved ones still in this world and to the memory of our departed loved one in the next.
So let us grieve in our own time in our own way. Let us choose what is right for us. Let us honor ourselves and our loved ones. Let us accept that we may feel sad, angry, guilty and sad again, and sometimes we may feel unhinged. Let us know that we have a right to our feelings and a right to the space we need to grieve. Let us accept that we don't get over our loss, but that we will learn to live with it and learn to live differently.
Our grief is uniquely our own. No apology needed.