Dancing with Grief – How To Handle Well-Meaning but Misguided Advice
Lately, I’ve been trying to be more of an observer of the never ending grief dance I’ve been forced to attend. I’ve labelled this particular dance Hotel California – you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. Sometimes I have just one partner, the strongest emotion prevails a while, but mostly it’s a group dance, more like a mosh pit. I’m being thrashed around by emotions and partners I’m not always acquainted with but they just happened to see the Dancing Here signs on the door. Bitterness has been a recurring partner for quite some time. He was invited by Hypocrisy, but new words and feelings have started to show up as well. Late comers and wall flowers until now, Understanding and Forgiveness have been cutting in, backing Bitterness into a corner to wait patiently for another song.
I used to use the word hypocrisy when referring to some people. I would get so ticked off when they would say things like you have to keep his memory alive, cherish the good times you had with him. These people were always well meaning, but in my mind, their well-intentioned responses became robotic clichés spoken only to make themselves feel better. The hypocrisy thoughts came later when the same people would say you need to move on, you’re not “getting over” him, you need to stop talking about him so much and get on with your life. Excuse me? How do you fuse those contradictory thoughts? I thought you can’t have it both ways, people. You can’t tell me to keep his memory alive AND to stop talking about him because talking about him IS keeping his memory alive. I thought that would be common sense, yet I would almost lose my ever-loving-mind when intelligent people would not understand this simple concept. Why? Because they had not lived it. They’d make assumptions based on their own limited experience (or none at all).
Parents who’ve lost a child often have similar experiences. Again, friends or family said keep the memories alive then completely flipped and said you need to move on, sometimes within the same conversation. Then these parents dealt with more flack and opposing ideals when they decided to have another child soon after the first child’s death. The keep-the-memory-alive/you-should-move-on turned into it’s too soon, you’re trying to replace the child you lost with a new one. I’m not saying that can’t happen sometimes, but it’s never that simple.
And again, those grieving think, “Pick a side, people”.
Back at my dance, Dichotomy showed its face and started a row with Hypocrisy. Time decided to come back to the party too. Oh goody, this could get messy.
One side of the dichotomy I now see is despite the mechanical clichés and seemingly opposing views falling out of peoples’ mouths, they actually believe what they’re saying at the time they are saying it. I can see these views like the differences between theory and practice. They may sound conflicting to someone in mourning yet at the moment they are said to us, they could and can be true. Others want to fix things for us but they cannot fix death or the emotional toll it takes on us, but they try anyway.
This is how I see it:
To the bereaved, grieving and living can eventually walk side by side. We still miss our person terribly while trying to establish a new normal in a life that is no longer recognizable. We do not move on or ‘get over’, we move forward, always carrying our loved one in every cell of our being.
To those on the outside looking in, there is a swinging pendulum. Each apex of the pendulum swing is where “Too Much” resides. One side is Too Much Grieving; the other side is Too Much Living. If we are living too much, we must be “over” our person, or we are somehow disrespecting them. If we are grieving too much, we are not living enough. Both can be correct and incorrect. It all depends on what side of the story people look at. But the bereaved live the whole story. We experience all positions of the pendulum because we know that joy and grief – and all the messy in between – can co-exist.
Because I live this co-existence, I can perhaps forgive and begin to understand that people mean all of those thoughts while in their specific moments. Keep his memory alive, you need to move forward, you’re moving too fast can all be true since these people only comment on what they get a glimpse of as the pendulum we are riding on swings by.
People do not know what they do not know. If you haven’t lived it, you have no idea what is right or wrong, and it’s rarely that black and white anyway. Even when you have lived it, you usually realize that those who “get it” are on yet a different path than yours. That usually means you still don’t really get an opinion on someone else’s journey unless you sit in the greyness of ‘no right answer’ (FYI; in that greyness is where real non-judgmental support comes from).
We know grief is different for everyone and no one’s journey is the same. And maybe opposing emotions and opposing viewpoints can co-exist as well when the intentions are well meaning.
Take Time – Acknowledge your Loss – Grieve Together – Mourn Together