Picture this: It’s Christmas Day and you’re in a room full of family members who you typically only see on said holiday. There are children ripping open perfectly packaged gifts and squealing with excitement because it’s exactly what they wanted. That doesn’t sound too bad, right? Well, add this part: It’s the first Christmas without your child. You feel as though everyone is analyzing how you interact with the children, if you “seem happy”, if you’re less breakable than the last time they saw you. They look at you as though they want to say something, make some kind of connection; but, they ultimately choose not to so y’all continue to exchange awkward glances the rest of the day. You’re terrified to show any sign of unease because it might upset your family members and that would, obviously, ruin Christmas. We put on our holiday masks and act like everything is daisies and roses. It’s a lot of pressure and frankly, it’s paralyzing. There are an insurmountable number of emotions washing over you—fear, confusion, anxiety, sadness, anguish, anger. I hate to be a Negative Nancy but if that hasn’t happened to you yet, brace yourself. It most likely will.
Let’s dig into the last emotion I listed—anger. This guy is a doozy while we grieve. Why do we get so angry when people attempt to connect with us? One reason I keep coming back to is that we’re desperately seeking empathy. But more often than not, we get sympathy instead. Empathy and sympathy are frequently used interchangeably; however, they couldn’t be more different when looking through the lens of grief. Sympathy is feeling for someone whereas empathy is feeling with someone. Sympathy says, “Wow! You are broken and I don’t have the right kind of superglue to fix you. I feel weird, so please get those pieces back together!” Empathy says, “I can see that you’re broken and all the pieces of you are shattered on the floor. I’ll sit here on the painful, glass-filled floor with you.” Although the latter would be ideal, the truth is that people are scared of what they don’t understand. If we don’t even understand our grief, how can we expect others to wrap their minds around it?
Anger is also a common result of failed attempts at connecting. The thing about being broken is that people want to fix you. It could be because they genuinely have your best interest in mind, but it could also be that fixing you means they don’t have to deal with your confusing, scary emotions. Neither is wrong, neither is right. They just are. When someone makes an attempt at connecting with us in our grief, we get angry for two reasons. First, that they would even think their comment made us feel better. But, second, that it didn’t make us feel better. There’s an internal struggle going on. We want someone—anyone!—to remotely grasp how we feel. But, we also feel territorial over our grief, knowing that no one could ever truly understand. The thing is, as much as other people want to fix our grief, we want to fix it that much more. We want their condolences to ease our pain. We want the post-funeral flowers to lift our moods. We want the delicious, homemade meals sent to our homes to magically heal the wounds. The unfortunate truth, however, is that our grief can’t be fixed. It’s a life-long path we have to walk paved with dirt, muck, mud, and sharp rocks. I hate to disappoint y’all, but the magical grief wand that makes the pain disappear doesn’t exist. Trust me, I’ve looked.
So, what’s our responsibility in all of this? That’s a tough question to which I don’t fully have the answer. A few months after we lost Owen, my mom asked me what I felt comfortable with regarding talking about him. Unbeknownst to me, my family was desperately trying to read my emotional cues and respond empathetically. They weren’t sure what was more hurtful: talking about him or not talking about him. And, honestly, I wasn’t sure either. That brings me to our first responsibility—to determine our limits. It’s troubling deciding how to talk about our children. You may ask yourself things like, “Do I talk about them enough? Do I talk about them too much? Am I making people feel weird?” Those are valid questions and ones that I have asked myself too many times to count. I suggest taking other people’s feelings, reactions, etc. out of the equation for now. In the early days after a loss, especially, hearing our children’s names can feel like being punched in the stomach. Observing our children’s names being completely avoided, however, can be so much more painful. We don’t want their existence to go unnoticed, but the reminder of their absences can be too much to bear. What you need and what is painful will fluctuate over time. It’s okay to ask your inner circle to leave your child’s name out of the mix for a while. It doesn’t make you a bad parent. It’s also okay to ask that their name be mentioned as often as your living children. That doesn’t make you a weirdo. Sometimes we need a mix of both and that’s okay too.
Our second responsibility is to give grace to those who don’t fully understand our plight. As an intuitive person—almost to fault—I have the unrealistic expectation that people around me, especially those closest to me, should pick up on my emotional cues. They should know I’m not okay with that! They should understand without me having to explain myself! That’s a nice notion—and one that I’ve fallen prey to—but it’s often not reality. Unless someone is just a plain ‘ole jerk, he or she most likely just isn’t picking up what you’re putting down. Chances are that person is feeling the same judgment that you might be feeling—“What should I say? How do I seem sincere? Is it cheesy to say, ‘I’m praying for you?’ Ugh!” That’s a stressed out inner-monologue, but it’s also an accurate one. Give others grace; and when you feel the anger monster revving up inside of you, remember their words are coming from a place that desires connection, not destruction. If you feel like the same person, or group of people, continually misread your emotional cues then it’s probably time to have a conversation with them. When I’ve had to have those tough conversations, the response is usually, “Oh, gosh! I didn’t know you felt that way!” Typically, they become more aware of how their actions, behaviors, and responses are impacting your journey with grief. It’s our responsibility to establish realistic expectations (emphasis on “realistic”) for others, and furthermore, to communicate those expectations.
To sum it all up, don’t be discouraged when you feel misunderstood in your grief. A lot of the time, it feels easier to just take the punches and act like they don’t hurt. But, you don’t have to. Like I mentioned, people desire connection; so, help them understand what makes you feel more connected to them, your child, and your grief journey altogether. What you need from others and from yourself will change over time. Our jobs are to figure out what it is, exactly, that we do need right now, communicate those needs, and have grace for others when they attempt to meet us in the trenches of grief.
Journal Topic 1: What needs do you have right now in your grief journey?
Journal Topic 2: What is an effective, empathetic way to communicate those needs?
Heather Olivier, M.S., PLPC, NCC, is a counselor with Present Hope Counseling, LLC in Walker, LA and is currently working on her doctorate in Counselor Education and Supervision at the University of New Orleans. On August 24, 2019, she will lead a session of the Anna's Grace Hope & Healing Speaker Series when she presents "Navigating the Fog: Life After Child Loss." Her presentation will include topics such as defining the uniqueness of your grief journey, how to give yourself compassion instead of comparing your grief journey to that of others, and knowing when to ask for help. Reservations are FREE, but seating is limited. Please reserve your spot by visiting https://give.classy.org/HopeHealing824.