Hope & Healing: Communicating Our Grief Needs

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